Force in playoffs, but wary of 'test mode' trap SONOMA, Calif. - John Force is the first Funny Car driver to clinch a berth in the NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoffs, but don't expect the 14-time champion to ease into "test mode" this week when he...
Force in playoffs, but wary of 'test mode' trap
SONOMA, Calif. - John Force is the first Funny Car driver to clinch a berth in the NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoffs, but don't expect the 14-time champion to ease into "test mode" this week when he sends his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang into the 23rd annual FRAM/Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway.
"No way," said the 130-time tour winner and current points leader. " In 1992, we thought we had (the championship) locked up after Seattle. We went into test mode and Cruz (Pedregon) chased us down (and won the title). He was a rookie then and he had to win all the races and we had to lose them all - and that's just what happened."
Actually, Pedregon won five of the last six races the '92 season, all of them in succession, and passed Force to win the championship. For Force, it was a lesson learned: 'never take anything for granted.' He responded the following year by winning the first of a record 10 straight NHRA titles.
"I'm glad to be in the Countdown," Force said, "but there's no way I'm going to take it easy. I'm going to try and get as many points as possible. We want to have that top spot going into the Countdown (which begins four races hence at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis).
"That is what we are going to fight for the next three races," Force said. "We want all the points we can get."
Winner of a category-best four races this season, Force is on track at age 61 to become the oldest driver ever to win a major championship. That said, this is the first time he's been in real contention since the NHRA adopted the present playoff format which adjusts the points at the end of 17 races..
"It's all about having the best car starting at Indy," Force said. "We know we have a good hot rod but there are a lot of good cars out there, too. Robert (teammate and reigning champion Robert Hight) knows how to win in the Countdown with the Auto Club and Ashley (daughter Ashley Force Hood) was second last year.
"Then you've got Tim Wilkerson (winner of the last two races) and Tasca (Bob Tasca III), Matt Hagan, (Ron) Capps, (Jack) Beckman, Cruz and Tony (Pedregon), (Del) Worsham and a cast of thousands. This is as competitive as it's ever been in Funny Car racing. At the end of the day, it's just exciting to be in the hunt."
On the heels of a season in which he failed to reach a final round for the first time since 1985, Force admittedly is driving as well as he has in his entire 33-year career. He attributes that resurgence to off- season changes made to his support team as well as to a change in his own lifestyle that has transformed him physically.
"I used to spend two hours a night in the bar," Force said. "Now I spend it in the gym. It's made me stronger, especially my legs. It's what I had to do after the crash (a 2007 incident that left him with life- threatening injuries and the prospect of never again driving a race car)."
Nevertheless, Force's physical recovery wouldn't have delivered this year's success had he not also revitalized his race car, starting with the crew which is completely new this year except for clutch specialist Tom Ekstrom.
"I've got a great team," he said, "(and) not just my crew chiefs - Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and Mike Neff. I have a whole bunch of young guys, kids that put my Mustang together, week-after-week."
Neff, who won last November's season-ending Auto Club Finals as driver of a JFR Mustang, has made the transition back to crew chief and now is making the tough tune-up decisions with support from Coil and Fedderly who, between them, have won 17 series championships in Funny Car and Top Fuel.
"Coil and Bernie were like a couple of old dogs up on the porch," Force said. "It took us putting a young pup like Neff over there to get 'em going again."