The Force of NHRA

Legendary driver still chasing titles


John Force performs a burnout prior to a qualifying run during the 44th NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville on Friday.

Brett Le Blanc /Correspondent
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 6:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 6:48 p.m.

John Force seems very calm these days, less distracted, almost relaxed — if anyone can associate relaxed with the drag-racing icon who has 24-hour nitro energy and has been known to talk faster than the Funny Car he drives at 300-plus miles per hour.

There are a few key elements that may explain his (almost) serene state of mind.

He's built strong teams around his two NHRA racing daughters — Courtney (Funny Car) and Brittany (Top Fuel) — and is confident they are in good, safe hands.

At 63, he's never felt better. He works out religiously and is as mentally sharp as he's ever been. He still talks about partying, but no longer does. “I haven't had a beer since my accident (in Dallas) in 2007,” he said.

He recently named driver Robert Hight the president of John Force Racing, taking a major workload (and stress load) off his shoulders. He also recently signed a new five-year contract with his sponsor, Castrol.

And, John Force and Mike Neff are back to being what they were three years ago: Force driving, Neff being the full-time crew chief — and the two working together just like they did in 2010, when Force won six events and his last world championship.

The Neff thing is big.

“It's just like we were when we won the championship in 2010,” Force said Friday between qualifying rounds at Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. “Mike is a good guy. He never panics. He takes a lot of stress off me because I know he has confidence.”

Neff also was Force's crew chief in 2011 and 2012, when he won only one race each year. But Neff also was a driver on the Force team at the same time, and it was a tough juggling act for Neff.

Now, Neff has only one job: help Force run fast and furious again, and help him win again.

“Getting away from the driving thing, that's definitely a relief for me,” Neff said. “Not having to drive, that's a big burden (off me), mostly the mental drain. I have time to concentrate on other things.”

Neff actually had a better year driving in 2012 than Force, who finished ninth in the points standings. Neff won four races in Funny Car and finished third in the final standings. But Neff thought it was time to turn his full focus back to Force, NHRA's winningest driver, and his legendary Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.

“It was his call,” Force said. “He said if the team's going to prevail, it's too much (to do both).”

“The timing was right,” Neff said. “He told me I could drive as long as I wanted. But, with Brittany coming on in Top Fuel, and Courtney going into her second year, there was too much going on.”

Now, there is one clear focus for the Force-Neff team: winning.

“I love working with John. He's the most exciting driver out there,” Neff said. “John does have a lot on his plate. He's always going 100 miles an hour. But one thing I can say about John is he's never lost that drive for winning.

“It's amazing how he keeps his energy up, and to just drive, to do what he does. He truly loves this as much as anybody. After all his accomplishments, he still has that burning desire to keep doing it.

“That's amazing. … his passion for what he does out here.”

Force seems to have more passion than ever coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons in which he won only twice and fell out of contention for the season championship.

“I want to win. That's what my life is all about,” Force said. “If you're going to win, you have to live it every day.

“I've signed with my sponsor for five more years. I'm going to do it good. If I can't do it good, I'm getting out of the driver's seat. I'm going to win some races. I'm going to win me a championship. That's what the mind set has to be.

“I'm good enough to win. If I can't, I can't — but I have no excuses.”

Force said not to expect one of those NHRA farewell tours from him anytime soon, if ever.

“I don't plan on leaving,” he said. “Everyone talks about a farewell tour. I won't have one. When I step out of the car, it will be the day I don't feel right. Some decide to leave after having a bad season.

“If you don't lose some, then winning would have no meaning. Every bad season is a learning experience, just like a good season is a learning experience.”

Force said it isn't about the money anymore.

“I do it because I love the cheers of the crowd and being out here with my children,” he said. “We've got dreams for the future.

“If I'm going to give a future (in racing) to my children — and I'm going to — I'm going to sit here and race until they drag me out of that seat.”

NOTES: Force did not have a good first day at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. Through two rounds of qualifying (with two more to go today), Force finds himself in the 17th position (out of a field of 18). The top 16 advance to Sunday's eliminations. Force had trouble getting down the 1,000-yard track both times and had to settle for a top run of 6.577 seconds elapsed time and a top speed of only 101.51 miles per hour. Sitting in the No.1 spot in Funny Car is Cruz Pedregon (4.059 and 305.49 mph). Friday's other fastest qualifiers were Doug Kalitta (3.801 and 325.85 mph) in Top Fuel, Mike Edwards (6.473 and 214.31 mph) in Pro Stock and Matt Smith (6.804 and 197.28 mph) in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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