Age just a number: At 70, John Force ready to win 17th Funny Car crown

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It’s a funny thing what a boost in job security can do for someone.

Just hours after it was announced Monday that legendary NHRA Funny Car driver John Force had agreed to a new multi-year contract extension with Chevrolet, Force and his Camaro went out and won the biggest race of the NHRA season, the 65th Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

“I want to thank Chevrolet and everyone who has faith in John Force Racing,” Force said in a media release. “I’ve got a job to do and that’s to win and sell Chevrolet cars and trucks.

“They want winners and I told them we’d give it everything we’ve got and that’s all you can do.”

And that’s what Force went on to do later in the day, giving the bow tie company its first Funny Car crown at Indianapolis since 2005. Could a Funny Car championship be not too far behind?

But Monday’s announcement and subsequent win isn’t just about keeping the Chevy millions flowing in the coffers of both Force and John Force Racing for the next several years. Rather, it was a confirmation that Chevy believes the ageless – but in reality, 70-year-old – Force is still viable, still competitive and, most importantly, still has the potential to win championships.

“I’m the oldest guy to ever win (the U.S. Nationals in Funny Car),” an extremely excited and animated Force told Fox Sports after climbing out of his race car. “That goes to show you, get off that couch, get a life, don’t let anybody tell you you’re already dead. I was dead 20 years ago and I’m alive! We got it, we won Indy at 70!”

Later, after reigning in his emotions and visiting the media center, Force talked more about winning Indy and what it means.

“Someday I’ve got to go out that door, and I’ve said two things: It would sure be nice to win a championship and it would sure be nice to win Indy one more time,” Force said. “This race really meant a lot. I didn’t think I would ever get the chance again and I didn’t think I could be that good with the right team that supported me.

“Racing is what I love to do and I love it so much. Winning Indy, it’s the biggest thing on my bucket list. I never thought I would get the chance again no matter how good I was. This was a big moment for me.”

Photo: NHRA

When the Southern California native won his 16th and most recent championship in 2013, he became the oldest Funny Car champion in NHRA history. He followed that up with a runner-up finish in the 2014 season, and earned multiple wins – four to be precise – as recently as 2016.

But since then, Force has admittedly struggled. He managed just one win in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons and his championship hopes faded early in the playoffs each season. While it’s hard not to think that Force will always be a force, no pun intended, in both races and championship battles, there was a growing concern among some that maybe Force’s viability and winning and championship potential had not just slowed down, but maybe reached its end.

Force’s long-time sponsors, Castrol Motor Oil and Ford both parted ways with him after the 2014 runner-up season. It was the scariest time of Force’s career, as he had no idea where his next dollar would come from or much of his four-car race team, as well as if he himself might be forced into involuntary retirement.

That’s when Chevrolet stepped in with a five-year partnership to start the 2015 season, reuniting with Force after a nearly 20-year separation, along with primary sponsorship coming aboard from Peak Lubricants, which gave Force a lifetime contract. Those two elements not only saved John Force Racing, they particularly saved John Force, racer.

Now, with the way the 2019 season has unfolded, you can throw any doubt about Force and what he still can do out the window. He’s enjoying not only his best season since 2016, he enters the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs ranked No. 2, right behind son-in-law and John Force Racing president Robert Hight, who has been having his own monstrous season.

And as the NHRA leaves Indianapolis and heads to Reading, Pennsylvania in two weeks to begin the Countdown, if any Funny Car driver, opposing team owner, reporter or fan had already counted out Force just because he’s 70, they will be sadly mistaken.

“This is just incredible that someone my age could do this again,” Force said after Monday’s final round win. “Don’t let anybody tell you you’re too old. Get up and stay alive, keep moving. I’m trying to fight the old man every day. You know I started hearing ‘you’re 70, this thing is over’ and it’s really true, it’s how bad you want it.”

Force obviously wants it bad, real bad. He’s driving with an attitude and performance that is classic John. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say Force is driving as good as he was 20 years ago … well, at least as good as he was in 2016 or 2014 or even 2013.

While he’ll be in a real dogfight with his son-in-law Hight – it should be interesting how Christmas dinner with the family will be this year if one denies the other the championship – Force definitely seems up for the challenge.

He needs six strong performances in the playoffs. Or at the very least, six consistent performances. But given that Hight has won five of the first 18 races, Force is going to have to give everything he can to win championship No. 17.

Or maybe Force could always threaten Hight with being fired if he doesn’t let the boss win. But that’s another story for another day.

The reality is after not having won at Indianapolis since 2002, Force finally did so in his 40th appearance at the sport’s so-called “Big Go” on Monday, passing Don “Snake” Prudhomme and tying him with former racer Ed “Ace” McCulloch for most Funny Car wins (five) at the U.S. Nationals.

