POMONA -- After a 20-month, 40-race absence, John Force returned to the Funny Car winners’ circle in dramatic and spectacular fashion Sunday, applying an exclamation point to the start of his 25th anniversary season with primary sponsor Castrol by driving to victory in the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.
In winning for a record 127th time in the NHRA Full Throtte Series, the 60-year-old icon took a giant step toward putting a largely forgettable 2009 season far behind him and making good on his pledge to recapture the form that made him almost unbeatable from 1990 until he crashed heavily at Dallas, Texas in 2007.
After beating his daughter Ashley Force Hood in a bizarre second round, Force drove his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang past the Valvoline Dodge Charger of “Fast Jack” Beckman before beating defending race champion Ron Capps and the NAPA Dodge by a scant .015 of a second in the final.
It was Force’s starting line skills that made the difference in the title run, his .016 advantage at the start making his 4.124 a winner over Capps’ every so slightly quicker 4.123.
“There's a reason Force has all those championship trophies,” said a disappointed Capps. “He knows how to get up to race. We've had some great battles in the past and I thought this was going to be another one and I was going to be holding the trophy.”
It was Force’s 42nd win in 63 races with Capps and it broke a series of three straight final round losses to the Dodge driver.
After struggling the last two seasons with a car that only occasionally recalled past dominance, Force interjected himself immediately into the championship mix at the Winternationals. The No. 3 qualifier overall, he was second quickest in round one and quickest every lap thereafter with times of 4.132, 4.120, 4.125 and 4.124 seconds.
It was the 14-time Auto Racing All-American’s first win since the NHRA shortened the race course from a quarter mile to 1,000 feet in response to safety concerns following the death of two-time world champion Scott Kalitta; his first win since he beat Tim Wilkerson to win at Topeka, Kan., on June 1, 2006; only his second win since coming back from serious injuries suffered in the aforementioned accident.
“I am humbled beyond belief,” Force said. “This is really huge. People say, ‘what is it like to win?’ Well, it wasn’t so much the winning as it was the coming back from the cellar. When you have won all those championships, you think winning is easy.
“Wilkerson smoked the tires (in the final round at Topeka),” Force said. “He had me covered all weekend. So that was kind of a fluke (although) I always felt like just to come out of that hospital and win again meant a lot. I told the (physical therapist) that I will never be the guy I used to be and he told me to just keep working.
“I’ll be honest, they said I might not win again (and) that gets in your head. They really said I might not walk again. Your kids tell you you’re Superman. Well, you aren’t Superman, you’re just a man.
“My leg was shaking so bad last year, holding the clutch in, and you can’t drive like that,” Force said, “(but) I wasn’t going to cry about it. I didn’t want you all to know I was so screwed up. Castrol is looking at my age, trust me, so over the winter I hit it harder and all of a sudden I had strength to get through the day. It was awesome. I remember (when I first) got on the treadmill, I couldn’t run for two minutes. Now I can go for an hour.”
Admittedly in “the best shape of my career,” Force indeed appears capable of challenging son-in-law Robert “Top Gun” Hight, the reigning Full Throttle Champion, for the $500,000 championship.
“I heard (Top Fuel winner Larry) Dixon say that he grew up in California,” Force said. “I’m from California, too, but I never grew up. I just love it and I have to tell you, I can thank Full Throttle. That stuff hops me up for a race like this.
“I live this game,” Force continued. “You race a kid like Capps and (run) up against Schumacher Racing, they’re tough. You just have to keep your focus.”
When he went without a victory during the 2009 season, it ended a streak of 22 consecutive years in which he had won at least once, a record he shares with Pro Stock driver Warren Johnson. He turned things around by shaking things up. The crew supporting his effort on Sunday wasn’t new to John Force Racing but it was, for all intents, new to Force.
The only crewman to return from 2009 was clutch specialist Tom Ekstrom. However, Force’s genius manifested itself in his pairing of Hall of Fame crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly with Mike Neff. Neff, who just three months ago, on the same Auto Club track, won as the driver of the Drive One Ford Mustang, returned to the winners’ circle as crew chief, earning his first victory in that capacity since he sent Gary Scelzi to the podium June 10, 2007 at Joliet, Ill., two years after the two had beaten Force, Coil and Fedderly for the title.
“We have shuffled our team around,” Force enthused. “Coil and Bernie have teamed up with Mike Neff . All of them together with Jimmy Prock, John Medlen, ‘Guido’ (Dean Antonelli) and Ron Douglas, they were all in the think tank (today) trying to figure me out.
