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GAINESVILLE -- It’s all Ford cars all the time this week as the NHRA Full Throttle drag racing tour moves to Gainesville Raceway for the 41st renewal of the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals.
If you’re a Ford Funny Car fan, there’s an impressive list of contenders from which to choose and, if your interest gravitates to the Pro Stock division, where Ford’s Bob Glidden once dominated, there’s also cause for hope.
Veteran Larry Morgan put his Pro Stock Mustang solidly into contention at the first two races of the season, reaching the semifinals in his Ford debut at the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and, as a result, rolls into Florida occupying the No. 6 position in Full Throttle points
Among the Funny Cars, Bob Tasca III is the defending champion in the Quick Lane/Motorcraft Mustang; Robert Top Gun Hight is the reigning series champion in the Auto Club Mustang; and veteran John Force is the Funny Car points leader in a revitalized Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang.
Moreover, if you’re not motivaterd by those choices, there are two other viable contenders: Ashley Force Hood, who was No. 2 in points last year in her Castrol GTX Ford, and veteran Tim Wilkerson, who finished fourth in his first season in a Mustang sponsored by Levi, Ray and Shoup.
Of course, in spite of all those options, most of the attention will focus on Force, the resurgent 60-year-old phenom who took his 8,000 horsepower hybrid to the final round in the first two races of the season and who this week will be pursuing his eighth individual victory at the Gatornationals.
Force’s season-opening performance, a victory at Pomona followed by a runner-up finish and drought-ending No. 1 start at the NHRA Arizona Nationals, has for the moment obscured the memory of a disastrous 2009 campaign in which the 14-time series champion failed to win an NHRA tour event for the first time in 23 seasons.
How was the sport’s biggest winner able to turn things around? Simple. He embraced Barack Obama’s mantra of change and while it hasn’t worked particularly well for the President, at least thus far, it has worked for Force.
“Obama may be struggling with change, but John Force isn’t,” smiled the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection. “For financial reasons, we couldn’t run the fourth car this year. We had to park the Ford Drive One Mustang that Mike Neff drove when he won the Auto Club Finals [last year’s season finale].
“So, it only made sense to move Neff over to my car [as co-crew chief with Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly] since he was the crew chief who beat Coil and Bernie and me in 2005 with Gary Scelzi.
“We just put a young guy [Neff] in with the older generation to mix it up a little bit,” Force said. “They gave me a good hot rod. For me to get a win [at Pomona] after so many losses, it was big, but what was really big was we did it with the all-Ford chassis and the Ford BOSS 500 motor [both developed at the John Force Racing facility in Brownsburg, Ind.].”
Force hopes to sustain his performance this week in a race he hasn’t won since 2001 but one in which he strung together five straight victories from 1992 through 1996.
“Our goal is to get John Force Racing back to when it used to dominate,” Force said. “We had that at Pomona and Phoenix. We had the consistency and that’s what was missing [in the last two seasons].”
That Force again is considered a legitimate contender for the championship is remarkable considering what has happened in the three years since he last won the title (2006).
After winning 13 championships in 14 years, John Force Racing Inc., was staggered by the death of rising star Eric Medlen following a testing accident the day after the 2007 Gatornationals.
A six-time tour winner for JFR and Ford, Medlen had beaten Force in the first round of the Florida race. On Monday, in a open test at Gainesville Raceway, a tire blew on Medlen’s car, setting in motion a chain of events that proved catastrophic.
Medlen’s accident prompted a change of course for JFR which, at Force’s direction, embarked on a campaign to insure that such an accident, however freakish, would not happen again. Force created The Eric Medlen Project for race car safety which, during two years, working with Ford engineers, chassis builder Murf McKinney, and the NHRA, completely re-worked a chassis first was introduced more than 25 years earlier, when cars were far less powerful.
Six months later, Force himself was involved in a crash in Texas that, if nothing else, demonstrated that the team’s safety initiative was headed in the right direction.
Although he suffered multiple injuries to his arms, legs, feet and hands, Force had none of the catastrophic head trauma that had taken Medlen’s life due in large part to the changes made in cockpit padding and structural support following Eric’s accident.
As a result, the car in which Force won last month at Pomona bore very little resemblance to the one in which he prevailed at the same track in the 2006 finale.
Force, too, was greatly changed. After initially being told he may not walk again, the 127-time tour winner embarked on a personal mission that got him back in his Mustang to start the 2008 season. Now, after two solid years of physical training, the one-time truck driver has proclaimed himself “in the best shape of my life.”
Nevertheless, if the 1996 Driver of the Year is to become the oldest series champion in history, he likely will have to beat his Ford teammates to do so.
Prime among them is Hight, the former world class marksman who is married to Force’s oldest daughter, Adria, and is father to the champ’s only grandchild, Autumn. A former member of the Force crew, as was Medlen, Hight has come into his own as the driver of the Auto Club Mustang.
After struggling through the preliminary phase of the 2009 season, he came alive in the Countdown to 1, winning three of the six races to complete a “worst to first” ascension to the championship—the first for JFR in three years but the team’s 16th in the last 20 years.
Among those left in Hight’s wake was Force Hood, the 27-year-old graduate of Cal State-Fullerton who this year could become the first woman ever to win the NHRA Funny Car title and just the third to win a pro championship (after Shirley Muldowney in Top Fuel and Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Force’s second oldest daughter went to eight finals last year, started from the front a Funny Car best six times and won twice en route to a second place finish. Her signature victory was a final round conquest of Hight that made her the first woman Funny Car winner at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Clermont, Ind., drag racing’s oldest, largest, richest and most prestigious event.
That performance also made her the first woman to win Indy in two different categories, an accomplishment she’ll try to duplicate at the Gatornationals. Her first U.S. Nationals victory came in 2004 when she prevailed in the Top Alcohol Dragster division. Her only Gatornationals win came in 2006 in the same class: Top Alcohol Dragster.