(Photo: Gary Nastase Photography)

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

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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.

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Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.