John Force gets ‘gorilla’ off back, ready to become King Kong again

(Photo: Gary Nastase Photography)
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John Force admits he’s probably been watching politics a little bit too much of late, particularly some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

After he won this past Sunday at Denver, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion couldn’t contain himself.

“I was like a little kid, I got kinda stupid,” he said. “I’m yelling it out, ‘We’re live on Fox. We’re going to make NHRA drag racing great again.’”

Force paused, and then sheepishly added, “It just kinda came out of me.”

But Force had good reason to be caught up in the moment: he had just won his first NHRA national event in over a year.

For a guy who has now won a record 144 races, going more than a year without a win was tantamount to coming out of a dark forest after being lost for nearly 13 months.

“I did a recent interview and the guy said, ‘Boy, you’re back.’ But I never really left. Mentally, I never left.

“But the problem is when you get in that battle and you’re getting whipped every week, whether it’s the Schumacher’s or Pedregon, Wilkerson or Kalitta that are beating you up, there ain’t a whole lot to say.

“You take your whipping and just keep fighting it. Now I have something to say.”

Indeed, Force has something to say – but then, he always does. The most popular and outspoken driver in NHRA history wants to make sure that the fans, and especially his fellow competitors:

“I didn’t just get a monkey off my back, I got a gorilla off it,” he quipped.

And now it’s Force who is ready to get back to his old King Kong form.

“Without a doubt, I’m going after a championship,” Force said. “That’s how (teammates) Robert Hight and my daughters think. That’s what we do.”

NHRA Drag Racing
John Force, left, after defeating daughter Courtney in the final round of this past Sunday’s race in Denver.

To say Force was excited after winning is an understatement:

“I was jacked. I started yelling, and I never do that if it’s my daughter or Robert Hight, if I’m lucky enough to beat ‘em. I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to rub it in, but man, my heart was pounding.

“I jumped out of the car at the end of (his winning) run and I wanted to be like Ron Capps. He always jumps up on his hood when he wins a race and he doesn’t hurt it.

“I wanted to jump up on that hood, I got out of the car, and I about fell off the side of the car. They had to catch me. … It was so funny. One of my guys said, ‘Old man, get off there, you’re going to kill yourself, get off that roof.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stand up there like Capps, I want to do this for live TV.’ I’ll tell you, I got a little crazy there.”

Winning at Denver brought back memories of the 1992 season, when Force was going for a third consecutive Funny Car championship.

“I remember we won championships in 1990 and 1991 and then here comes Cruz (Pedregon) with the hamburger stand from hell. He was sponsored by McDonald’s, and he beat us in ’92. I was having fits.

“We were going up to the race in Seattle, were in a McDonald’s drive-thru and my daughter Ashley said, ‘Dad, I want one of those McDonald’s cars.’ I wanted to break it. My wife said, ‘Are you losing your mind?’ I told her, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ This kid came out of nowhere.

“(Former crew chief Austin) Coil said, ‘Force, relax, he’d have to win the last five and we’d have to lose in the first round each time.’ And that’s what happened. Cruz just won everything. He found magic and we found stupidity.

“Then, the next year, we went out and won 10.”

That’s where Force is at now. One win down, nine to go – or at least he hopes in the remaining 10 races on the NHRA schedule.

While he may not win nine races, what he showed at Denver means Force and his team are capable of winning many more races in what had been a challenging season up until last weekend.

When he came off the mountain at Denver, Force had improved from ninth to eighth in the Funny Car point standings. But he still has more mountains to climb ahead of him, as he’s 299 points behind points leader Ron Capps.

But on the flip side, Force is only 60 points out of fourth place, currently occupied by two-time champ Matt Hagan.

That’s why Force is looking forward to this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

“The hill was big for us but when we got on that mountain (last week’s race at Denver), for some reason we had it all right,” Force said. “But trust me, when we get to Sonoma this weekend, they’ll (his Funny Car rivals will) be back. They didn’t like getting beat. They’ll all be back but we’re still learning, we’re still turning that corner.”

Force and Top Fuel counterpart, eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, both earned their first wins in over a year at Denver. So as the so-called Western Swing (Denver, Sonoma and Seattle) continues this weekend, Force and Schumacher both want to continue their newfound winning ways.

“The Western Swing is pretty special,” Force said. “Schumacher told me after Denver that we’re going to try to win the Swing, him and me. But he said, one thing if we don’t, nobody else can. So, we’ve fought everybody by this first win.”

Even though he’s now 67 in age, Force said he feels much younger in performance. He claims he never thought that his win at Epping, New Hampshire a year ago in June potentially could have been the last of his career.

“Nope, never did,” Force said. “First of all, I took a big financial hit.”

That he did. Force lost his two primary sponsors after the 2014 season when Castrol Oil (which had been with him for more than 30 years) and Ford (20 years) both decided to reallocate resources in other directions.

“You’ve got to be financial to stay alive,” Force said. “I put all that back together. That was my focus. Then I started building teams again.

“I told Jim Campbell (U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports) at Chevrolet that this wasn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take me time to put together. It fell apart. Financially, it killed me. I had big overhead and couldn’t pay it. I lost people, we weren’t able financially to test as much.

“Now we’re back in the game and we’re starting to turn the corner. I’ve got a team that’s young, with so much heart and hungry.”

Force had a number of drivers to get past en route to his win at Denver, none more important – or close – to him than his opponent in Sunday’s final round: his daughter Courtney.

The win over his youngest daughter was both bittersweet and humorous, and only Force can tell those stores in his own inimitable fashion.

First, the bittersweet aspect:

“You know what’s funny, I didn’t even know I’d won. She (Courtney) was right out my window all the way to the (finish) lights. I kept saying to myself, ‘Come on, baby, keep it in the groove, keep it in the groove, don’t be looking over at her.’ I promised I wouldn’t look over at her, I didn’t want to know she was there, because I get emotional (when he races) my kids and then you don’t fight the fight to win.

“You got to go in there like you want to tear their throat out, but how do you do that to your baby girl? I did look over and thought, man, she’s right out the window, and I knew she was faster than me.

“She did her job, she was right there. But when we cleared the lights, I didn’t see her anymore because she likes to drive by me (in the shutdown area).

“I told them, don’t talk about my daughter to me in the final. Everybody mentioned she was next to me, but I wanted to forget about her. I didn’t even want to look over to see her team. I needed to go do my lane, be a tiger and go after it.

“I didn’t want to know it was her, I gave it everything I got and the good Lord got us there. But I’ll take it because I needed it.”

And now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story on his win over Courtney – with the kind of humorous twist that only John Force can put on it:

“After the race, our teams went out to dinner. Courtney went to a pizza place with her team; she wouldn’t go to dinner with me. I said to her, ‘Are you still mad at me, honey?’ She said, ‘Dad, you just aggravate me.’

“I told her, ‘I needed it, I needed to get you.’ She said, ‘I know, you needed to win for Peak and Chevy to prove you were okay.’

“I told her, ‘They’re all looking at you. They love you, you’re beautiful, like your mom. You ain’t homely looking like me. I needed a win. Now, I need more. And she knows.’”

And so does every other Funny Car driver out there.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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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.”