Memphis: John Force preview

NOTHING PERSONAL, BUT FORCE HOPES HE DOESN'T SEE ELVIS THIS TIME AROUND 13-Time Series Champ Defends Funny Car Title at Memphis MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A resurgent John Force returns this week to Memphis Motorsports Park, scene of the single worst...

13-Time Series Champ Defends Funny Car Title at Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A resurgent John Force returns this week to Memphis Motorsports Park, scene of the single worst crash of his professional racing career, hoping to keep both his Castrol GTX® Start Up™ Ford and his NHRA POWERade championship hopes in the upright position.

The defending champion in the O'Reilly Auto Parts Mid-South Nationals, contested this week for the 18th time, Force rolls into Tennessee in third place in the 2005 Funny Car standings, 22 points back of son-in-law Robert Hight and eight back of friend and suddenly-serious-rival Gary Scelzi.

Coming off a runner-up finish last week at Brainerd, Minn., his first trip out of the first round in five races, Force is expected to battle Hight, Scelzi, Ron Capps and Castrol SYNTEC® teammate Eric Medlen, winner of two of the last three races, not only for the championship but for the No. 1 qualfying position.

Although he's won four times at MMP and is the track record holder for quarter mile time at 4.842 seconds, Force still is best-remembered for the "I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet" quote he uttered after extricating himself from the mangled remains of his race car in the 1992 semifinals.

For Force, it still is a vivid memory, 13 years after the fact.

The points leader going into the race, which at the time was contested in the May heat, Force was racing Al Hofmann when his car suffered an engine failure at 1,000 feet, near the end of the quarter mile. Shortly after it cleared the finish line in 5.418 seconds at 269.13 miles per hour, the right rear tire blew.

When the tire failed, it sent the car careening into Hofmann's lane where it backed into the guardrail with such velocity that it separated the carbon fiber body from the chassis. That proved to be fortuitous because it eliminated the continuing fire danger. Nevertheless, Force wasn't yet out of the woods.

The rolling chassis continued to slide down the track beyond the finish line. When it got to the sand trap at the end of the asphalt, it barrel-rolled. Dazed but otherwise unfazed, Force finally was able to climb out of the wreckage with the assistance of NHRA Safety Safari personnel.

Despite a fire that, on television and in still photos, was spectacular, Force came away with a slight burn on his ring finger and a story that has taken on a life of its own. In fact, the Elvis reference may be the most famous quote of his career, one that led to a paperback book of Force quotes and, at least indirectly, to a pair of Elvis-themed special editions of his Castrol GTX race car.

This week, though, Force doesn't expect to see Presley at 1,000 feet. He hopes, in fact, to see nothing but racetrack once he gets to that point, an indication that he's driving away from his opponent.

For two months, though, some wondered if Force ever would drive away from another rival. After winning four of the season's first nine races and opening up a 127- point lead in his bid for a record 14th individual championship, Force hit the performance wall.

In the six races immediately following his May 29 win at Topeka, Kan., the 12-time Auto Racing All-America selection won just one round, reaching a personal low at Sonoma, Calif., where he lost in the first round for the fourth straight race.

That malaise finally came to end last week when the 118-time tour winner not only reached the final round but drove his GTX Start Up Mustang to the quickest time in three of four rounds of racing.

The 56-year-old veteran is hoping it was the start of a less dubious streak, one that won't include any Elvis sightings.

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Did You Know? This week, John can extend to 363 the number of consecutive events for which he has qualified a Castrol GTX Funny Car. That record-breaking streak began with the first race of the 1988 season....John is a 12-time Auto Racing All-America selection and, in 1996, was named Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing, the first drag racer so honored....when John rode out the fire that prompted his "I saw Elvis" quote in 1992, it was the first time co-crew chief Bernie Fedderly had worked on the car with crew chief Austin Coil. Fedderly started the 1992 season as crew chief on the car that ultimately would win the championship, the McDonald's Oldsmobile driven by Cruz Pedregon, but later was fired by car owner Larry Minor. Since then, he's won 11 championships with Force. Larry Meyer finished the campaign with Pedregon.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Al Hofmann , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Cruz Pedregon , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight , Austin Coil