John Force ‘needed to get back in the car’ after painful 2020 hiatus from the NHRA

NHRA John Force returns
Brad McClenny/USA TODAY Sports Images
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — John Force returns to the NHRA by climbing on his scooter, turning the key and taking off.

He weaves between parked cars and waiting dragsters.

He dodges fellow drivers, track workers and fans on his way from the pits to the strip.

It’s the slowest pass he’ll make this week at Gainesville Raceway. It’s sure to be one of the most rewarding.

“Welcome back, John,” shouts one bystander.

“Glad to have you back,” yells a competitor.

Force gets waves, head nods and hat tips, all signs of respect for one of the most talented drivers and undoubtedly the best salesman to ever make a living at 300 mph.

The 71-year-old is back with the NHRA after a yearlong hiatus prompted by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The 16-time champion and patriarch of drag racing’s first family will make his return in the season-opening Gatornationals that begin Friday.

“I had it for 40-something years, and I took it for granted,” Force said Thursday. “When it was gone, I’m sitting over there, and nobody cares to talk to me and then you get sick looking at all the championships and trophies. I needed to get back in the car.”

Force reluctantly walked away last summer, opting not to race when the NHRA returned in July following a five-month break. It was a business decision made to salvage a company he built over five decades that had an $8.4 million annual payroll.

He looked at the depleted number of races and felt it would be better to sit out than try to give all-important sponsors less than what they’ve come to expect from one of drag racing’s top teams.

“To keep it all going, I would have been in trouble,” Force said. “And I couldn’t have recovered. I wouldn’t be here now if I would have stayed. That’s a fact.”

Force “spent a few million” out of pocket to stay afloat in 2020. He lost about half his 100-person staff at the start of the pandemic. Some of them landed at other companies in Indianapolis. Many of those who remained had their hours cut.

Instead of building dragsters, John Force Racing started outsourcing projects for other teams in other racing series. He says his team “survived” the pandemic, but acknowledged it is still going.

“I brought everyone back and now I’m going to pay them no matter what happens,” he said. “I made a lot of money over the years, and I’m going to spend it on keeping this thing afloat and to keep my company.”

John Force Racing will start the season with three of its four cars. Force was able to maintain sponsorship for himself, daughter and 2017 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, and team president and three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight.

JFR continues to search for sponsorship for driver Austin Prock, who remains employed and working as a crew member.

“You sit out a whole year and your mind starts to wonder if we’re ever going to get back to doing what we love,” Hight said. “You start thinking, `Am I ever going to get behind the wheel of a Funny Car again?’ ”

Hight had the unenviable task of telling Force the finances in 2020 wouldn’t work. Force parked a chair in front of Hight’s office daily and hounded him about the numbers.

“It was no fun,” Hight said. “John likes to micromanage. He likes to be involved in everything. He did not want to sit out, but it wouldn’t have worked for us financially. Now, we’re back. We have everything we need, including the people. We’re hungry and we’ve got to get it done.”

Neither Hight nor Force could bring themselves to watch races in 2020. Hight spent the extra time watching his daughter drive a junior dragster and got back into trap shooting. Force watched three grandkids race and welcomed another grandchild into the world.

He also hit the gym, dropping nearly 25 pounds – so much weight that he had to get his fire suits refitted.

“I learned how bad I was abusing my body,” said Force, who quit drinking after a series of crashes a few years ago. “I hated it mentally, but I think this time off did me good. It helped my health. My guys are saying you look like a different driver already.”

The results are evident, too. Despite having not been in a dragster since February 2020, Force turned in the low elapsed time during Funny Car testing last week in West Palm Beach, Florida. Hight posted the top speed in the class, and Brittany Force notched the best Top Fuel pass.

“I didn’t know if we would come out here and stink,” John Force said. “Up to now, we look OK.”

The real passes begin Friday in front of a reduced-capacity crowd, quite possibly the smallest one Force has raced in front of during his storied career. Regardless how many show up, he’s looking forward to it after spending the past year feeling like he let everyone around him down.

