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FORCE REMEMBERS CRUCIAL ROUND WIN AT HOUSTON LAST YEAR BAYTOWN, Texas -- When John Force looks back at his 1998 Winston championship winning season, there were several key moments early in the season that ultimately separated him from his...

FORCE REMEMBERS CRUCIAL ROUND WIN AT HOUSTON LAST YEAR BAYTOWN, Texas -- When John Force looks back at his 1998 Winston championship winning season, there were several key moments early in the season that ultimately separated him from his competition in a tight championship battle as the season wound to a close. Quite simply, he and his team never gave up. In late March at Houston Raceway Park Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang suffered a terrible fire in first round action against Del Worsham. Force got the win light, but the car was toast. Such adversity could be enough to spell doom for many teams. Force and his 'Untouchables' thrived in the situation, totally rebuilding the car and advancing to the final round. It was just one example of why Force has been an eight-time champion this decade. Besides, he's never been someone to let a little thing like fire get in his way. As Force returns to Houston Raceway Park this season for the 12th annual O'Reilly Nationals presented by Pennzoil, April 8-11, he hopes for no such flaming experiences. The $1.7 million race is the fourth of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. "It's been a few years since I had a fire like the one I had here last year," Force said. "I think I'm still coughing up smoke from that one. Fortunately the Safety Safari did their job and all my safety equipment on board worked. My guys really busted their butts to get my hot rod ready for the next round. I mean, she was burnt to the ground. We had to replace everything." That 90 minute task between rounds also included replacing the entire electrical wiring system. It was quite an undertaking. "Jerry Toliver's crew also came over to help put it back together," Force said. "Then we lost to Tony in the final. But the important thing was that we made it to the final that day. We could have easily been done after the fire. But we kept fighting. Who knows, the championship race was so tight last year, the hard work that day could have won us the championship." Indeed. Ron Capps, Force's closest Winston championship challenger, lost in the first round that day. Force won the championship by 135 points. "I've been getting slapped around big here the last three years," Force said. "I've struggled just to win the championship the last two. The competition is getting tougher. That means we have to do whatever we can to gain an advantage. These kids out here are real hungry. They all want to beat the old man." But before the kids get too greedy, they need to take a look at Force in 1999. In the first three races he's been much more like the totally dominant Force of 1996, when he won 13 events and was named Driver of the Year by a nationwide panel of motorsports journalists. So far in 1999, Force has won two of three events and set national records for elapsed time (4.799 seconds) and speed (324.05 mph). Force debuted a new Jack Roush-built Mustang body this season, but the Yorba Linda, Calif. driver says that's not the only reason his car is performing so well. In addition to the car's sleek new look, Force says the addition of Alan Johnson cylinder heads has provided some muscle under the hood. "The new Ford body is getting a lot of the credit for our performance here lately," Force said. "But we've had a pretty good race car for years. You look back four years ago in the Pontiac when we won 13 national events. When we went to the Mustang we dropped to six and three (wins). The competition got better, but if we had the Pontiac we would have been winning a lot of races. Then we realized the Mustang needed some aerodynamics work, so that's what we focused on. Now it's better. We designed the Pontiac and the Camaro bodies the same way. GM has got to let their people get into the wind tunnel more. We don't make the rules, we just abide by them. When I hear these guys talking about our advantage, I say 'don't look at me.' I tell them to go back and tell GM to get them some wind tunnel time. That's what it takes." And money, too. "It's all about technology and money," Force quipped. "But the catch is, there's a lot of stuff on my car that money can't buy because Coil and the guys at the shop create it there -- it's not available to the other teams off the shelf." As strong as Force has been to start the season, he still says that he's not been in the best physical condition. He's been under the weather since Phoenix. "I've been a little slow on my starting times here lately," Force said. "I've had a little touch of the flu for the last few weeks and haven't been on my game. But I had the perfect remedy after the Gainesville win. I went down the road and got the biggest cheeseburger I could find and stuffed that thing down my throat. I felt a lot better after that. We'll be ready for Houston."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Ron Capps , John Force , Jack Roush , Jerry Toliver