FORCE BECOMES SECOND DRIVER TO REACH 500 EVENT MARK; ALSO POISED TO MAKE HISTORY AS FIRST TO REACH 1,000 ROUND WINS COMMERCE, Ga. -- In the late 1970s Tom McEwen was already "The Mongoose," a fabled character in the Funny Car category with a ...
FORCE BECOMES SECOND DRIVER TO REACH 500 EVENT MARK; ALSO POISED TO MAKE HISTORY AS FIRST TO REACH 1,000 ROUND WINS
COMMERCE, Ga. -- In the late 1970s Tom McEwen was already "The Mongoose," a fabled character in the Funny Car category with a fan base of his own.
That's when he met a dreamer.
McEwen remembers John Force as the guy whose car was always on fire.
"I can remember racing him at Sacramento Raceway at night," McEwen said. "Every time he would run his car would be on fire. They'd go out in the field where the fire was and have to put it out."
One day Force came by McEwen's pit on a mission. He needed 10 rolls of silver tape to make an unfixable body work. McEwen didn't see the request as an intrusion from a no-name upstart.
Force was Rudy Ruettiger, the drag strip his Notre Dame.
"He had to make one more run to get paid," McEwen said. "He taped it up so it looked like a body even though it was all burned under it and he was able to make that last run to get some money to eat on the way home.
"They could do a movie on him," McEwen added. "They probably will someday."
The 28th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, April 24-27, at Atlanta Dragway will be Force's 500th race. Force is without doubt the most formidable Funny Car driver in NHRA history, with 14 personal NHRA POWERade world championship titles and a racing dynasty to his credit. He's only the second driver in NHRA history to compete in 500 national events. Warren Johnson, the "Professor," was the first. The event is the sixth of 24 in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
But as humble as his beginnings were, Force was never obscure. Early on, his notorious reputation for oiling down drag strips inspired a movement to get John banned from racing, according to John Ewald, the Lions Drag Strip track photographer from 1968 to 1972.
"I remember well when he first started racing," McEwen said. "He didn't have any money, and was trying to gather up people who would help him. He was a little different from everybody because of his personality. He was like a stand-up comedian. He had a real drive wanting to accomplish things."
Thirty years have passed since Force's NHRA professional debut. In almost 1,000 round wins, he's been beaten but undaunted; pushed and tested, but not broken.
It seems against the natural order of things for anyone other than Force himself to tell it how it was, is or should have been, at least according to him. However, if you can indeed tell the character of a man by his friends, then there are plenty of witnesses who will stand in as narrator.
They tell stories of a business genius made almost unnervingly accessible by street-smarts and a mouth that could clock a .000 light. Someone you'd love to hate for his success but find impossible to do so.
For Bernie Fedderly, Force was the would-be boss that wouldn't stop asking until he got the answer he wanted.
By 1992, the Force-Austin Coil alliance had produced two consecutive NHRA world championships after raising Force from a career-average 15th in the point standings to top 10 finishes. Fedderly was fresh off a break-up with Larry Minor Racing and had a few offers to consider. Force had pursued him before.
Then he once again came calling. And calling.
"He wouldn't take no for an answer," Fedderly said. "I learned more about that later...That's his negotiating style."
Fedderly wasn't sure what he could bring to a team that was already successful but Force's enthusiasm was convincing. The three won the first race Fedderly attended. They won eight events that year, including the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Then they blew the points lead and finished second on the season -- the only time in an unearthly 13-year span that they did not win the championship title. Since then, Force's worst season performance was in 2007, when he finished seventh despite enduring a year of mental and physical tests that would send a weaker driver to retirement and perhaps even permanent emotional seclusion.
Instead, Force looked up, reached out and attacked problems as fast as he could chase them with the walker he used after a grisly crash in Dallas. And that was while Force was still on a slow rebound from his grief over the death of teammate Eric Medlen six months earlier. Somehow the bulk of Force's recuperation took only a few months and he was back for career event No. 495 in Pomona in February.
Perhaps it was his mind-over-ability attitude so prominent to those who know him that allowed for the recovery.
"It's one of those deals where it's never been boring (to work with him)," Fedderly said. "Force will never let things be quiet. Whenever there seems to be a lull he'll always come up with the next project."
Lately focus has been directed toward the car safety initiative he launched called The Eric Medlen Project. Several key changes have already resulted from the union of Force and his crew chiefs, Ford, SFI and NHRA.
At the same time, he heads the massive racing empire/marketing machine that has become John Force Racing, Inc. and spans two states with shops in motorsports-focused Southern California (Yorba Linda, Calif.) and the Indianapolis suburb of Brownsburg, Ind.
On first impression, Coil thought Force was "crazy." During the week the two don't often work side-by-side. It's just as well for Coil, who focuses on the car while Force handles specialties of his own.
"He never gives up," Coil said. "He's got the belief if you build it they will come. It seems to be working. We've all got jobs.
"He certainly has a go-getter attitude. I don't think he ever comes to me with the answer 'we can't do that.' It's more 'I'm going to find a way.'"
That's an inspiration for his four-car camp and its crews, including Dean "Guido" Antonelli, son of former Funny Car driver Joe Antonelli. Dean Antonelli left a career in hydraulic engineering to join JFR with his eye always trained on becoming a crew chief. He built short blocks, did body work and helped out with the oil and tires on the then one-car team, literally working his way up the team chain until he earned the title of crew chief for Force's second daughter Ashley.
The two have put Ashley's Castrol GTX Ford in the final round three times in two years, making this Force not only the first woman to reach a final round in Funny Car, but also the first woman to lead the NHRA POWERade point standings. Both of Force's youngest daughters compete in the same category Ashley used to prepare for the pros.
Both Fedderly and Coil say Force makes hiring the right people a habit. Antonelli adds another trait to a long list of reasons Force is already a living sports legend.
"Dedication is the foremost piece of success," Antonelli said. "You can't be semi-dedicated -- or when you are dedicated, you have to be dedicated 24-7 to anything in life, is pretty much what John brings. You see how much John works and never feel overwhelmed with how much you have to do when you see how much John puts in."
Determination is the word Don "the Snake" Prudhomme also uses to describe Force. He, like Kenny Bernstein, remembers when drivers called John "Cheeseburger," a nod to the Wendy's restaurant sponsorship he had years ago, before signing long-term deals with backers like Castrol and the Auto Club, among many others. Like almost anyone who knows Force, Prudhomme couldn't choose a favorite Force story. Five-hundred races is a long time to collect memories with a man like Force.
"He's had me laughing so hard on many occasions," Prudhomme said. "We used to beat him like a drum. He had that determination. I think I had a little bit of that. Guys who win as much as he does don't do it by accident. They do it because they're good."
There are plenty of story lines to choose from at this year's stop in Georgia. Ashley Force leads the point standings going into the event and eyes will undoubtedly be on her brother-in-law Robert Hight, the defending event winner. Brandon Bernstein (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners at Atlanta Dragway.
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25. Qualifying continues at 11:30 and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 26 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 27.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals. Call NHRA at (800) 884-6472, Ticketmaster at (404) 249-6400 or check NHRA.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise qualifying highlights at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 26. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, April 27. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, April 27.
LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals also will feature competition in six categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA POWERade Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9 a.m. on April 24, with eliminations starting on April 25 at 8 a.m.
SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT NHRA SOUTHERN NATIONALS FACT SHEET
WHAT: 28th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, the sixth of 24 events in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. Drivers in four categories -- Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle -- earn points leading to 2008 NHRA POWERade Series world championships.
WHERE: Atlanta Dragway, Commerce, Ga. I-85 to Exit 149 (Hwy 441). After exiting the freeway, go north on Highway 441 to Steven Tanger Blvd. Take left on Tanger and then go right on Ridgeway Road.
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, April 24-27.
PURSE: Cash and contingency awards of more than $1.4 million.
THURSDAY, April 24 - Sportsman qualifying begins at 9 a.m.
FRIDAY, April 25 - Sportsman qualifying and eliminations begin at 8 a.m.
PROFESSIONAL QUALIFYING SESSIONS at 2 and 5:30 p.m.
SATURDAY, April 26 - Sportsman eliminations begin at 8 a.m.
PROFESSIONAL QUALIFYING SESSIONS at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
SUNDAY, April 27 - Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.
FINAL ELIMINATIONS begin at 11 a.m.
Saturday, April 26, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 6 p.m. (ET).
Sunday April 27, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will air NHRA Race Day, at 11 a.m. (ET).
Sunday, April 27, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise three hours of final eliminations at 7 p.m. (ET).
Friday, April 25, 9:30-10 p.m. (ET) -- Horizons 2 / Transponder 12K (12160 MHz, vertical)
Saturday, April 26, 6-6:30 p.m. (ET) -- Horizons 2 / Transponder 12K (12160 MHz, vertical)
Sunday, April 27, 7-7:30 p.m. (ET) -- Horizons 2 / Transponder 12K (12160 MHz, vertical)
2007 EVENT WINNERS: Brandon Bernstein, Top Fuel; Robert Hight, Funny Car; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock; Karen Stoffer Pro Stock Motorcycle
Top Fuel -- 4.448 seconds by Tony Schumacher, May '06; 331.28 mph by Schumacher May '06
Funny Car -- 4.680 seconds by Robert Hight, May '06; 331.04 mph by Mike Ashley, April '07
Pro Stock -- 6.627 seconds by Greg Anderson, April '07; 208.71 mph by Anderson, April '07
Pro Stock Motorcycle -- 6.976 seconds by Angelle Sampey, April '07; 192.91 mph by GT Tonglet, May '04
Top Fuel -- 4.428 sec. by Tony Schumacher, Nov. '06, Pomona, Calif.; 336.15 mph by Schumacher, May '05, Columbus, Ohio
Funny Car -- 4.659 sec. by Tony Pedregon, Feb. '07, Chandler, Ariz.; 333.66 mph by Jack Beckman, Nov. '06, Pomona, Calif.
Pro Stock -- 6.536 sec. by Greg Anderson, March '07, Gainesville, Fla.; 211.69 mph by Jason Line, March '07, Gainesville, Fla.
PS Motorcycle -- 6.871 sec. by A. Sampey, June '07, Englishtown, N.J.; 197.45 mph by A. Hines, March '05, Gainesville, Fla.
TICKETS: For tickets call NHRA, (800) 884-6472 or Ticketmaster at (404) 249-6400. Tickets also available at nhra.com.
GENERAL ADMISSION (includes pit pass) -- Thursday: Adult, $14; Junior (6-12 years), free. Friday: Adult, $34; Junior (6-12 years), $10. Saturday: Adult, $46; Junior (6-12 years), $10. Sunday: Adult, $46; Junior (6-12 years), $10. Child (5 years-under), admitted free with paying adult in general admission and pit access areas each day.
RESERVED SEATS (includes pit pass) -- Friday: Adult, $40; Junior (6-12 years), $18; Child (5 years-under), $8. Saturday: Adult, $56; Junior (6-12 years), $24; Child (5 years and under), $12. Sunday: Adult, $56; Junior (6-12 years), $24; Child (5 years and under), $12. Call NHRA for four-day passes and campground information.
CONTACT: NHRA Communications Department, (626) 914-4761. Zak Elcock, ext. 240, (626) 253-0862, cell; Brian Hacker, ext. 424, (626)428-0280, cell.
2008 NHRA POWERADE DRAG RACING SERIES STANDINGS
Updated 4/14/2008 (season victories)
Place Driver Points
1. Tony Schumacher, Chicago, U.S. Army dragster (2) 415
2. Larry Dixon, Indianapolis, U.S. Smokeless dragster (1) 380
3. Antron Brown, Indianapolis, Matco Tools dragster (1) 373
4. Cory McClenathan, Indianapolis, FRAM dragster (1) 328
5 Brandon Bernstein, Lake Forest, Calif., Budweiser/ Lucas Oil dragster 288
6. Hillary Will, Ypsilanti, Mich., KB Racing dragster 251
7. Rod Fuller, Las Vegas, Caterpillardragster 244
8. Dave Grubnic, Ennis, Mont., Kalitta Motorsports dragster 232
9. Doug Herbert, Lincolnton, N.C., SnaponFranchise.com dragster 226
10. Doug Kalitta, Ypsilanti, Mich., Mac Tools dragster 221
1. Ashley Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Castrol GTX/Auto Club Ford Mustang 326
2. Tim Wilkerson, Springfield, Ill., Levi, Ray & Shoup Chevy Impala SS (1) 321
3. Cruz Pedregon, Indianapolis, Advance Auto Parts Chevy Impala SS 294
4. Robert Hight, Yorba Linda, Calif., Auto Club Ford Mustang (1) 290
5. Tony Pedregon, Detroit, Q-Horsepower Chevy Impala SS (1) 285
6. Jack Beckman, North Hills, Calif., Valvoline/MTS Dodge Charger R/T (1) 280
7. Gary Densham, Bellflower, Calif., Racebricks Chevy Monte Carlo 260
8. John Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Castrol GTX Ford Mustang 229
9. Del Worsham, Chino Hills, Calif., Checker Schuck's Kragen Chevy Impala SS (1) 219
10. Ron Capps, Carlsbad, Calif., NAPA Auto Part Dodge Charger R/T 204
1. Jeg Coughlin, Delaware, Ohio, JEGS.com Chevy Cobalt (1) 392
Jason Line, Troutman, N.C., Summit Racing Pontiac GXP (1) 392
3. Greg Anderson, Charlotte, N.C., Summit Racing Pontiac GXP (2) 375
4. Kurt Johnson, Lawrenceville, Ga., ACDelco Chevy Cobalt 342
5. Allen Johnson, Greeneville, Tenn., J&J Racing Dodge Stratus R/T 317
6. V. Gaines, Lakewood, Colo., Kendall Dodge Stratus R/T (1) 282
7. Warren Johnson, Buford, Ga., GM Performance Parts Pontiac GXP 275
8. Mike Edwards, Broken Arrow, Okla., Young Life Pontiac GXP 245
9. Greg Stanfield, Bossier City, La., Wiley X Pontiac GXP 244
10. Justin Humphreys, Mount Airy, Md., RaceRedi Motorsports Pontiac GXP 200
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE (following two of 17 events)
1. Matt Guidera, Loomis, Calif., Mohegan Sun Rocklin Motorsports Buell (1) 212
2. Matt Smith, King, N.C., NitroFish Wear Buell (1) 195
3. Andrew Hines, Indianapolis, Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson 171
4. Chip Ellis, Indianapolis, Schumacher Electric Suzuki 151
5. Eddie Krawiec, Englishtown, N.J., Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson 111
6. Angelle Sampey, New Orleans, Rush Racing Products Buell 105
7. Angie McBride, King, N.C., Matt Smith Racing Buell 85
8. Hector Arana, Milltown, Ind., Lucas Oil Buell 84
9. Chris Rivas, Fresno, Calif., G-Squared Buell 84
10. Karen Stoffer, Minden, Nev., GeicoSuzuki 67