“The last couple years, we just couldn’t do anything,” Force continued. “(So) we scrambled everything around. Obama said change and that word stuck in my head. Change has worked for us. To be here at Auto Club Raceway and win this race, a 50th anniversary, it won’t ever come again (and) I may not be here for the 100th.
“It really makes you proud when the Full Throttle champion (son-in-law Hight) walks up and says ‘you may look old and you may think you’re old, but you’re a bad hombre. I have seen you here before.’ I almost cried.
“This is really special because this is my home track. We jelled (with) this team and I got back on my game. I really wanted it . The hardest part was running up against Ashley. I said, ‘I love you baby, but I may not get another chance. I have to go after you.’ And she said, ‘it’s okay, dad.’”
If not dramatic enough, that second round race became more so when, before she excuted the burnout, one of the two braking parachutes in Force Hood’s Castrol GTX Ford popped out of the chute pack. The crew was able stuff the “laundry” back into the pack but while Force Hood maintained her composure throughout, her creditable 4.187 was good enough to match her dad’s 4.120.
It was an unfortunate turn for the 27-year-old who had posted quick time of the first round (4.121) in sending Wilkerson to an early sideline seat.
“I was pulling up (to the starting line) and Ron waved me up,” Ashley said. “Then he gave me the stop sign and I didn’t have any idea what was going on behind me. I never even thought of the parachute. I didn’t know until I got out at the end that I had a parachute problem. I thought maybe someone fell or got bumped by the car. Ron was telling the guys to be sure to get the tires clean and then I thought maybe I rolled through some oil.
“They told me I was going to do a short burnout and back up. Then they decided there wasn’t enough time to do a burnout at all and we were going to just pull up. Dad was already staged. He thought he was on a single. I just remember thinking, ‘how can they send me down the track with oil on my tires?’ I should have had more faith in my team that they would never do that. I just stepped on it thinking I have no idea what this thing is going to do (but) it went right down the track.
“I was surprised it did go down the track,” she marveled. “It wasn’t as quick as they wanted. They said it was heavier because of all the fuel still in it (and the clutch didn’t get warmed up enough (but) it still made it. The best part was that I was racing against one of my own teammates. So if I had to lose at least one of my teammates went on. I felt bad for dad because he was getting a lot of mixed signals. He wasn’t sure what was going on. I was at least getting information from Ron. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew what I was supposed to be doing. That is a good feeling for a driver.”
For Hight, the statute of limitations apparently ran out on the momentum generated from his dramatic drive to the 2009 title.
He set a track speed record for the 1,000 foot distance (312.86 mph) on Thursday and started Sunday from the No. 1 qualifying position. However, the promise of the preliminaries turned bitter in the very first round when his Auto Club Ford lost traction, veered across the centerline and was DQ-ed, paving th way for two-time former champ Cruz Pedregon to advance. It was the first time in five trips that Hight failed to advance out of the first round at the season-opener.
“Jimmy is still baffled that we smoked the tires,” Hight said of crew chief Prock. “Even after looking at the data. The tires weren’t hot. I had it perfectly lined up in the center of the groove. It felt awesome. I pedaled it and got back on it and it hooked. When it does that, usually it goes. I stayed in it and then all of a sudden it turned sideways, so I lifted. When it does that the tires really start spinning. We have to not smoke the tires.
“It looks funny, especially when Ashley goes out and runs 4.12 right behind us. It is just one of those deals and we’ll move on. We are still learning this clutch package. We just have to fine tune this Mustang to get it to react the way we need it to.
“We’ll get that work done and get ready to head to Phoenix and start over again. I am really looking forward to Phoenix. This was a crazy, crazy weekend. I’m back at my home track after winning the championship. I got my ring and my champion’s jacket. There were just lots of things going on (but) I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I am not complaining (but) it will be nice to get to a more normal race weekend.”
The win kept Force’s race team perfect in the NHRA’s 50th anniversary events. Force previously won a special 2001 race at Pomona that celebrated NHRA’s 50th anniversary and veteran Gary Densham, driving a JFR Mustang for the Auto Club, won the 50th anniversary Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in 2004. Now, Force has the trophy for the 50th Winternationals.
Force gave a shout out to Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen for helping turn him around mentally.
“McEwen told me last year (that) I acted like I didn’t want to win,” Force said. “I told him I was doing the best I could out there, but he said, ‘no, every time it seems like you race one of your teammates, you ain’t the same guy. You are just different because you love them and you want to see them win.’ It got me mad. He said ‘you owe the fans to win.’ I went up to him today, like second round, and I told him he was right because they are all still cheering for this old guy.”
