Madison: John Force preview

Force confronts rivals, heat at Sears Craftsman Nationals MADISON, Ill. In the perfect performance environment, when the temperature is in the 70s and the sun isn't projecting directly down on a clean, dry, high-traction racing surface, John ...

Force confronts rivals, heat at Sears Craftsman Nationals

MADISON, Ill. In the perfect performance environment, when the temperature is in the 70s and the sun isn't projecting directly down on a clean, dry, high-traction racing surface, John Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang has proven itself to be the most awesome Funny Car on this or any other planet.

Force has guided his green-and-white missile through the quarter mile timers in as few as 4.731 seconds (the current NHRA national record) at speeds of more than 325 miles-an- hour.

However, if he is to win an unprecedented 10th consecutive Funny Car Championship, Force knows he is going to have to perform well in conditions that are less than ideal conditions like those he and his rivals likely will face this week (June 28-30) when the NHRA POWERade tour moves to Gateway International Raceway for the sixth running of the Sears Craftsman Nationals.

In football, it is a given that offense puts fans in the stands, but defense wins championships. The drag racing corollary is that quick times and big speeds get the attention, but titles are won on hot, slippery tracks like Gateway.

Heat creates special problems for race cars like Force's Mustang, whose supercharged and fuel-injected engine routinely pumps out almost 7,000 horsepower.

The challenge is to use as much of the available power as possible without losing traction. In the heat and humidity typical this time of year, especially along the Mississippi River, that is a daunting task.

"Obviously, we can't use all that power (on a hot track)," acknowledged co-Crew Chief Bernie Fedderly, "but it's not as simple as just taking power out of the motor. Usually when you try to do that, you run the risk of dropping a cylinder."

The "dropped cylinder" phenomenon, in which one or more of the eight cylinders fails to fire, is one of the most perplexing in the sport because when it occurs, it has a negative impact on two different aspects of the car's performance.

First, it cuts power by more than 12 per cent which, in a Funny Car engine, represents the loss of more than 800 horsepower the equivalent of an entire Winston Cup motor. That power loss, in turn, creates a steering and handling problem unique to drag racing.

When a Funny Car is functioning properly, with four active cylinders on the left side of the engine and four on the right, it tends to drive relatively straight down the track.

However, when it "drops a cylinder," an imbalance is created that causes the car to try to turn in the direction of the dropped cylinder. If the cylinder is out on the right side of the engine, the car tends to drive hard right. If the problem is on the left side, it tries to turn left.

"The cars today are so powerful and the downforce so good that when you drop a hole, it's really hard to recover," Force said. "The car wants to drive you into the wall or over the center line and sometimes, even if you have the wheel cranked all the way left or right, it just won't recover. You have to lift or crash."

In fact, even a slight move right or left can take a car out of the performance "groove," the area of maximum traction, and the penalty, usually, is tire spin.

"We ran last week at Norwalk (Ohio, in a match race)," Force said, "and we dropped a cylinder on every run. If that happens this week, we could be in trouble."

Nevertheless, no one has more experience racing in less-than-perfect conditions than Force and Crew Chief Austin Coil, who have collaborated on100 tour victories including a 1999 win at Gateway. In fact, over the last 12 seasons, the reality of Funny Car racing has been that when it gets hot, Force usually sizzles. He's hoping that trend continues.

FORCE at Sears Craftsman Nationals...
*1999 event winner after beating teammate Tony Pedregon in rain-delayed final round completed well after midnight.

*Although he has qualified 4th or better in five previous appearances, never has qualified his Castrol GTX Ford No. 1.

*Lost to Tommy Johnson Jr. in 2001 semifinals.

*Trails teammate Gary Densham by a single point in the race for the 2002 POWERade points championship.

FORCE Highlights...
*With NASCAR legends Richard Petty and David Pearson, is one of only three drivers to win 100 career events in a major motorsports series.

*NHRA national record holder at 4.731 seconds.

*1996 Driver of the Year for all American motor racing.

*Is seeking his 12th series title in the last 13 years and 10th in-a-row.

*For the third straight year is a finalist for "Best Driver" at the ESPN ESPY Awards to be presented July 10th at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

* * * * DID YOU KNOW?
John this week will try to extend to 289 the number of consecutive NHRA national events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car. The last time he failed to make the 16-car lineup was, appropriately enough, on Halloween October, 31,1987 at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif. Ronald Reagan was president at the time; the Minnesota Twins were the champions of baseball and Julius Erving still was playing basketball...John has won at least one NHRA national event in each of the last 16 seasons....John has been a member of the last 10 Auto Racing All-America Teams selected by the AARWBA.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , John Force , Gary Densham , Richard Petty , Austin Coil , David Pearson , Tommy Johnson Jr.