Indianapolis: Force looks forward to U.S. Nationals

Force driving back into championship form, looks forward racing at Mac Tools U.S. Nationals CLERMONT, Ind. - John Force just can't help himself. He just creates stories as he goes along. Whether he is winning a championship (or 12) or losing...

Force driving back into championship form, looks forward racing at Mac Tools U.S. Nationals

CLERMONT, Ind. - John Force just can't help himself. He just creates stories as he goes along. Whether he is winning a championship (or 12) or losing in the first round, Force is a walking storyline.

Force opened the 2003 season as the defending NHRA POWERade Funny Car champion. He and the Castrol GTX High-Mileage team had just earned a record 12th championship, including the last 10 consecutively. Force defined dominance, or so the stories go.

Then the unthinkable happened - Force didn't win the season opener at Pomona, Calif. and he didn't win the race after that, or the race after that. In fact, after the first three races of the season, Force had dipped into 12th place of the standings and had just one round win. His teammates, however, were in the No. 1 and 3 slots of the standings and had one win each. Tony Pedregon (third place) earned the Pomona victory while Gary Densham (first place) took the trophy in Gainesville, Fla. during the third race of the season.

Force's losing streak was quite a story.

In the 11th event of the season, Force still had not won a race, but the team started to show positive signs. They went to the final round in Columbus, posting a runner-up finish to Pedregon. Force came in second again during the next race in St. Louis, losing in the final to Del Worsham.

Still, no victory.

Then came along Denver and Seattle and just like that, it looked like the Force of 2002. He posted two consecutive victories and found himself jumping into third place, behind points leader Pedregon and Whit Bazemore in the No. 2 spot.

With two wins and a big bounce up the standings, Force and the Ford Mustang teams are headed back to NHRA's biggest and most prestigious event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Aug. 27-Sept. 1, at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The $2.5 million race is the 17th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

"It's the biggest race in the sport," Force said. "It's our history, so for (drag racers) winning the U.S. Nationals is like winning the Indy 500. You work all year to win the championship, but if there's one race you want to win it's Indy. Some drivers don't have the funding or the payroll to really win the championship because you have to be good for 23 races. But you can still save your season by winning Indy. Bottom line, I think that makes a lot more competitive race because of the prestige. Everybody loads up for Indy."

Not only does Force have 12 NHRA championships, he has four wins in six final round appearances at the U.S. Nationals.

"You never get tired of winning Indy, but you get tired while you're winning Indy," Force said. "It's the longest race we have, more days, more qualifying rounds plus we finish on Monday. When we were struggling early in the season, we were testing almost every Monday and we would always do good in testing. So I told somebody that I couldn't wait for Indy because that's the only time we race on Monday."

Racing on Monday or not, Force and his team have pulled the performance together. During the first five events of the season Force had snagged just two round victories. In the five events leading up to the U.S. Nationals, Force has earned 13 round wins.

"The first five races we just couldn't make the engine live past 1,000 feet," Force said. "We had power, but it was dropping cylinders and burning itself up. We had it set up just like Tony's car but it wouldn't run like Tony's car. I finally went to Tony and Gary and asked them if there was anything I was doing (that they weren't). Turns out that my burnouts were a couple of seconds longer than theirs and with this new combination we're running this year, the motor and the clutch won't stand the extra heat (generated by the long burnout).

"Once I shortened up the burnouts, we were back in the game. Plus, I adjusted my driving to the new (LED bulbs on the Christmas) tree. You see the lights better and that improved everyone's reaction times, especially guys like Densham and me. So you can't go in deep like you could with the old lights. If you go in deep, you're gonna red light."

Force is still working on the reaction times. In his entire career before the 2003 season, Force had fouled at the line just four times in elimination rounds. In 2003 alone, he has three fouls on Sunday.

Still, Force is more confident than ever, and that should scare the competition.

"There were a lot of things to fix and when we fixed them, we got competitive again," Force said. "Despite what the media was saying, I knew that (crew chiefs, Austin) Coil and Bernie (Fedderly) would figure it out. I told them to fix the car and I would fix the driver. When we set the record (4.721 seconds) at Chicago, that told me the changes we made were worth it and we've been going pretty good since then.

"I feel as good as I ever have. I've got a fast hot rod and I know that every time I go up there, whether it's in the heat or in the cool, we've got a car that can race. This new combination is the combination for the future. I plan to be around for a lot of years so Coil and Bernie have been working on stuff to keep us competitive. Tony helped develop it last year with (his crew chiefs John) Medlen and Dickie (Venables) and (Densham crew chief) Jimmy Prock had some input on it too. The sport is constantly changing and if you don't change with it, you can't win."

That's the story, and Force is sticking with it.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Gary Densham