As they learned more about the Chevrolet Camaro SS, John Force and Robert Hight saw their results improve measurably, but they admit there’s still much to be done. Anne Proffit reports.
For a guy so accustomed to winning, the results of the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season had to be considered modest for Funny Car racer John Force, scion of John Force Racing (JFR).
The Californian did win four races to extend his record to 147 wins in a career that has netted 16 championships, and he did finish fourth in the championship, preventing a top-four monopoly by Funny Car competitors Don Schumacher Racing by kicking Jack Beckman back to fifth.
Beating anyone at DSR motivated Force greatly this year, as it does every NHRA season.
“I have to admit Don Schumacher Racing is a motivator,” he said. “Schumacher loves it as much as I do. His motivation and the success of his drivers make me want to work harder.
“I feel like I always have an opportunity to win. If you never lose heart and you never lose the love, you will find your way. That is the key.”
Still that P4 finish wasn’t the 2016 high point for Force, who had the opportunity to sweep NHRA’s difficult Western Swing –Denver, Sonoma and Seattle. He won the first two, fell at the third and yet considers it one of two stellar points in his year.
“I got the opportunity, with my crew chief young Jon Schaffer, to try and win the Western Swing,” he said. “We almost got it done. It was fun to come off the mountain in Denver with the win and to watch this young team, led by a young crew chief, evolve. Then to go into Sonoma and win again to give us a shot at the Western Swing was great. We didn’t get it done but we were the only ones with a chance.
“It is always about teamwork at John Force Racing. Mike Neff has been working with Jon Schaffer for almost five years to give him the opportunity to be a crew chief. Schaffer proved himself to me and to Neff but you never know, until you are under real pressure.
“Jon led that Peak team, with Nick Casertano and the addition of Jason McCulloch, and we all fed off each other’s passion and enthusiasm. We took all that energy to the starting line,” Force emphasized. “I took my experience and they took their youth. Together we made a pretty good race team in 2016.”
Perhaps predictably, Force’s other high point was about family: the first victory by his daughter Brittany – the only Force to compete in Top Fuel – he regards as another milestone. She went on to win an additional two races to complete the season sixth in the points standings.
“Seeing Brittany and the Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster win in Gainesville, along with Robert [Hight] winning in the Auto Club Funny Car, that was a big success. It wasn’t just big for me as a father to Brittany and teammate to Robert; it made me feel like I knew what I was doing in my choice of people to run the Top Fuel and Funny Car programs. That was the key. I knew wins would come, but that double-up in Gainesville was very big.”
Hight aiming high
Hight is John Force’s teammate on the Funny Car side of the team, president of John Force Racing since 2011, and John’s son-in-law. This is his 12th season of racing, he’s got 38 Wally trophies of his own and he was the 2009 Funny Car champion. Hight’s victory at Gainesville in March was his sole win of the season in the Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS, and he went on to finish eighth in the FC title race.
Reflecting on his Gatornationals victory, Hight remarked: “When you win a huge race that early in the year, it gives you high expectations for the rest of the season. I am fortunate since I have a team [led by Neff] that has been together for a long time. They know what it takes to win and they also know how hard it is to win these days. They just kept digging all year long.”
Although he wasn’t able to beat John or Courtney Force (sixth) in the standings , Hight still believes his side of the team did well.
“We finished 2016 with a strong car,” he said. “We qualified No. 1 at two races in the Countdown to the Championship, in St. Louis and at Dallas. I am looking forward on building from that performance in 2017.”
After running Ford Mustangs for 16 years, John Force Racing’s 2015 change to the Chevrolet Camaro SS presented hurdles, and the team spent 2015 learning about the different car before receiving their first Camaro SS Funny Car bodies in 2016.
“Getting the 2016 Camaro SS Funny Car body was a highlight of the year,” remarked Hight. “I believe there is more untapped performance in that new body. Chevy will be working to make it even better for JFR in the future.”
John Force says the JFR team “learned so much about the new Camaro last year. You don’t realize how much about a racecar you take for granted after you have raced it for 16 years. We came back home to Chevrolet and they are a great partner. We are working on aerodynamics and our engine program.
“I struggled the most with the new Camaro last season,” he admitted. “It was all me. It was all my fault and it is hard to explain unless you are a driver.”
Referring to the different sight-lines from the new Camaro body, he noted: “The new visual just gave me too much to look at. It was so good I was doing stuff and people were telling me what I was doing and I didn’t believe them. Robert and Neff had to sit me down and we fixed it.
“Putting the St. Christopher medal on the injector helped me line my racecar up and get it straight down the racetrack. The other car was boxy and forced me to focus down the racetrack by design. This new wraparound windshield with the Camaro, which is so much better, had me looking everywhere and I didn’t know why. It’s crazy but the truth.
“We will be more successful because we corrected these issues last season.
Although the 2016 season has been over for only two weeks, John Force Racing is hard at work on its plans for next year, even while working towards wins in 2016.
“My No. 1 goal for 2017 is I want to be the champion,” said 67-year-old Force. “I will live on the treadmill and in the weight room. I am going to do everything I can to keep this body fit, so I can keep running with the young kids. I have found the money and now I have to keep me right mentally and physically.”
He’ll have to get past Hight, though, because he has identical intentions.
“My goal for 2017 is the same as it has been every year that I have been driving,” said Hight. “I want to win another championship for Auto Club and Chevrolet. We have everything we need to make this happen. To do this, we need to work harder than everyone else.
“2017 started Sunday, November 13, 2016.”