FORCE NEARS EIGHTH FUNNY CAR TITLE AFTER VERY TOUGH SEASON POMONA, Calif. -- John Force will forever be known as the most dominant NHRA Funny Car driver of the 1990s, but he will always remember 1998 as one heck of a tough season. For seven...
FORCE NEARS EIGHTH FUNNY CAR TITLE AFTER VERY TOUGH SEASON
POMONA, Calif. -- John Force will forever be known as the most dominant NHRA Funny Car driver of the 1990s, but he will always remember 1998 as one heck of a tough season.
For seven seasons in the 1990s he ruled the block, period. This season, there's a few other bad boys setting up shop in his neighborhood. They want a piece of his action.
So if the Yorba Linda, Calif. driver secures his eighth Winston championship this season, it'll be a title he can take comfort in knowing when the competition was at its best, he was even better.
"This has been one of those seasons where it's hard to sum up everything until after Pomona, until you see if you won or lost," said Force, who leads top challenger Ron Capps by 91 points entering the 34th annual Winston Finals, Nov. 12-15 at Pomona Raceway. The $1.7-million race is the last of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
"Bottom line is the competition has been better," Force added. "A lot of people ask if my team is off pace. Not really. We're actually doing very well. We're in good shape, it's just that the competition is doing better. It's not like the early '90s where you could go out and qualify and have it easy in the first couple of rounds. Nowadays you have to hit every run like it's the final."
On paper, Force hasn't produced the kind of numbers that he's grown accustomed to over the years. In 1996, Force won an amazing 13 events and became the first drag racer to win the prestigious Driver of the Year award in motorsports. He won 10 races in 1994 and 11 in 1993.
By midway through this season, Force knew he was in for a run for the money. Cruz Pedregon's Interstate Batteries Pontiac was incredibly fast, winning pole positions at nearly every event. Chuck Etchells' team chemistry was producing results and a young kid named Ron Capps exploded on the scene, winning the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona in impressive fashion.
"We were really watching Cruz because he knocked me off in 1992," Force said. "We were also watching Etchells because his team has been together for so long. And Capps, what can you say? Those guys have been tough."
The one thing that hasn't changed this season is Force's team strategy. While the team has only won three events, they've appeared in nine final rounds.
"Consistency is the thing that counts," Force said. "We've been there when we needed to. We haven't dominated like we have in the past, but we've won some races, been to a bunch of finals and gone rounds. That's what it takes."
While Capps has led the Winston point standings at two different times during the year, he admits his magical season won't be complete without a Winston championship trophy. Still, the five-time winner is comfortable knowing that he gave his best for legendary team owner Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme.
"It's been an awesome season, a championship season," said Capps, from San Diego. "Unfortunately Force has had just a little better season so far. We've won more races, but the first round losses we've had have just killed us. When Force didn't win, he did go a few more rounds and that's helped him quite a bit. The season we've had is definitely Winston championship caliber and the only other thing we could ask for is to be able to put that ring on at the end of the year."
Capps knows he faces a tall order to accomplish his goal. In order for him to win the championship, Force would need to fail to qualify at the Winston Finals to open the door for Capps. The Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver has qualified for 206 straight races.
No matter the outcome, Capps said he's learned a valuable lesson in his first championship run.
"You fight all year long and you start to see that it's there within your grasp," Capps said. "When we went to Indy with the points lead, that's when it all kinda sunk in. Then you start to see it slip a little bit and you want to grab it back. You get to a point where you think you have it and Force steps up and shuts the door on you. It's tough."
Capps said racing his hero for the championship this season has been a dream come true, but not as overwhelming as some might think.
"I've said that I'm Force's biggest fan, but there hasn't been one time that I've raced him this year that I haven't been able to get a holeshot or leave right with him," Capps said. "When I race John, for some reason, I feel like I'm getting a little extra from deep inside, a little more motivation. That's like an NFL team playing the Packers or 49ers. When you play those guys you're going to be on your best game. We beat him twice this season and we realized that he's just human, that we could beat him."
Both drivers are native Californians and call Pomona Raceway their home track.
"We're looking forward to running at Pomona," Force said. "That's the town I started in and I'll have a lot of family there. That's the perfect place for me to win a championship. But it's also a home track for Capps. He'll have a lot of people there too. We're just happy to be going home."
Despite Force's points lead, he knows that anything can happen in drag racing. He says this year has been so much fun that whatever the outcome, he'll be gracious to his talented challenger.
"If he can beat me to the title, I'll take my hat off to him," Force said. "I see a big future for Capps. He and Tony Pedregon are the Jeff Gordons of NHRA. They have a lot of heart and a lot of drive. I believe they will be the ones fighting it out for the titles in years to come. I have a lot of respect for Ron Capps. He played really clean ball all year. He took it hard when he lost and he's been very respectful when he's beat me. I like that type of person. If I have to give my crown up to someone I would like for it to be a Capps, or a Tony or a Cruz. They're just real good people."