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Keeping Pace

Heartland Park an old friend to Force

The track is one of those on which the sport’s biggest winner has achieved results best described as “magical.” In 29 career appearances, John Force has taken a Castrol GTX Funny Car to the final round 14 times. He has won a record nine times and NEVER has he failed to make the starting lineup


Courtesy: NHRA Media Relations

Topeka, KN: At a time when he needs to start moving up in the NHRA’s Mello Yello point standings, John Force couldn’t find himself in a much more hospitable environment than the one provided by Heartland Park-Topeka, site of this week’s 25th annual Kansas Nationals.

The track is one of those on which the sport’s biggest winner has achieved results best described as “magical.” In 29 career appearances, Force has taken a Castrol GTX Funny Car to the final round 14 times. He has won a record nine times and NEVER has he failed to make the starting lineup.

The numbers indeed are impressive, especially his 69 round wins. That simply means that since the inaugural Kansas Nationals in 1989, Force has AVERAGED 2.4 round wins per event at Heartland Park.

Frankly, that’s the kind of success he expects – and needs – this weekend from a Castrol GTX Ford Mustang that has yet to race up to its 10,000 horsepower potential.

Coming in, the 134-time tour winner is only 12th in Funny Car points. He has advanced beyond the second round just one time in seven starts and while it’s true that he’s just four points out of the Top 10, he has yet to flash the kind of performance many expected after he was re-united with crew chief Mike Neff.

“We’ve been struggling,” Force admitted. “You know you can’t just go back to how it was. We’re not running the car we ran in 2010 (when he and Neff collaborated on his 15th championship). The technology changes and, at the end of the day, you’ve gotta change with it. We’ll figure it out and get ourselves back in the hunt.”

That could happen as early as Sunday. After all, despite his lack of production this year, the 2012 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame is better both physically and mentally than he was five years ago when he earned his most unlikely victory at Heartland Park.

His 2008 win was his first since suffering life-and-career-threatening injuries in a crash at Dallas, Texas, nine months earlier. It was a defining moment not only in his career, but in the development history of the fuel Funny Car.

Although doctors told him he’d be lucky to walk after suffering a compound fracture of the left ankle, ligament and tendon damage in his right knee and breaks in almost every one of his toes, Force, as usual, defied the odds.

He was back racing at the start of the 2008 season, strapped into a Castrol GTX Ford totally re-designed in only four months, a Force-driven project that represented the first major change in the basic configuration of the Funny Car in 25 years. It changed the sport for the better, not just for him, but for everyone.

Nevertheless, because of his injuries, few believed that the 15-time Auto Racing All-American still could win. Even after he beat Tim Wilkerson in the 2008 Topeka final, dissenters remained, those who considered the victory a fluke.

Two years later, though, Force again would win the title and apply a exclamation point by becoming the first Funny Car driver to do so as the No. 1 seed in the Countdown to 1 playoffs.

Now, he is facing a new group of skeptics who are sure that, at age 64, he finally has become a non-factor in the battle for the Mello Yello championship. Ironically, for Force, that’s that kind of open challenge that keeps the fire lit. It’s his motivation to do it one more time.


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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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