Pomona: John Force preview

FORCE HAS FOES IN FOCUS IN BID FOR ANOTHER TITLE 14-Time Series Champ Begins Comeback Tour POMONA, Calif. -- John Force has been down more quarter mile tracks in his career than anyone else in drag racing history. He's won more races (125), won...

14-Time Series Champ Begins Comeback Tour

POMONA, Calif. -- John Force has been down more quarter mile tracks in his career than anyone else in drag racing history. He's won more races (125), won more championships (14) and won more rounds (992) than Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney and Don Prudhomme, combined.

He once qualified for 395 consecutive races, a record that not only may never be broken, but may never even be challenged.

Nevertheless, on the eve of this week's 48th annual CARQUEST Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Force feels like he's starting over. To a large extent, he is.

Beginning his 31st season on the NHRA POWERade tour, his 22nd with Castrol as primary sponsor, drag racing's most prolific winner finds himself behind the wheel of a redesigned Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang with which he is unfamiliar and in which he is not yet uncomfortable.

It's a car that doesn't look like anything Force has driven before -- primarily because it represents the first major re-design of the basic Funny Car in more than 20 years. The most obvious differences are three frame rails along each side instead of just two, more braces and cross members, bigger, thicker tubing and more padding.

Less apparent are changes to the parachute releases, the brakes, the steering, the fuel shutoff levers. In short, everything that Force once managed without even thinking has been reconfigured.

"They put a push brake in the car, which I really don't like," he said. "Mike Neff loves it. My daughter Ashley and Robert (Hight) are learning it, but I'm old school. I didn't think I'd have the strength in my fingers to pull the brake handle, but I knew I could shove it with my palm. But I still don't like it."

During testing last week at Phoenix, Force missed the parachutes on his first full run because he was using a body borrowed from his daughter in which the activating levers had been relocated.

However, despite the absence of a comfort zone, Force is as excited as a little kid about the new season, one in which he is coming back from the most serious accident of his pro career, one that left him with broken bones in both hands and feet and serious tendon and ligament damage to a right knee already weakened by the effects of childhood polio.

In the aftermath of that crash and an earlier testing accident in Florida that claimed the life of teammate and protege Eric Medlen, Force has been transformed from a single-minded proponent of Vince Lombardi's "winning is everything" philosophy into someone who wants to be remembered for more than just his statistical dominance.

"I'm glad I crashed," he said last week during one of the physical therapy sessions to which he religiously has adhered the last four months, "because so much good has come out of it. We spent 35 years out here and all we ever thought about was an ET (elapsed time) slip. Now we're making things safer for the next generation.

"This new car may not work," he continued, "but if I don't win a race this year, I won't complain. I don't want to be remembered for the most wins. I want to be the guy that made Eric Medlen's life count for something."

When Medlen crashed last March, suffering severe head injuries that ultimately proved fatal, Force had to rethink everything he knew about his sport and about the Funny Car class over which his team has reigned 15 of the last 19 seasons.

As a direct result of that testing accident, the roll cage in all the Force-owned Fords was widened, the chassis was strengthened at key stress points, more padding was added around the driver and the head restraint system that Force himself once eschewed was upgraded to limit side-to-side as well as up-and-down movement. Force credits Medlen -- and those changes, specifically -- for saving his life.

The upshot is that the Castrol GTX Mustang the 14-time Auto Racing All-American will debut this week is light years removed from the one he drove in last year's Winternationals. Designed at The Eric Medlen Project for racing safety in Brownsburg, Ind., by Eric's father, John Medlen, and built by McKinney Corporation, Inc., with input from Ford Motor Co. and others, it is heavier by more than 100 pounds.

However, despite Force's disclaimers, testing last week at Phoenix, Ariz., didn't identify any unmanageable problems with the design. In fact, Force had three of the four quickest times of the pre-season including the top two: 4.765 and 4.782. In fact, the veteran acknowledged that the car performed much better than did the driver.

"I'm really rusty in the car, staging, leaving," he said. "I've never been out of the seat for this long. I'm wearing a brace on my left leg and I've been having trouble holding the clutch down. Shoving on the (fuel) pumps is hard. Shoving them off is easy but turned them on is hard. I've been working out six days a week, every day since the crash. I haven't missed a day of therapy (just) so I'd be ready for Pomona. I'm stiff and they tell me I'm gonna have some arthritis, but I have no complaints.

"I'm back racing and it's the best therapy ever."

Although he is reluctant to talk about his expectations for the season, Force is on the verge of achieving several more competitive milestones. For one thing, should he qualify for his 28th Winternationals and at least advance to the semifinals, he would become the first pro driver in any class to win 100 racing rounds at a single track.

In addition, he is just eight rounds shy of becoming the first to win 1,000 total rounds in a career. He was on his way to reaching that plateau last season when fate intervened and put him out of action for the last three events of the campaign.

-credit: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , John Force , Don Prudhomme , Eric Medlen , Mike Neff