STARTING LINE SCUFFLE REVEALS LARGER ISSUE UNDER THE SURFACE
A small scuffle between a past and present Funny Car driver on the starting line during the NHRA Toyota Nationals, Sunday in Las Vegas, ripped the scab off of a big sore which has been festering since earlier this season.
The issue, which was kept in hushed tones throughout the Funny Car pits for much of the season, on Sunday became very much public.
The interesting part is that the exchange of words, and to a point, a slight physical exchange between Chad Head and John Force, started as a call-out for Head questioning Force's ethics in a second-round loss against Robert Hight in eliminations.
Force didn't appreciate the gesture and accused Head and others of approaching the NHRA, and the Professional Racers Organization [PRO] over an incident Friday night where the 16-time champion had drifted into the lane of Jim Campbell, driver of Jim Dunn's entry.
"I basically questioned John’s ethics, racing ethics, as far as what he did against Robert Hight," Head explained. "I felt that a 16-time World Champion does not have a .190 light and then tries to drive it into the wall against, you know, another competitor, and especially…
"You know, he’s really good at driving into the wall past the finish line, he’s proven that several times this year, he’s getting really good at that. But I’ve never seen somebody try to drive into the wall 200 feet off the starting line. I love this sport to death, and it makes me sick to my stomach when I see somebody do that."
Sunday's allegations of diving are nothing new to Force, who has more than once fielded these questions of impropriety when it comes to manipulating races, but the questioning of his driving ability is something which rubbed him the wrong way.
"He approached me," Force said. "You know they think they know s***, like why I ran over the cones the other night, ‘Well, you were on the throttle."
"The car made a left turn, and who’s done it more than those people?"
Force believes Head and those who went to the PRO board and NHRA should have brought their issues to him.
Head, a member of the PRO board, refused to discuss any part of Saturday's board meeting citing their policy to keep details within their group.
"I have had discussions with other people about it," Head said. "This conversation that I had with John Force after the second round had nothing to do with what went on Friday night with his lovely display of driving ability."
Head said it was Force attempting to divert attention from the real issue of diving.
After all, Head believes, Force cannot say his tendency to drive over the edge hasn't been brought to his attention before. Back in June during the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, a documented exchange in the shutdown area transpired between Del Worsham and Force.
In a close race, Force beat Worsham, and shortly after the Funny Cars crossed the finish line, his Camaro darted over into Worsham's lane. There was no contact between the race cars.
"I'm the one who had the problem," Worsham said after the incident. "He made a great run, and he beat me. I am cool with that. I got beat. When you lose, and see a bunch of celebrating and everyone is excited when a guy crossed over into your lane but not only bumped cones, but also went into your lane and his parachutes come out in front of you, I just don't like that.
"We've talked about it for years, how there should be boundaries beyond 1,000 foot. You have to stay in your lane. He put me in danger to make sure he won. He put himself in danger, too. He didn't know where he was. He could have run into me. It's one thing to bump a cone; it's another to bring your car into the other guy's lane."
Head confirmed Friday's issue has reopened the discussions of revised boundary rules. He still believes Force, to this day, doesn't understand why Worsham was upset.
"If you’re not concerned, you have no idea what’s going on," Head explained. "And it’s not funny, it’s not cute, and it apparently got very, very real at Bristol this year with Del Worsham."
More than once, Head said Force has played off the incidents as no big deal. But to him, and others, it's a serious situation the NHRA needs to address before someone gets severely injured, including Force himself.
The controversy came up in Sunday's post-race winner's press conference with winner Matt Hagan. He was asked if he was the only Funny Car driver not partaking in the day's massive controversies sparking in the pits.
"No one asked my opinion," Hagan said, referencing the controversy surrounding Force and Friday's incident.
"The guy is struggling out there," Hagan said. "He's about hit me twice. I have some concerns with it as well. Tony Pedregon pretty much laid it out there on television. I love Force to death; he's been super kind to my family and me. He always comes over and says hello to my dad, and everybody.
"He's a great guy, but none of us are out here to make friends. We are out here to win races, and be safe. If anyone should know what it's like to crash a car and almost lose your legs, it's him. You would think he would be a bit more cautious than most."
Force confirmed he had discussed the issue with Light and pointed out he's confirmed more than once when the car was crossing the centerline he lifted. He said the car made an abrupt turn on him.
These kinds of incidents, other Funny Car drivers have confirmed, have come with the unpredictability of the laid-back headers.
"If you’re in the middle of the lane and it drops a hole, you can take a little chance with it, because it will move on you," Force said. "But if it’s over in the center or against the wall, you need to get off it. So I learned a lesson. Whatever."
Head said if Force doesn't want to come under scrutiny such as this, he should also watch what he says on television.
"I’m telling you that I am very disappointed in how he doesn’t care," Head explained. "And he doesn’t care because of what he said on TV, and he can say all he wants that it’s TV, but you don’t say, ‘The next time I’m going to just trash my car."
"You don’t say that. And then you don’t swap lanes with your foot on the gas. Like if you swap lanes, okay. But you don’t swap lanes, crossing the center line. That is a doesn’t care [attitude]. I am tired of it, I know a lot of other people are tired of it. That’s why I push so hard to get this out of bounds line for next year at 1320. Once you cross the center line past the 1,000, you’re out."
And for Head, multiple infractions should lead to a disqualification from the event or longer.
Hours after the incident, Head regretted the way the whole situation went down in the public eye.
"I hated to make a scene on the starting line," Head said. "Probably wasn’t the time and the place to do it, but sometimes when you’ve got to get something off your chest, it’s probably bad timing, but I did it. I can’t take it back. [He] probably doesn’t need to speak to me ever again, and for sure never needs to put his hands on me ever again."
Force wasn't the least bit pleased with what went down.
"Nobody gets in my face, okay, nobody," Force said. "I don’t take that s*** from nobody, okay? He’s calling me names and s***, and what does he know, you know what I mean? Because he’s trying to look like a big shot? I was amazed. I had a lot of respect for that guy, and to see him act like that."