John Force: New sponsor, car, crew chief in 2015 — ‘We’ll be a contender, I give you my word on that’

His car says PEAK and Chevrolet now, but that’s still John Force behind the wheel as he prepares for the 2015 NHRA season. (Photo courtesy John Force Racing)

You’ve heard the old baseball axiom about you can’t tell the players without a scorecard?

Well, that’s kind of how it’s going to be for many fans of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force in 2015, at least early on in the season.

For the first time in 30 years, Force will not be carrying the green, silver and white Castrol Oil banner on the side of his Funny Car.

Instead, for most of this year’s 24 NHRA national events, Force will be behind the wheel of a car carrying the bright blue banner of PEAK Anti-Freeze and lubricants.

But wait, there’s more changes in the Force camp.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Force will be driving a Chevrolet Camaro body instead of a Ford Mustang body.

Thankfully, Force himself hasn’t changed. He’s still one of the most colorful, charismatic and fan-friendly drivers not only in the sport, but in all forms of sport.

“We’re in a tough economy, but corporate America, the world is out there starting to realize let’s rebuild America, and John Force, I’m going to help rebuild drag racing,” Force said in a recent NHRA teleconference. “I think we have a great product in NHRA. I think the leaders at the top are trying to get us to build this sport to the next level. We’ve got a lot of work, all of us to do, and if we work together, we’ll get there.

“I think Pomona (the season-opening Winternationals this weekend in Pomona, Calif.) is going to be a home run. I know how the fans are reacting to me coming back in the Chevrolet, and with PEAK Antifreeze, so bring it on. Bring on Hagan (defending Funny Car champ Matt Hagan). I’m ready for you, kid.”

source: Getty Images

Force is closing in on his fourth decade of Funny Car racing. He’ll be 66 on May 4, but has no plans of retiring – or even scaling back to a part-time schedule.

“Driving is what I really do,” Force said. “The rest of this stuff, it’s the day to day business that will wear and tear you. When I got to testing, everybody said my personality changed, because you get back into what you really love, and that’s driving a race car on the NHRA circuit.

“I can’t wait to get to the Winternationals. I’m excited because driving that car is I’m good at it. It’s not like they told me Jeff Gordon, I did some interviews that he’s going to be retiring, and boy, I’ve probably got 25 years on him. But retiring is not an option to me. I love what I do. I’m still good at it.

“Everybody is excited to see John Force back, and then I’m in business and back to my roots where I came from, General Motors. Life is good, but the car is what I do, and that’s what I get in it, I swear to God, I always said, one day at the end of the my career I’m going to drive naked and blindfolded. I believe I could still get the job done. It wouldn’t be pretty but I could get it done. I’m ready to drag race.”

Despite all the changes he and his team have gone through, Force has been ready to race since the end of last season.

Or maybe a better way of putting it is he wishes he had a few more races – or at the very least, a few more rounds within a race or two last season.

Force missed out on a record 17th NHRA Funny Car championship by ending up a mere 43 points shy of Hagan, with whom he has built quite the budding rivalry.

“I talked to Schumacher (Don Schumacher, team owner of Hagan’s Funny Car) the other day,” Force said. “I said, ‘I need to race you. You’re part of what drives me. You know what I mean? It’s what gets me up in the morning.’

“Hagan is one of his best, him and (crew chief) Dickie Venables. I’m ready, but Hagan will tell you, if he focused on me and I focused on him, well then (fellow drivers) Cruz Pedregon or Robert Hight or Courtney (Force) or Ron Capps is going to go around us.

“So what do we do? We take them a day at a time. I like Hagan because he’s respectful, and if he loses he’s respectful, and if he wins he’s respectful. Some guys find it hard to handle either way. But at the end of the day, it is hard when you lose. It was hard on me (last season), especially in the situation I was in.”

Force lost crew chief Jimmy Prock with two races remaining last season. Prock’s replacement, long-time John Force Racing employee John Medlen, then resigned after the season to join Prock as co-crew chief for the Schumacher-owned Funny Car driven by veteran Jack Beckman.

That triumvirate will put additional pressure on Force, who has named 27-year-old Jon Schaffer as his new crew chief for 2015.

“I’ve got a young team that put my hotrod in the threes (seconds in recent testing at Phoenix),” Force said. “Jon Schaffer, he was Little Jon, now we call him Big Jon, but he’s trained since he was 17 years old.

“… He’s proved he could get the job done. Young team, kind of an old guy over here, me, but it’s a balance, and we work great together.”

The way Force is going, with good health, new sponsors and a revitalized view on the sport, he may race until he’s 100 years old.

“Yeah, if I live to 100,” Force said. “I have days, I’m not kidding anybody, at my age I wake up and old muscles are aching, but I get down in that gym, and 30 minutes in that gym, I’m 20 years old again. Put me in that fire suit, I’m 16 years old.

“I stood on the start line with a young kid, Jon Schaffer, and I looked at this kid, and I thought, I have dumped the weight of the world on him. … I had a sit down with Jon. If we win, we win together. If we lose, we lose together. But as long as we’ve got the dream, we’re going to be okay.

“… Let’s see what we can do at Pomona. Could be terrible, could be great, but at least I get to go. And that’s what I love. I love NHRA. I’m sorry, I just do.”

Even though he came scarily close to not replacing Castrol or Ford, as he’s done so many times in his career, Force got the job done and in the end, all’s well that ends well.

“I’ve got to admit this time we got hit pretty hard, but in the midst of it, we recovered,” Force said. “That don’t mean we’re going to run out and win a championship right off the bat, but we’ll be a contender, I give you my word on that.”

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”