“I’m just thankful to be back here and doing what I love,” he said.

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Anaheim 2: Ken Roczen is consistency’s king

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Strength is found not only in outright wins, but also through consistency, which contributed to the rise of Ken Roczen in the SuperMotocross Rankings after Anaheim 2.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with the knowledge that he urgently needed change, so he declared himself a free agent, signed with Suzuki during the offseason and set upon 2023 with renewed determination. It worked. Roczen is one of three riders in the 450 class with a sweep of the top five and that consistency has given him the lead in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings.

SuperMotocross Rankings Anaheim 2
Like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield wall, Ken Roczen pointed his way to the Power Rankings lead. – Feld Motor Sports

This formula rewards riders who compete at the front of the pack at the end of the Mains, in their heats, or in last week’s case, the three motos that make up the Triple Crown. Roczen has improved his overall performance each week with a fifth in Anaheim 1, a fourth in San Diego and his first podium of 2023 in Anaheim 2. Can he keep the trend alive with a first- or second-place finish in Houston?

A fall is all it takes sometimes. Last week, Eli Tomac tumbled hard when he pushed wide on the exit of a turn and jumped on top of a Tuff Blox. He remounted after that incident in Race 3 of the Triple Crown, but could only manage a 13th-place result in the moto. It could have been much worse and resulted in an injury, but coupled with a sixth in the overall standings at Anaheim 2, it pushed him down a spot in the SuperMotocross Ranking.

Along with Roczen (and Chase Sexton), Cooper Webb swept the top five in Supercross’ first three rounds. He is knocking on the door of a win and it won’t take long for him to ascend to the top of the box. Webb has two victories in Houston and each of them came during a championship season.

If there is a more determined rider than Jason Anderson, get out of his way. His path to the front of the pack is not always lined with primroses since he often has to pass multiple riders with whom he has had a run-in during his path, but the SuperMotocross Power Rankings are concerned only with raw results – not intention – and Anaheim 2 was Anderson’s best race of the season. He earned his first top-five and first podium with a second-place finish that was aided by a moto win.

MORE: Triple Crown format shakes up A2’s finishing order

Dylan Ferrandis has also been a model of consistency. Last week his Triple Crown effort of 4-6-5 gave him an overall finish of fifth. That came on the heels of a fourth-place result in the season opener and a sixth in San Diego. With no result worse than sixth this season, the numbers add up quite well.

Sexton’s position just outside the top five this week is entirely attributable to his last-place result in the San Diego heat. The SuperMotocross Rankings looks at the past 45 days, so that will affect him for a while, but if he continues to ride like he did in Anaheim 2, he’s going to climb quickly despite that albatross around his neck.

450 Rankings

This
Week
Driver Power
Avg.
Last
Week
Diff.
1. Ken Roczen 84.63 3 2
2. Eli Tomac
[2 Main; 2 Heat wins]
83.25 1 -1
3. Cooper Webb 82.25 2 -1
4. Jason Anderson
[1 Heat win]
80.63 5 1
5. Dylan Ferrandis 78.75 4 -1
6. Chase Sexton
[1 Main; 3 Heat wins]
77.75 9 3
7. Justin Barcia 67.88 6 -1
8. Aaron Plessinger 67.63 8 0
9. Adam Cianciarulo 67.25 7 -2
10. Joey Savatgy 61.00 11 1
10. Marvin Musquin 61.00 12 2
12. Malcolm Stewart
[1 Heat win]
58.75 13 1
13. Christian Craig 56.13 14 1
14. Colt Nichols 56.00 10 -4
15. Dean Wilson 47.50 15 0
16. Tristan Lane 41.00 18 2
17. Grant Harlan 40.67 19 2
18. Justin Hill 40.57 16 -2
19. Logan Karnow 36.50 20 1
20. Alex Ray 36.00 21 1

Supercross Points


The 250 West riders get a couple of weeks off before heading to Oakland for the rescheduled Round 2 and several of them need the rest. Tough weeks for Cameron McAdoo and RJ Hampshire forced them to lose ground in the SuperMotocross points to Jett Lawrence at a time that could prove to play mental games.