“This was strong for me and for all the sponsors,” Force said of his fifth Winternationals win. “I am really excited for all thses Fords. Tasca (semifinalist Bob Tasca III) was in the game, Robert was in the game and so were Ashley and Wilkerson. Laurie (Force’s wife of 28 years) told me ‘you know you love driving that car.’ She encouraged me.”
As for the question, what do you give your wife when you forget flowers on Valentine’s Day, the answer is “a championship trophy” which is what Force did in the winners’ circle on Sunday.
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POMONA, Calif. – Final round results from Sunday’s 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, first race in the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series:
FUNNY CAR – John Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, 4.124, 298.61 mph, def. Ron Capps, Carlsbad, Calif., NAPA Dodge Charger, 4.123, 305.08 mph.
TOP FUEL – Larry Dixon, Indianapolis, Ind., 3.808, 316.60 mph, def. Doug Kalitta, Ypsilanti, Mich., 3.848, 310.05 mph.
PRO STOCK – Mike Edwards, Coweta, Okla., Pontiac GXP, 6.577, 210.47 mph, def. Greg Anderson, Concord, N.C., Pontiac GXP, 6.618, 209.62 mph.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER – Chris Demke, Sunland, Calif., 5.332, 269.67 mph, def. Joey Severance, Spanaway, Wash., 5.916, 196.42 mph.
TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR – Sean O’Bannon, Ontario, Calif., 2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 5.541, 259.96 mph, def. Doug Gordon, Paso Robles, Calif., 2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 5.643, 259.16 mph.
COMPETITION – Lou Ficco Jr., Wheatridge, Colo., 2009 Pontiac GXP, def. Dean Carter, Glendale, Ariz., dragster, foul.
SUPER STOCK – Jeff Lane, North Bend, Wash., 1998 Oldsmobile Achieva, def. Jimmy DeFrank, Chatsworth, Calif., 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt.
STOCK – Brad Burton, Golden, Colo., 1972 Pontiac Formula Firebird, def. Ryan McClanahan, Alta Loma, Calif., 1969 Chevrolet Camaro.
SUPER COMP – Kevin Wright, Longmont, Colo., dragster, def. Ed Olpin, Pleasant Grove, Utah, dragster, broke.
SUPER GAS – Brad Pierce, Riverside, Calif., 1958 Chevrolet Corvette, def. Jimmy Lewis, Forney, Texas, 1958 Chevrolet Corvette.
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POMONA, Calif. – Unofficial pro points following Sunday’s 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona
FUNNY CAR – 1. John Force, Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, 121; 2. Ron Capps, NAPA Dodge Charger, 94; 3. Bob Tasca III, Quick Lane/Motorcraft Ford Mustang, 78; 4. Jack Beckman, MTS Dodge Charger, 74; 5. Del Worsham, Al Anabi Toyota Solara, 59; 6. Matt Hagan, Diehard Dodge Charger, 57; 7. Ashley Force Hood, Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, 56; 8. Cruz Pedregon, Snap-on Tools Toyota Solara, 51; 9. Robert Hight, Auto Club Ford Mustang, 43; 10. Tie, Tony Pedregon, Quaker State Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Jim Head, Toyota Solara, 33 each.
TOP FUEL – 1. Larry Dixon, 122; 2. Doug Kalitta, 96; 3. Cory McClenathan, 86; 4. Tony Schumacher, 81; 5. Shawn Langdon, 55; 6. Tie, Antron Brown, Brandon Bernstein, and Troy Buff, 52 each; 9. Morgan Lucas, 36; 10. Tie, Thomas Nataas and Steve Torrence, 34 each.
PRO STOCK – 1. Mike Edwards, Pontiac GXP, 120; 2. Greg Anderson, Pontiac GXP, 95; 3. Allen Johnson, Dodge Avenger, 78; 4. Larry Morgan, Lucas Oil Ford Mustang, 71; 5. Rodger Brogdon, Pontiac GXP, 54; 6. Greg Stanfield, Pontiac GXP, 53; 7. Ronnie Humphrey, Pontiac GXP, 52; 8. Shane Gray, Pontiac GXP, 51; 9. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Chevrolet Cobalt, 42; 10. Ron Krisher, Chevrolet Cobalt, 39.
