Drag racing’s Force of nature

by Gordon Kirby on 1st December 2010

This is to salute John Force, who made what is surely this year’s greatest motor racing comeback. Force has been the king of NHRA Funny Car racing for 20 years but he had a bad accident three years ago, struggled in 2008 and ‘09, and then rebounded this year at the age of 61 to win his 15th NHRA championship.

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Force has been drag racing for more than 30 years. He won his first NHRA title in 1990 and took 10 consecutive Funny Car championships between 1993-2002. He won a 14th title in 2006, but ’07 was a black year for John Force Racing. That March Force’s promising understudy Eric Medlen was killed while testing one of his Funny Cars, and in the autumn Force himself crashed hard, breaking his arms and legs in a bad accident at Texas.

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Force suffered a compound fracture of his left ankle, a severe laceration of his right knee, a badly dislocated left wrist, eight broken fingers, a broken right foot and several broken toes. He underwent six hours of reconstructive surgery on the day of the accident and spent 28 days recovering at Dallas’s Baylor Medical Centre.

Before and after his crash Force’s team put a big effort into making a better safety cell around the driver, and Force returned to action in 2008. But he had an indifferent year, winning only one race. Last year he failed to make a single NHRA final. So he shook up his team over the winter, firing most of his employees but retaining long-time co-crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly. Force also took Mike Neff out of the cockpit of one of his cars and made him his personal crew chief.

The results were immediate. Force won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona and went on to make 11 finals, winning six of them. He led the Funny Car championship for most of the season, lost ground in round 16 with a clutch pedal problem, then won the last two races in Las Vegas and Pomona. So Force has become the NHRA’s oldest champion and the first drag racer to win titles in three different decades.

“I give credit to a great bunch of guys led by Mike Neff, teamed up with Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly,” said Force. “There was so much experience there and so many championships and Neff just brought a new energy to the team.”

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Force also thanked his doctors and therapists for getting his arms and legs back in shape to race. For the first time in his life Force has adopted a regular workout programme. “I feel like I’m 40 again! I’m still ugly, but I’m 40,” he said. “The sponsors and my wife and children were all behind me when I was in hospital. I said I was useless with no arms or legs. I couldn’t move with all those pins in me. But everyone told me to quit whining and get up and go.”

Crew chief Coil is as big a drag racing legend as Force. But the 65-year-old has decided to retire after 26 years with Force’s team. “There are highs and lows in life,” said Force. “Winning my 15th Funny Car championship was a high and I received a letter from Austin Coil two days later that was a low in my life. It hurt me. I tried to call him, but he didn’t want to talk. I told him I would respect that. All I can do is thank Austin Coil for his contributions to JFR and get my team ready to chase another championship in 2011.”

A reinvigorated drag racing hero keeps gassing it.

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