Photo: NHRA

Force (3.919 seconds at 324.44 mph) defeated the race’s No. 1 qualifier, “Fast Jack” Beckman (3.940 seconds at 325.42 mph) in the final round Monday to take home the “Wally” winner’s trophy.

“Racing is what I love to do,” Force said after that race. “Winning Indy is the biggest thing on my bucket list and I never thought I’d get the chance again.”

One month ago (in Seattle), Force achieved yet another milestone by earning the 150th national event win of his career. Monday, he started on his next 150 wins. And even though he’s now a septuagenarian, and given his personality and youthful exuberance, it would not be surprising to see Force race another 30 years and make it to 300 wins.

“This is a big moment for me. I’m having an emotional day because I won Indy,” Force said. “I owe this sport for so much. I love NHRA that has given me so much. It doesn’t matter what you do in life, you do it because you love it and I love it and when you don’t do good you do the best you can. This race really meant a lot to my girls, to my grandkids, a lot of my family was here.

“There are a lot of guys with a lot more talent than me. They just don’t have a race car with the money and the right crew chief, Brian Corradi, Danny Hood and Tim Fabrisi. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones,” Force continued. “I’m racing guys that are young. You know, I just love these people. Beckman, this guy’s the best out here on the tree. Robert Hight, I can’t beat him but he smoked the tires (in their quarterfinal matchup Monday). It’s just like somebody wanted me to win this race.”

NOTES: The NHRA national tour is off this weekend, preparing for the start of the Countdown, September 12-15, with the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Penn.

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65th Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals statistics:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta; 2. Billy Torrence; 3. Antron Brown; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Shawn Reed; 6. Brittany Force; 7. Mike Salinas; 8. Steve Torrence; 9. Clay Millican; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Jordan Vandergriff; 12. T.J. Zizzo; 13. Richie Crampton; 14. Wayne Newby; 15. Scott Palmer; 16. Leah Pritchett.

FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. J.R. Todd; 4. Matt Hagan; 5. Bob Tasca III; 6. Ray Martin; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Jonnie Lindberg; 10. Paul Lee; 11. Ron Capps; 12. Tim Wilkerson; 13. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 14. Bob Bode; 15. Justin Schriefer; 16. Cruz Pedregon.

PRO STOCK: 1. Alex Laughlin; 2. Erica Enders; 3. Jason Line; 4. Deric Kramer; 5. Bo Butner; 6. Greg Anderson; 7. Jeg Coughlin; 8. Val Smeland; 9. Kenny Delco; 10. Chris McGaha; 11. Richard Freeman; 12. Steve Graham; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 16. Matt Hartford.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Andrew Hines; 3. Matt Smith; 4. Eddie Krawiec; 5. Hector Arana Jr; 6. Joey Gladstone; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Karen Stoffer; 9. Angelle Sampey; 10. Steve Johnson; 11. Ryan Oehler; 12. Cory Reed; 13. Chris Bostick; 14. Hector Arana; 15. Kelly Clontz; 16. Angie Smith.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Doug Kalitta, 4.144 seconds, 212.43 mph def. Billy Torrence, 4.220 seconds, 206.01 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.919, 324.44 def. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.940, 325.92.