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POMONA, Calif. – First round pairings for Sunday’s 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona:
First round – 16. Cruz Pedregon, Brownsburg, Ind., Snap-on Tools Toyota Solara, 4.330, 251.81 mph, def. 1. Robert Hight, Yorba Linda, Calif., Auto Club Ford Mustang, DQ, centerline violation; 2. Del Worsham, Chino Hills, Calif., Al Anabi Toyota Solara, 4.188, 302.82 mph, def. 15. Jeff Arend, San Dimas, Calif., DHL Toyota Solara, 4.205, 301.67 mph; 3. John Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, 4.132, 308.07 mph, def. 14. Bob Bode, Barrington, Ill., Alard Machine Products Chevrolet Impala, 6.109, 113.40 mph; 4. Bob Tasca III, Cranston, R.I., Quick Lane/Motorcraft Ford Mustang, 4.191, 301.33 mph, def. 13. Melanie Troxel, Duluth, Ga., In-N-Out Burgers Dodge Charger, 4.197, 304.32 mph; 5. Matt Hagan, Christiansburg, Va., Die Hard Batteries Dodge Charger, 4.524, 270.00 mph, def. 12. Gary Densham, Bellflower, Calif., Lawson Rock and Oil Chevrolet Impala, 4.572, 278.69 mph; 6. Ashley Force Hood, Anaheim Hills, Calif., Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, 4.121, 307.72 mph, def. 11. Tim Wilkerson, Springfield, Ill., Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang, 4.720, 185.95 mph; 7. Jack Beckman, Norco, Calif., Valvoline/MTS Dodge Charger, 4.164, 306.12 mph, def. 10. Tony Pedregon, Brownsburg, Ind., Nitrofish Chevrolet Impala, 4.210, 306.33 mph; 9. Ron Capps, Carlsbad, Calif., NAPA Dodge Charger, 4.174, 301.20 mph, def. 8. Jim Head, Columbus, Ohio, Head, Inc., Toyota Solara, 5.825, 98.88 mph..
Second round – Tasca, 4.196, 301.00 mph, def. Hagan, 4.636, 237.25 mph; Capps, 4.153, 299.60 mph, def. C. Pedregon, 4.307, 284.45 mph; J. Force, 4.120, 305.49 mph, def. Force Hood, 4.187, 305.98 mph; Beckman, 4.183, 304.32 mph, def. Worsham, 4.581, 244.38 mph.
Semifinals – Capps, 4.158, 300.46 mph, def. Tasca, 12.686, 46.02 mph; Force, 4.125, 305.56 mph, def. Beckman, 5.658, 132.02 mph.
FINAL – John Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, 4.124, 298.61 mph, def. Ron Capps, Carlsbad, Calif., NAPA Dodge Charger, 4.123, 305.08 mph.
First round – 1. Cory McClenathan, Brownsburg, Ind., 3.843, 318.77 mph, def. 16. Steve Faria, Tulare, Calif., 5.482, 126.82 mph; 2. Larry Dixon, Indianapolis, Ind., 3.799, 318.99 mph, def. 15. Steve Chrisman, Anaheim, Calif., 5.301, 130.58 mph; 3. Tony Schumacher, Long Grove, Ill., 7.838, 73.37 mph, def. 14. Chris Karamesines, Chicago, Ill., foul; 4. Doug Kalitta, Ypsilanti, Mich., 4.518, 254.14 mph, def. 13. Terry McMillen, Elkhart, Ind., 11.960, 54.85 mph; 12. Troy Buff, Spring, Texas, 3.950, 295.85 mph, def. 5. Morgan Lucas, Brownsburg, Ind., 4.108, 264.92 mph; 11. Antron Brown, Brownsburg, Ind., 3.883, 314.61 mph, def. 6. Steve Torrence, Kilgore, Texas, 3.897, 310.98 mph; 10. Brandon Bernstein, Indianapolis, Ind., 3.887, 312.64 mph, def. 7. Thomas Nataas, Drobak, Norway, ; 8. Shawn Langdon, Brownsburg, Ind., 3.844, 315.93 mph, def. 9. David Grubnic, Ennis, Mont., broke.
Second round – Kalitta, 3.929, 309.84 mph, def. Buff, 7.715, 84.94 mph; Schumacher, 3.923, 302.69 mph, def. Brown, 4.535, 196.99 mph; McClenathan, 3.855, 314.39 mph, def. Langdon, 3.916, 306.74 mph; Dixon, 3.854, 316.82 mph, def. Bernstein, 3.929, 309.34 mph.
Semifinals – Kalitta, 3.849, 315.64 mph, def. McClenathan, 3.860, 315.88 mph; Dixon, 3.836, 317.05 mph, def. Schumacher, 3.836, 317.05 mph.
FINAL – Larry Dixon, Indianapolis, Ind., 3.808, 316.60 mph, def. Doug Kalitta, Ypsilanti, Mich., 3.848, 310.05 mph.