Lawrence also had his share of issues at Anaheim 2, but overcame early falls in the first two motos and finished no worse than sixth. Considering that he dropped to the tail of the field in Race 2, that was a remarkable accomplishment and he entered the final race with a shot at the overall win. He narrowly missed that mark, but still has not finished worse than second in three rounds. His lead in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings is safe.

Cameron McAdoo rode with injury in all three Triple Crown motos, so his sixth-place finish was a moral victory. Cameron McAdoo, Instagram

McAdoo said it best in an Instagram post this week: “Woke up feeling grateful that I’m relatively healthy after my big mistake during qualifying yesterday. We made the decision that it would be safe for me to race so I did everything I possibly could to get through the night ending up [sixth overall]. We will work on getting healed up in these few weeks off to come back strong for Oakland!”

With results of 8-7-5 in the Triple Crown and his combined sixth-place result, McAdoo lost significant ground to Lawrence in both the points’ standings and our Power formula. The Oakland race is going to be critical if he wants to stay in the championship hunt because the series will have a long break before returning in Seattle for Round 11. No one wants to sit with negative feelings for that long.

Mitchell Oldenburg has quietly amassed some impressive numbers. His name has not been called a lot during broadcasts, but he has not finished worse than seventh in any of the first three rounds. Themes develop during a season and weekend – and for the moment, this one revolves around reliability. Oldenburg finished 5-4-6 in Anaheim 2 which means he has consistently amassed SuperMotocross Power Rankings points.

Stilez Robertson won his first race of the season in Moto 2 of the Triple Crown. Coupled with a third-place finish in the final race, he leapfrogged Hampshire and Enzo Lopes, both of whom had disappointing outings. He stands fifth in the points’ standing mostly due to a ninth-place finish in the season opener, but each race has been progressively better and that is a good sign.

Sometimes, all it takes is a taste of success. Prior to Anaheim 2, Levi Kitchen’s best Supercross finish was a seventh earned in this year’s season opener. He scored a ninth at Minneapolis last year, but that was not enough to put him on the radar. This early in the season, one strong run can sway the SuperMotocross Power Ranking significantly, but Robertson has earned his way into the top five. More importantly, he’s going to be the object of interest when the West series returns to Oakland.

Next week the 250 East riders mount up in Houston, Texas before they head to Tampa, Florida. The Power Rankings will combine the two divisions, so the riders below are likely to shift dramatically.

250 Rankings

This
Week
Driver Power
Avg.
Last
Week
Diff.
1. Jett Lawrence – W
[2 Main; 2 Heat wins]
89.13 1 0
2. Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat Win]
77.63 3 1
3. Mitchell Oldenburg – W 77.00 5 2
4. Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat win]
76.75 6 2
5. Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main win]
73.75 12 7
6. RJ Hampshire – W
[3 Heat wins]
70.00 2 -4
7. Max Vohland – W 69.29 8 1
8. Derek Kelley – W 63.75 10 2
9. Enzo Lopes – W 63.25 4 -5
10. Pierce Brown – W 61.29 13 3
11. Phil Nicoletti – W 59.25 7 -4
12. Dylan Walsh – W 56.00 9 -3
13. Cole Thompson – W 51.00 11 -2
14. Robbie Wageman – W 50.75 15 1
15. Anthony Rodriguez – W 49.00 14 -1
16. Ty Masterpool – W 47.50 16 0
17. Kaeden Amerine – W 47.50 16 -1
18. Dominique Thury – W 47.00 18 0
19. Austin Forkner – W 43.00 20 1
20. Derek Drake – W 42.33 21 1

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Ken Roczen moves up, Chase Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage