FORCE REACHES SEMIFINALS AT O'REILLY FALL NATIONALS DALLAS, TX -- John Force's triumphant return to the track on which he suffered the most serious injuries of his 32-year driving career ended a bit prematurely Sunday when the 14-time champion...
FORCE REACHES SEMIFINALS AT O'REILLY FALL NATIONALS
DALLAS, TX -- John Force's triumphant return to the track on which he suffered the most serious injuries of his 32-year driving career ended a bit prematurely Sunday when the 14-time champion was bounced from the 23rd annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Super Start Batteries Fall Nationals by season-long points leader Tim Wilkerson.
This time, though, the 59-year-old's exit was somewhat less spectacular than in 2007 when he flew out of the Texas Motorplex in an Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter after crashing the Castrol SYNTEC Ford Mustang he was driving in memory of Eric Medlen at the end of a winning second round race with Kenny Bernstein.
In fact, after his Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang lost traction and fell back in Sunday's Funny Car semifinals, Force left the track in more conventional transportation.
"This year I'm leaving the track in a Ford Flex instead of the Air Evac helicopter," Force said. "How is that for sneaking a sponsor in there? I guess it had to come back to here. My crew chief (Austin Coil) kept picking that left lane every run. (Now) it's time to put it behind us.
"I had a good race car this weekend," said the 126-time tour winner, "(and) I think I showed that I can (still) drive. The competition is tough. I still have four cars in the Countdown. Beckman went out and Cruz went out. Tony is still out there and so is Wilkerson.
"I really do appreciate the fans. They're happy to see me back in one piece. Yes, I can put (the crash) behind me. I need to," said the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection. "I need to focus on racing and winning. I've spent a lot of time explaining and talking and I don't mean just to the media, I mean to the sponsors answering whether I can race again.
"I've only won one race this year," Force continued. "(I know) most guys would be happy to win a race (but) I'm used to winning four or five of them a year. It's time to move on. We'll tell the great state of Texas 'thank you' for the prayers and the people that came to the hospital. The people of Texas are worried about me and that is what's so great about the people here."
A qualifier for the first time in three races, Force beat Cruz Pedregon in the first round and daughter Ashley Force in the second before losing to Wilkerson for just the second time in their last 10 meetings.
Bolstered by a new clutch combination mastered by Jimmy Prock, crew chief on Robert Hight's Auto Club of Southern California Ford, Force won his first rounds in almost a month and moved from 10th to eighth in POWERade points.
He hopes to gain more ground this week when the NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoff system moves to Memphis Motorsports Park for the 20th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Mid-South Nationals.
For the other John Force Racing drivers, it was a short day on the original all-concrete racing surface. Before Ashley lost to her dad, Hight was beaten by .003 of a second by Tony Pedregon in a second round that carried enormous championship implications.
As the Funny Car finalists, Wilkerson and Pedregon put some distance between themselves and the pack. Only 13 points separated the Top 5 Funny Car drivers before qualifying. After Sunday's finals, Wilkerson led Pedregon by 11 points, Jack Beckman by 29, Hight by 50 and Cruz Pedregon by 69.
"We can't lose races like that," Hight said. "We have to get on the other side of these things. I look at it that it (like it's) not just the car, but it's me too. I should have hit the gas a little quicker and we would have beat him. Those are the ones that are tough, tough to get over and live with.
That said, Hight knows he still has a car capable of winning the whole enchilada. The 2005 Rookie-of-the-Year gets a chance to make amends at Memphis Motorsports Park, a track on which he has qualified No. 1 and reached the semifinals in each of his three previous appearances.
"We have always done good there," Hight said. "I've been the No. 1 qualifier every year. That's where Densham (Gary Densham, Hight's predecessor at the wheel of the Auto Club Ford) got his first win. We'll be fine. We get Memphis and I go out and get some more No. 1 qualifiers, this thing will turn around.
"We could have won this race and (we could have won) Charlotte had something gone a little different either race. I don't want to keep saying that for any more races in the Countdown. We (just) need to forget about (this weekend) and try to win a championship. That is all that is important right now.
"Against Ashley, I staged quick because I didn't want to hold her up," Force said. "I wanted to get in there and let her do her thing. I didn't want to hold her up but she said I was quick.
"At the top end, she was upset about crossing the center line. Her Mustang made a hard left. You know what upset her the most? She remembers the video according to her mother of Kenny crossing the center line last year. Her mother said she saw cones flying and she saw you and it just brought it back. She was almost in tears.
"The Force family has to move on," he said. "I'm fighting, too. I want to hang onto my past, 14 championships, but my baby is fighting for the future. That is cool (because I know) my name will stay in this sport."
Ashley Force, who held onto sixth place as the first woman to qualify for the Countdown, was perhaps more emotional about her return to the Motorplex than even her father.
"We were a little nervous to come back here," she said. "We knew it would bring back a lot of memories. We got through that and it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. We went to Baylor (University Medical Center) on Thursday and saw a lot of the doctors and nurses who worked on dad.
"It was good to see them again. Some of them even came out to the track this weekend. It was good to see dad get qualified and get on a little bit of a roll. We hate when one teammate is struggling. We'll get all four teams up and running for the rest of the Countdown.
"This track and the conditions were totally different than last week. Last weekend was ideal and everything fell into place as far as the weather and the track. This weekend has been more of a struggle for us and that's just part of it.
"There was a lot more tire smoke and pedal-fests. Those races are never really fun. We would rather be out trying to run national records and really high speeds. This is to be expected we are at the end of summer in Texas. We knew it would be warm and we did the best we could. (Now), we're looking forward to getting to the cooler weather race tracks."
TEAM CASTROL/TEAM JFR Details:
JOHN FORCE, 59, Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 7th quickest run at 4.109 seconds, 301.33 mph
Race Results: Beat Cruz Pedregon, Ashley Force. Lost to Tim Wilkerson.
Quoteable:"I am leaving this racetrack in a Ford Flex instead of the Air Evac helicopter. How is that for sneaking a sponsor in there? I guess it had to come back to here. My crew chief kept picking that left lane every run. It is time to put it behind us. I've got a good racecar this weekend. I showed that I can drive. The competition is tough."
ASHLEY FORCE, 25, Castrol GTX Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 2nd at 4.092 seconds, 304.67 mph
Race Results: Beat Gary Scelzi. Lost to John Force.
Quotable: "This track and the conditions were totally different than last week. Last weekend was ideal and everything fell into place as far as the weather and the track. This weekend has been more of a struggle for us and that is just part of it. There was a lot more tire smoke and pedalfests."
ROBERT HIGHT, 39, Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: 1st at 4.063 seconds, 301.81 mph
Race Results: Beat Jim Head. Lost to Tony Pedregon
Quotable: "We can't lose races like that. We have to get on the other side of these things. You can't even say if this works out or if that works out well we can't have that. We have to get on the other side of that. I look at it that it is not just the car but it is me too. I should have hit the gas a little quicker and we would have beaten him. Those are the ones that are tough, tough to get over and live with."
MIKE NEFF, 42, Old Spice Ford Mustang
Qualifying position and performance: DNQ, 18th quickest run of event, 4.270 seconds, 244.12 mph
Quotable: "It just seemed like every run nothing went quite right. Probably three out of those four runs would have gotten us in the show. Everyone of those runs something happened from breaking the blower belt to having the burst panel barely break open and hit the kill switch to the clutch malfunction. It just wasn't our weekend."
BRITTANY FORCE, 22, BrandSource A Fuel Dragster
Qualifying: DNQ, 18th at 5.510 seconds, 266.64 mph
COURTNEY FORCE, 20, BrandSource A Fuel Dragster
Qualifying: 8th at 5.348 seconds, 269.56 mph
First Round Opponent: Beat Brandon Lewis
Second Round Opponent: Lost to No. 1 qualifier Jim Whiteley