Departure of longtime crew chief with two races left could be a factor.
When the outlook has been at its most challenging for NHRA Funny Car icon John Force over the years, that has often brought out the very best in the 16-time and reigning world champion.
After the departure of longtime crew chief Jimmy Prock last Wednesday with only two races remaining in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, that famed rallying response will be put to the test one more time for the legendary Force.
He enters this weekend’s 14th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in second place, 36 points behind rival Matt Hagan. Getting past the red-hot Hagan, who won the most recent event in Reading and has two Countdown playoff victories this season, will be difficult, but doing so without Prock leaves Force and his 10,000-horsepower Castrol GTX Ford Mustang with one more massive challenge to overcome.
“We’re going to come out swinging,” Force said. “I’ll have a good racecar in (Vegas), you can count on that. The rest is where Lady Luck takes us. I always believed that if you stand up and you fight, you do the best you can, and with a little help from the good Lord and the people around you, you'll be okay. If you win, that’s great. That’s the icing on the cake. But if you lose, and you gave it everything you got, you still won. John Force needs to get up and rally himself and his team, whether new or old, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) joined Force as winners of this event last year. The race will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Force has rallied back before
Force has often found a rallying cry when his back has been against the wall and it has routinely brought out some of the best performances in his career.
After finishing ninth in 2009 without a victory that season – Force’s worst finish since 1984 at that point – and hearing whispers he may be on the decline, Force rebounded by claiming the championship in 2010, knocking off Hagan in Las Vegas and winning the final event of the season en route to the title. Force finished ninth in 2011 and 2012, winning just two races in that time but bounced back in 2013 to slip past Hagan, who led the points race for most of the season. Force won this event a year ago to finish off the world championship, meaning the added pressure, which this year again includes trying to track down Hagan, seems to bring out his best performances.
“I race two different styles,” Force said. “When you’re in the lead, at least I do, you have a certain style to race, be protective of the points. When you’re behind, you open up and it’s guns-a-blazing. That’s how I’m going into Vegas. I told my daughters Courtney and Brittany, you can’t look at those races or any round or qualifying or a final any different than you did opening day at Pomona. The racecar doesn’t know the difference. If you set the pace of where you’re going and do what you’ve always done, then your best potential will come out as a driver in the driver’s seat. So, nope, I’m going to address Vegas and Pomona as any other race and I’ll see how the cards fall.”
Force’s history of performing well when adversity is knocking at his door certainly reads long, but he will also have to deal with a talented Funny Car field that goes well beyond Hagan. Daughter Courtney Force trails Hagan by 72 points and is in the mix for her first championship, while John Force racing teammate Robert Hight is also still in contention.
Other Countdown competitors include Tommy Johnson Jr., who is 110 points behind Hagan in fourth, Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson and Del Worsham. The added departure of Prock adds to the degree of difficulty, but Force, who has 141 career victories, is looking forward to the challenge.
'I made the decision'
“Look, I made the decision on this,” Force said. “I’m going to go with my decision, but I’m not going to jeopardize Robert’s chance at a title or my daughter Courtney’s chance at a title or my daughter Brittany at her first win (in Top Fuel). I don’t do business that way. Like I said, it’s not just about championships to me. It’s can I rally this team back together? That’s what I’m best at. I’ve done it a lot of times, and I’m going to try.”
In Top Fuel, Brown, the 2012 world champ, is a two-time winner at Las Vegas, but the driver in command heading into the penultimate race is seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher. After winning three of the first four races in the Countdown, Schumacher, an eight-time winner at The Strip at LVMS, holds a 134-point lead over Doug Kalitta. Steve Torrence sits in third, reigning world champion Shawn Langdon is fourth in points while other Countdown competitors include Spencer Massey, reigning Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Khalid alBalooshi, Indy Richie Crampton and J.R. Todd.
In Pro Stock one of the most intense playoff battles is brewing between as many as five drivers. Jason Line leads the pack while Erica Enders-Stevens, Dave Connolly, Gray and Allen Johnson are all within striking range of a championship. Jonathan Gray, Jeg Coughlin, V Gaines, Vincent Nobile and Chris McGaha round out the Countdown field.
Smith was victorious in Pro Stock Motorcycle last season en route to his second championship ring. But the 2014 season has belonged to Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Both have won this event three times and Hines holds a 25-point advantage over Krawiec. Hector Arana Jr. is in third and other marquee challengers in the two-wheeled category are Steve Johnson, Angie Smith, Scotty Pollacheck, John Hall, Hector Arana Sr. Michael Ray, Jerry Savoie and Angelle Sampey.
The event will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and one driver will be crowned world champion at the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season finale.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Oct. 31, with sessions at 1 and 4 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Nov. 1, at 1 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2.