Funny Car winner Force: 'I am filling a hole in me.'

John Force rules again at the NHRA's Winternationals. The Funny Car icon won at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., for the sixth time. (Ron Lewis Photo)

POMONA, Calif. -- For many years, John Force was on cruise control in the National Hot Rod Association's Funny Car class.

He won 10 straight championships from 1993 through 2002, strung together 22 seasons with at least one victory, was the first NHRA driver ever to exceed 1,000 round-wins, and qualified at 395 consecutive races.

Then things fell apart for awhile, some of it literally. But after the 15-time champion drove his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang to victory Sunday in the season-opening Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway, he reflected on all the events that had shattered his comfort zone. And he expressed gratitude that it's being repaired.

Force himself fell apart with a crash at the Texas Motorplex in September 2007. He spent weeks in the hospital with agonizing multiple and serious injuries and even more agonizing days in the gym with physical therapy. Just six months before that, he -- and the entire drag-racing community -- had lost popular protégé Eric Medlen after a testing accident in Florida.

All the king's doctors and all the kings' men put Force back together again. But one by one, some of his core employees left.

Championship-winning crew chief Dickie Venables followed Tony Pedregon out the door in 2003, but in the past two years, both Austin Coil and Eric Medlen's 's father, John Medlen -- both pillars of the tech trust -- found other things to do.

"People left for reasons," Force said. "I didn't have a car for John Medlen. Dickie Venables left earlier with Tony [Pedregon] because he wasn't really in line to get his own car."

They're coming back, and Force said that was the key Sunday to his 134th victory and milestone 1,100th round-win as he beat teammate Mike Neff.

"The thing that really mattered to me was getting right," Force said, although he acknowledged that starting the season with the points lead never hurts.

"People don't understand," Force said. "When I lost Eric Medlen, my wreck was just like -- I felt, 'You deserve it. You screwed this thing up so bad you ought to have your arms and legs broke.' But losing Eric was a hole.

"Then when his dad left The Eric Medlen project he started with Ford engineers, it was like . . .'How did I screw this thing up so bad?' [John Medlen] walked into my shop two weeks ago and said, 'I want to come home. This is where my kid is.' I called [Roger] Burgess [of R2B2 Racing, where Medlen was working under contract] on it and he said, 'He needs to be with you, John.'

"I am getting them back, and I am filling a hole in me."

Force's career ledger filled in a gap Sunday, too, as he won the Winternationals for the sixth time. He defeated Alexis De Joria, Tim Wilkerson, and Gary Densham to reach the final round. There he met Neff, his 38th different opponent, who was competing in his 73rd race against Force's 588th.

"I dedicated the trophy to the brain trust: my crew chiefs Jimmy Prock, Mike Neff, Guido [Dean Antonelli], Ron Douglas, Bernie Fedderly, John Medlen, Dickie Venables, Danny [De Gennaro], and Scott Wible," Force said.

"It is amazing how we all pulled together before the final. All my brain trust was working on my Mustang and helping Neff. I knew Neff was going to spank me," he said. "His Castrol hot rod [was] fast all day. We have teamwork, and that is what will win us championships. I have done it before, and maybe we'll do it again.

"We got a group back to the way we used to think and function," he said. "This was a good start."

It could be a long season if Force get a strong foothold.

 

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