Brainerd, Minnesota is known for its gigantic statues of legendary logger Paul Bunyan and his trusty sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox.
Come Sunday, however, Brainerd officials may want to consider a new statue to add to their civic heritage: that of legendary NHRA Funny Car driver John Force.
Now, the 16-time Funny Car champ grew up and still lives in Southern California. But Brainerd and Brainerd International Raceway have been the most important locations and racetracks to him in his 42-year career of racing a Funny Car.
Force has won 149 NHRA national events in his career, the most of any NHRA driver in history in any racing class. Brainerd has accounted for the most wins in Force’s annals: 11 wins in 32 appearances, meaning the 69-year-old Force has won more than a third of his starts at the northern Minnesota dragstrip. He also has won an uncanny 78.3 percent of elimination round wins (76 of 97) there in his career.
After capturing his 149th career win July 22 at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver, Force has been chasing his 150th career win for the last two races.
Now Force, who drives the PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS, has arguably the best chance to reach that significant milestone this weekend in the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.
Winning No. 150 is obviously a significant goal for Force. But it has another bit of added significance: a win – or even a runner-up finish – would likely clinch his spot as one of 10 Funny Car drivers to qualify for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Even with his win at Denver, Force comes into Brainerd ranked eighth in the Funny Car standings. His team struggled early in the season, but is making up for some of those rough times in the last several races.
“We’re not safe,” Force said of his bid to secure a Top 10 berth for the 34th consecutive season. “We’re better than we were, but there’s still a lot of work to do; still a lot of racing plus there’s extra points at Indy (one-and-a-half times as many as for any other of the first 18 events).”
John Force has scored 824 points in this season’s first 16 national events. But his youngest daughter, Courtney Force, has had the best season to date of any driver in the Funny Car ranks.
Courtney Force leads the class with 1,300 points, followed by 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (1,146 points) and John Force Racing president Robert Hight (1,085 points).
John Force has to hope he has strong performances not only at Brainerd and also the Chevrolet U.S. Nationals in two weeks in Indianapolis. If he struggles at one or both, there are several drivers who are fighting to make the Countdown, including 9th-ranked Shawn Langdon (736 points, 88 points behind Force), 10th-ranked Bob Tasca III (691 points, 133 behind Force), Tim Wilkerson (688 points) and two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon (641 points).
“We’ve just gotta keep going rounds and getting points,” said Force, whose last NHRA Funny Car championship came in 2013. “When you’ve got Langdon and Tasca and Cruz (Pedregon) and (Tim) Wilkerson all behind you, anything can happen. We have to take care of business.”
Qualifying starts Friday with sessions at 2:15 p.m. CT and 5:00 p.m. CT and continues Saturday at 1:30 p.m. CT and 4:30 p.m. CT. Eliminations start Sunday at 11 a.m. CT.
There are a few caveats about Brainerd for Force. While he’s the winningest Funny Car driver there, his last win there came in 2007. His last final round appearance was 2012 and 2014, when he lost to Capps. He lost in the semifinals last year to now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.
“We can’t worry about everybody else,” Force said. “We just have to not make mistakes. Everybody’s got to do his job. If that happens, we’ve got a chance. Mistakes have hurt us. No more mistakes.”