John Force admits that, as a student, he really wasn’t very good at math – which may be why the 63-year-old drag racing icon can’t accept the fact that he won’t be able to work his usual playoff magic this week when the NHRA Full Throttle tour returns to Maple Grove Raceway for the 28thannual NHRA Auto-Plus Nationals.
The sport’s biggest winner regardless of statistical category – championships (15), final round appearances (216), tour victories (134) or rounds won (1,112), Force this year has dug a hole from which he can’t extricate himself. Just don’t tell him.
“I never say never. I always think we have a chance,” Force said. “(Ron) Capps is in the driver’s seat, but he’s gone out early the last two races. If somebody else gets hot, it could change everything. Until the NHRA comes to me and says, ‘there’s no way for you to win,’ I’m not gonna believe it.”
It’s the way the 2012 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame has raced for the last 25 years. It’s an attitude that in the past has enabled him to do the impossible, from overcoming the damage inflicted in a horrific 300 mile-an-hour crash at Dallas, Texas, in 2007 to overcoming Matt Hagan to win the most unlikely of his championships in 2010.
This year, though, Force rolls his Castrol GTX® HIGH MILEAGE™ Ford Mustang into Maple Grove, a track on which he has won six times and on which he has set national performance records, languishing in 10th place in the Funny Car driver standings despite a season-opening victory in the Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Although he has secured a record 28th consecutive Top 10 finish, he presently is 218 points behind the front-running Capps and remains mathematically viable only because of the possibility, however remote, that Capps might not qualify for one of the three remaining races in the Countdown to the Championship.
Of course, that isn’t to say that the first drag racer ever recognized as Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing (1996) won’t be a factor in the Auto-Plus Nationals. Contender or pretender, he almost always has an impact when the tour moves to Pennsylvania.
In 2009, for instance, it was his decision to swap crews and crew chiefs with teammate Robert Hight at Maple Grove that inexplicably jump-started the latter’s unlikely championship bid.
A year later, it was Force who lost the points lead at the Grove when a clutch failure took him out on the burnout before his first round match with Dale Creasy Jr. He responded by rallying his team, winning the final two races and claiming the title.
After losing the championship to Cruz Pedregon in 1992, he rebounded a year later and clinched with a win at Maple Grove – with three races still remaining.
Nevertheless, Force’s focus this week is on 2001, the last year the race was contested on Oct. 7. That’s because he qualified No. 1, posted quick time and top speed during eliminations, lowered the NHRA national record for the quarter mile to 4.731 seconds and won the race.
He thinks he can do all of that again and, the thing is, who’s going to tell him he can’t?