PRO STOCK: Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.648, 207.43 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.773, 206.80.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.851, 195.25 def. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.721, 330.07 def. Clay Millican, 3.721, 324.59; Shawn Reed, 3.772, 320.51 def. Leah Pritchett, 20.604, 20.91; Antron Brown, 3.723, 328.22 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.790, 322.50; Brittany Force, 3.701, 327.66 def. T.J. Zizzo, 3.801, 323.12; Billy Torrence, 3.731, 326.87 def. Wayne Newby, 5.401, 129.16; Steve Torrence, 3.734, 326.71 def. Terry McMillen, 3.781, 325.85; Mike Salinas, 3.714, 328.94 def. Scott Palmer, 8.232, 89.44; Austin Prock, 3.712, 330.15 def. Richie Crampton, 4.933, 142.70;  QUARTERFINALS — B. Torrence, 3.719, 327.11 def. Reed, 3.761, 323.27; Prock, 3.948, 304.39 def. Salinas, 4.082, 222.62; Kalitta, 3.757, 327.98 def. Force, 3.761, 322.19; Brown, 3.785, 323.58 def. S. Torrence, 4.772, 111.45; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.766, 328.22 def. Prock, 8.991, 80.92; B. Torrence, 3.757, 324.44 def. Brown, 4.768, 156.06;  FINAL — Kalitta, 4.144, 212.43 def. B. Torrence, 4.220, 206.01.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.891, 326.48 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.438, 193.65; John Force, Camaro, 3.858, 329.58 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 3.943, 323.19; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.892, 329.02 def. Bob Bode, Mustang, Broke; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.899, 328.86 def. Justin Schriefer, Charger, Broke; Ray Martin, Toyota Camry, 3.979, 323.04 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.097, 270.86; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.918, 326.56 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, Foul – Centerline; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.895, 328.70 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 9.686, 88.23; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.870, 327.82 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 4.017, 316.38; QUARTERFINALS — Todd, 3.900, 329.10 def. Martin, 4.256, no speed; Hagan, 3.939, 320.89 def. Langdon, 12.468, 68.70; Force, 3.913, 326.95 def. Hight, 13.016, 71.18; Beckman, 3.922, 325.61 def. Tasca III, 3.943, 326.95; SEMIFINALS — Force, 3.940, 330.88 def. Hagan, 13.019, 75.31; Beckman, 4.065, 250.09 def. Todd, 4.547, 193.71;  FINAL — Force, 3.919, 324.44 def. Beckman, 3.940, 325.92.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Deric Kramer, Chevy Camaro, 6.600, 208.30 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.656, 207.59; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.613, 207.53 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.614, 208.65; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.593, 209.04 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.677, 208.23; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.603, 207.15 def. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.633, 207.53; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.579, 209.56 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.653, 203.92; Val Smeland, Camaro, 7.176, 166.64 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 7.684, 132.48; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.598, 209.20 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.597, 207.56 def. Richard Freeman, Ford Mustang, 6.627, 208.04; QUARTERFINALS — Laughlin, 6.622, 207.88 def. Smeland, 12.152, 72.15; Kramer, 6.597, 209.17 def. Butner, 6.617, 208.71; Enders, 6.609, 207.94 def. Anderson, 6.617, 209.07; Line, 6.597, 209.14 def. Coughlin, 6.623, 208.04; SEMIFINALS — Enders, 6.627, 207.56 def. Line, 6.617, 209.30; Laughlin, 6.619, 207.59 def. Kramer, 12.603, 70.36; FINAL — Laughlin, 6.648, 207.43 def. Enders, 6.773, 206.80.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.847, 195.36 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.998, 192.66; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.908, 194.44 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.924, 191.67; Scotty Pollacheck, 7.038, 190.51 def. Angie Smith, 8.065, 122.43; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.917, 193.93 def. Hector Arana, 7.102, 194.10; Joey Gladstone, 7.037, 189.02 def. Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, Foul – Red Light; Hector Arana Jr, 6.926, 194.30 def. Cory Reed, 7.029, 190.54; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.866, 195.14 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 7.173, 186.02; Matt Smith, 6.892, 196.59 def. Chris Bostick, Suzuki, 7.043, 185.59; QUARTERFINALS — Krawiec, 6.932, 194.63 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; M. Smith, 6.883, 196.82 def. Stoffer, Foul – Centerline; Hines, 6.872, 195.82 def. Pollacheck, 7.029, 191.92; Savoie, 6.847, 195.08 def. Gladstone, 6.997, 191.46; SEMIFINALS — Hines, 6.914, 195.14 def. M. Smith, 6.933, 195.93; Savoie, 6.864, 194.91 def. Krawiec, 6.941, 194.55; FINAL — Savoie, 6.851, 195.25 def. Hines, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL REGULAR SEASON STANDINGS (Points will be re-set for Countdown):

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,742; 2. Doug Kalitta, 1,184; 3. Antron Brown, 1,109; 4. Brittany Force, 1,108; 5. Mike Salinas, 1,071; 6. Clay Millican, 1,058; 7. Leah Pritchett, 957; 8. Austin Prock, 931; 9. Richie Crampton, 842; 10. Billy Torrence, 819.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 1,481; 2. John Force, 1,376; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., 1,269; 4. Jack Beckman, 1,259; 5. Ron Capps, 1,234; 6. Matt Hagan, 1,165; 7. Bob Tasca III, 1,116; 8. J.R. Todd, 1,095; 9. Shawn Langdon, 997; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 863.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner, 969; 2. Alex Laughlin, 967; 3. Jason Line, 906; 4. Greg Anderson, 884; 5. Erica Enders, 853; 6. Deric Kramer, 818; 7. Matt Hartford, 809; 8. Jeg Coughlin, 745; 9. Chris McGaha, 630; 10. Val Smeland, 429.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 1,126; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 882; 3. Matt Smith, 839; 4. Hector Arana Jr, 743; 5. Jerry Savoie, 551; 6. Karen Stoffer, 527; 7. Angie Smith, 474; 8. Angelle Sampey, 462; 9. Ryan Oehler, 458; 10. Hector Arana, 449.

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Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”