On the fifth anniversary of the crash that almost ended his career, John Force brings his Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford Mustang back to the Texas Motorplex in hopes of breathing new life into his bid for an unprecedented 16th NHRA Funny Car Championship.
The sport’s biggest winner knows that if he is to mount a serious challenge for the $500,000 Full Throttle Champion’s bonus, he’ll have to start making up ground on the front-runners during this week’s 27th annual AAA Texas Fall Nationals.
Although he is a seven-time winner on Billy Meyer’s all-concrete racetrack, Force hasn’t won at the Motorplex since 2005, two years before his car blew a tire at 300 miles per hour and crashed into rival Kenny Bernstein’s Dodge.
That accident, the most serious in his 34-year pro career, left him with injuries to his legs, feet and hands that sent him to Baylor University Medial Center aboard a Life Flite helicopter. Six hours of reconstructive surgery and four months of exhaustive rehab later, he was back in a race car for the 2008 season opener.
Two years later, he won the championship, an accomplishment that in the eyes of most people completed one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history. Ironically, Force doesn’t share that view. He only will feel that he’s come all the way back, he said, when he wins again at the Motorplex.
“I really want to win Dallas again,” he said. “I’ve won it plenty of times, but not since that crash. That would bring it around full circle.”
Six weeks ago, the 63-year-old icon wouldn’t have allowed himself to think about either another Dallas victory or a championship. He was frustrated and disappointed.
After leading the Full Throttle driver points to start the season (thanks to a victory in the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals), he had plummeted to 10th and by August was fighting just to earn a playoff berth and to keep alive his streak of consecutive Top 10 finishes.
Since then, though, he and crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Danny DeGennaro have begun to see a little light. After winning just four rounds in the 11 races immediately following the Winternationals, they’ve won eight rounds in the last six events with a runner-up finish at Brainerd, Minn.
“My ol’ hot rod is coming around,” Force said. “It’s starting to show consistency. If we can improve on what we ran last weekend (4.142 and 4.129 before bowing out of the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals), we can go after this championship. I know ‘Guido’ and Danny are doing their best and I feel like we’re getting better every run.”
Last week’s performance included a first round victory over youngest daughter and NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year front-runner Courtney Force, driver of the Traxxas Ford Mustang. That helped re-energize the 15-time Auto Racing All-
“You have to get up (emotionally) to race these kids,” said the 2012 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (Talladega, Ala.). “Young people like Courtney and Alexis (DeJoria, rookie driver of the Tequila Patron Toyota) bring your energy up. I try and feed off of their energy.
“Whoever gets the hot hand, can win it all,” Force said of the Countdown.“There are a lot of great race cars out there right now, but we’re pretty good, too.”
Surprisingly, even though he doesn’t have the stamina he once did, Force likes the four-in-a-row format that kicks off the Countdown.
“I like running four-in-a-row because you stay in a groove,” said the man who was the first drag racer to earn Driver of the Year recognition (1996). “You jump right into the next race. I like that. It keeps you in fight mode.”
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