WHEN HE LOOKS BEHIND HIM, FORCE CAN SEE HIS FUTURE 13-Time Series Champ Favored at Las Vegas LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- His weight down and his enthusiasm up, 55-year-old John Force appears more capable than ever of defending his NHRA ...
WHEN HE LOOKS BEHIND HIM, FORCE CAN SEE HIS FUTURE
13-Time Series Champ Favored at Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- His weight down and his enthusiasm up, 55-year-old John Force appears more capable than ever of defending his NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship at the wheel of the Castrol GTX® Start Up® Ford Mustang.
In fact, drag racing's biggest winner returns to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week as both the national points leader and the 5-2 favorite to win the sixth annual SummitRacing.com Nationals.
Nevertheless, if he is to claim a record 14th series championship, his toughest competition may come from within his own extended family.
Son-in-law Robert Hight, the Funny Car winner last week at Houston, Texas, and Eric Medlen, the former crew member who is in his second season in the Castrol SYNTEC® Mustang, both pose formidable challenges.
In Force's mind, though, he already has won.
"When Tony (Pedregon) left (at the end of a championship-winning 2003 season in order to form his own team with his brother, Cruz), it hit everybody pretty hard and it hit (crew chief) John Medlen harder than anyone, I think, because Tony was like family. He was here eight seasons and I really thought he would be the one (to take the reins) once I got out of the car.
"I didn't know how to fix it. Then it hit me. Eric. He's a good looking young kid who knew what we do and how we do it and if I put him in the car, I knew it would give his dad his heart back."
The problem was selling the concept to sponsors who, over the years, have invested millions of dollars in John Force Racing, Inc., specifically BP Lubricants, which markets Castrol-branded products, and Ford Motor Company.
Both of those sponsors preferred a proven driver, one to whom they could tie public relations and marketing initiatives. Force asked them to trust him; to give him a chance. To their undying credit, they agreed.
The upshot is that, as last year's top Funny Car rookie, Medlen started two races from the No. 1 qualifying position, earned a breakthrough victory at Brainerd, Minn., and finished the year fifth in points ahead of such veterans as the Pedregons, Whit Bazemore, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Ron Capps.
That success made it easier for Force to get the Automobile Club of Southern California to sign off on his plan to start the 2005 season with yet another rookie.
"They wanted me to hire a 'name,'" Force said. "You can't blame them. But I wanted someone who wasn't going to leave me. I'm looking five years down the road. "
Nevertheless, not even Force was prepared for Hight's success.
"I never thought it would happen that fast for Robert (in just his fourth start)," said the 12-time Auto Racing All-America selection. "I'm just thrilled for him. He and Eric make me look like I know what I'm doing."
The fact that Force indeed does know what he's doing has been apparent for some time. Winner of a record 115 tour events and at least one race at every venue in the NHRA POWERade Series, he rolls into LVMS having qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car for a record 350 consecutive races dating back to 1988.
"It all started with (crew chief) Austin Coil and Castrol," Force said. "They've both been with me for 20 years. I couldn't even qualify before I hired Coil (an overstatement considering that he was runner-up four times before 1984). All I ever wanted to do was race because I love this sport and now I want my kids to love it just as much as me."
In addition to 22-year-old daughter Ashley, who likely will join Medlen and Hight after she's completed her apprenticeship in the Castrol/Hot Wheels dragster, 18-year-old Brittany and 16-year-old Courtney Force also have driving aspirations.
As for dad, "I'm under contract to drive for this season and five more," Force said, "so I've still got a lot of racing to do. My main job is to win races and win championships for Castrol and all the other sponsors that support us. My other job is to train the next generation and get them ready to be the champions when I'm gone."