Topeka: John Force preview

FORCE RETURNS TO TOPEKA AS FUNNY CAR POINTS LEADER Racing Icon Seeks 10th win at Heartland Park TOPEKA, Kan. -- John Force's return to Funny Car dominance after two seasons of struggle in the NHRA's Full Throttle Series easily is the story of...

FORCE RETURNS TO TOPEKA AS FUNNY CAR POINTS LEADER
Racing Icon Seeks 10th win at Heartland Park

TOPEKA, Kan. -- John Force's return to Funny Car dominance after two seasons of struggle in the NHRA's Full Throttle Series easily is the story of the year in professional drag racing.

At age 61, Force has driven his Castrol GTX0x00ae High Mileage0x2122 Ford Mustang to three victories this year and to the top of the Full Throttle Funny Car standings, thereby applying an exclamation point to his 25th season with his primary sponsor.

However, the Hall of Famer's latest comeback is one with "chicken or egg" overtones. Entering this week's 22nd annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Summer Nationals at Heartland Park-Topeka, the question yet to be answered is, what came first, the rejuvenated driver or the revitalized race car?

There is a large contingent within the sport that believes that Force's race car has been the principal problem. A car that once was the most feared in the series failed to qualify for four different races in 2008 and last year didn't appear in a single final round for the first time since 1984.

More significant, perhaps, is the fact that, after sitting atop the qualifying ladder a Funny Car record 131 times from 1985 through 2006, Force didn't qualify No. 1 even once in 2007, 2008 or 2009.

Of course, Force now accepts the blame himself, admitting that despite all his posturing, he wasn't 100 per cent the last two years while he battled back from injuries suffered in a 2007 crash that almost ended his spectacular pro career.

In fact, he now calls his emotional 2008 Summer Nationals victory, his only win in a 48-race stretch, a fluke, wondering, with tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek, if final round foe Tim Wilkerson, a close friend, might have "just let me win."

However, after "living in the gym" the last two years, after giving up what he calls "the party lifestyle" and after rebuilding muscles that were neglected long before his horrific accident at the Texas Motorplex, Force is confident again -- and driving like it.

There is no doubt, though, that his race car also has undergone a transformation. From a performance standpoint, it no longer is content to play second fiddle to Robert Hight's Auto Club Ford or daughter Ashley Force Hood's Castrol GTX Ford.

Three times this year, it has carried Force to the No. 1 qualifying position, putting the 129-time tour winner within reach of one of the few remaining records not already his (Pro Stock driver Warren Johnson's 138 No. 1 starts). Furthermore, it's been quick enough and fast enough to have challenged the sport's existing world records.

The difference?

In the off season, making concessions to a down economy, Force parked his fourth car and, in essence, merged the best elements, including the first JFR-designed-and-built chassis, into his own operation. Significantly, he then partnered Mike Neff, who last year was a driver, with crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly.

That trio, working with new crew members, most of whom came over from Neff's team, directed Force to victory in the season-opening 50th annual Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals, the inaugural 4-Wide Nationals and the SummitRacing.com Nationals.

As a result, he hasn't relinquished the points lead all year and rolls into Heartland Park, a track on which he has won nine times previously, 115 points ahead of his daughter and 120 ahead of son-in-law Robert Hight with an eye, down the road, on what could be his 15th individual title.

-source: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Warren Johnson , John Force , Tim Wilkerson , Ashley Force , Robert Hight , Austin Coil , Mike Neff