First round – 1. Mike Edwards, Coweta, Okla., Pontiac GXP, 6.604, 210.57 mph, def. 16. Justin Humphreys, Mt. Airy, Md., Pontiac GXP, 10.628, 85.83 mph; 15. Larry Morgan, Newark, Ohio, Lucas Oil Ford Mustang, 6.702, 206.34 mph, def. 2. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Delaware, Ohio, Chevrolet Cobalt, 11.876, 76.45 mph; 14. Shane Gray, Artesia, N.M., Pontiac GXP, 6.668, 207.66 mph, def. 3. Ron Krisher, Warren, Ohio, Chevrolet Cobalt, 6.685, 208.07 mph; 4. Allen Johnson, Greeneville, Tenn., Dodge Avenger, 6.637, 209.49 mph, def. 13. Steve Spiess, Manhattan, Ill., Chevrolet Cobalt, 6.667, 207.66; 5. Rodger Brogdon, Tomball, Texas, Pontiac GXP, 6.651, 209.07 mph, def. 12. Johnny Gray, Artesia, N.M., Pontiac GXP, 6.717, 205.88 mph; 6. Greg Anderson, Concord, N.C., Pontiac GXP, 6.608, 210.31 mph, def. 11. Kurt Johnson, Sugar Hill, Ga., Chevrolet Cobalt, 7.263, 163.00 mph; 10. Ronnie Humphrey, Jacksonville, N.C., Pontiac GXP, 6.676, 208.19 mph, def. 7. Vinnie Deceglie, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Dodge Avenger, 6.647, 208.91 mph; 8. Greg Stanfield, Bossier City, La., Pontiac GXP, 6.635, 209.17 mph, def. Jason Line, Troutman, N.C., Pontiac GXP, 6.624, 209.75 mph.
Second round – Morgan, 6.674, 208.07 mph, def. Humphrey, 12.837, 68.61 mph; A. Johnson, 6.639, 209.20 mph, def. Brogdon, foul; Anderson, 6.626, 209.75 mph, def. S. Gray, 6.691, 207.88 mph; Edwards, 6.610, 210.05 mph, def. Stanfield, 6.659, 208.91 mph.
Semifinals – Anderson, 6.632, 209.10 mph, def. Morgan, 6.681, 208.20 mph; Edwards, 6.615, 210.11 mph, def. A. Johnson, 6.645, 209.95 mph.
FINAL – Mike Edwards, Coweta, Okla., Pontiac GXP, 6.577, 210.47 mph, def. Greg Anderson, Concord, N.C., Pontiac GXP, 6.618, 209.62 mph.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER
First round – 1. Brittany Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., BrandSource A/Fuel dragster, 5.547, 258.37 mph, def. 16. Brooks Brown, Costa Mesa, Calif., 9.623, 90.95 mph; 15. Art Trautman, Wadell, Ariz., 5.971, 231.64 mph, def. 2. Courtney Force, Yorba Linda, Calif., Ford Drive One A/Fuel dragster, DQ, centerline violation; Jim Whiteley, Grand Junction, Colo., 5.311, 271.02 mph, def. 15. Del Cox Jr., Downey, Calif., 5.940, 207.59 mph; 3. Johnny Ahten, Santa Clarita, Calif., 5.455, 249.30 mph, def. 13. Mike Austin, Medford, Ore., 5.420, 259.21 mph; 5. Chris Demke, Sunland, Calif., 5.405, 268.44 mph, def. 12. Ashley Bart, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, no time; 6. Joey Severance, Woodburn, Ore., 5.371, 267.59 mph, def. 11. Mark Niver, Phoenix, Ariz., no time; 10. Brandon Johhnson, Las Vegas, Nev., 5.366, 264.39 mph, def. 7. Larry Miersch, Huntington Beach, Calif., 5.547, 247.79 mph; 9. Shawn Cowie, Delta, British Columbia, Canada, 5.358, 266.48 mph, def. 8. Dale Carlson, Olympia, Wash., 5.384, 262.69 mph.
Second round – Johnson, 5.428, 262.08 mph, def. Trautman, no time; Cowie, 5.374, 264.23 mph, def. B. Force, 5.383, 267.43 mph; Demke, 5.325, 269.13 mph, def. Whiteley, 5.370, 268.71 mph; Severance, 5.415, 264.39 mph, def. Ahten, 5.641, 220.94 mph.
Semifinals – Severance, 5.399, 264.47 mph, def. Johnson, 5.411, 252.00 mph; Demke, 5.308, 268.38 mph, def. Cowie, 5.389, 259.61 mph.
FINAL – Chris Demke, Sunland, Calif., 5.332, 269.67 mph, def. Joey Severance, Spanaway, Wash., 5.916, 196.42 mph.