SEATTLE - Defying the data-sharing purpose of a three-car operation, each of John Force Racing's three Ford Mustangs opened the O'Reilly NHRA Northwest Nationals behaving wildly differently.
In the most severe incident of the weekend, the left rear tire on Robert Hight's Auto Club of Southern California entry exploded at just about 200 feet off the starting line. Points leader Mike Neff's Castrol GTX-sponsored Mustang dropped the parachutes far too early in his second qualifying pass. "I hate it when that happens," Neff said. "It feels weird. Just a bummer."
And Force's Castrol GTX twin to Neff's car zipped to the top of the Friday order with a 4.124-second elapsed time at 304.87 mph.
However, his provisional No. 1 qualifying celebration took a back seat to Hight's trouble. While he refused to blame tire manufacturer Goodyear or the much- and deservedly maligned Pacific Raceways surface for the tire detonation, Force seemed almost fatalistic
It was as if the event were unpredictable yet somehow inevitable, as if he were powerless to prevent it or explain it.
"If I thought it was the track . . . I had a man die and I crippled myself . . . If I thought it was totally the track's problem, then I wouldn't let my cars run. You think I want to go through that again?" he said, referring to Eric Medlen's fatal injuries from a testing accident in March 2007 and his own horrendous crash six months later at Dallas.
"The track is loose. We can't get down it. Let's be honest -- we could have run over something on the track. We could have had a tire go flat. We could have a body structure fly off and cut a tire. Sometimes you just don't know.
"I've had two catastrophics. If I thought somebody did something wrong, don't you think I would consider suing for the losses? I never have," Force said "It ain't because I love the sport. It's because John Medlen and all of us got together after evaluating it and said, 'S--- happens.'
"We're test pilots," he said. "That's what we are. Ain't trying to be no hero. At my age you don't want to be a hero, just want to make a living."
Almost a month later, neither Goodyear nor John Force Racing (of which Hight is President) had any definitive answers about the cause of the Seattle incident. The NHRA has not addressed the situation publicly.
John Force Racing took a painful financial hit with this incident at Seattle, just like it did at Pacific Raceways last year when Courtney Force lost a tire from her Top Alcohol Dragster near the end of a pass and in 2007, when Ashley Force (Hood) hit the wall.
"To recover from Robert's deal, I got to win the lottery to pay some of those bills," Force exaggerated only slightly. We lost the body, the paint and everything. That's close to 100-grand."
It was an economic blow he didn't need. It was the second JFR body destroyed in as many races. His own Castrol GTX Mustang launched the body high into the thin air at Denver two weeks earlier because of an engine explosion, and Force fumed then that he was on a tight budget "and I need my s--- in one piece."
Hight's Jimmy Prock-led crew hauled out a new chassis, made arrangements to send the battered one to the shop in Brownsburg, Ind., for inspection, and worked into the wee hours of the morning so Hight could continue competing. He qualified fourth Saturday, jumping from the No. 16 spot, and advanced to the semifinals.
Force refused to blame the tire or its manufacturer, and he wouldn't finger the notorious Pacific Raceways surface. Saying, "Everybody gets frustrated," Force defended Goodyear.
"If you can find a problem, you can fix it," he said. "If everybody wants to run around being mad, the first thing people want to do is blame the tire. You don't blame Goodyear. They give us tire and it works. Sometimes they fail.
"But do they really?" he asked. "Have you ever seen photos of when they run these tires? You ever see how hard you twist the tire and you tear the rubber out of it, trying to make it go down that racetrack? We abuse 'em, and I'm amazed they run as good as they do. I'm amazed."
He called the Hight incident "a queer deal" and said, "If the track's that bad and it's loose, then it ain't going to pull the tire off. When they tear at the other end, it's because drivers let off and traction's so great it grabs the tire and pulls it apart. At the other end, the tire's just flyin' and the guy lifts and the tire stops and then the traction grabs it and rips it apart. That's what happens.
"If a track's loose -- and it's obviously loose . . . no one's getting down it . . . unless it's so guerilla that it's shakin' 'em (the tires) but that ain't it. We're shakin' because we're spinnin'. And if you're spinning, that don't tear tires off. Somethin' freaky went on out there. I've never seen a car throw a tire at 200 feet. Sometimes it just happens. But we were lucky."
He said Hight told him right after collecting himself, "That could have been bad."
Force said that considering the circumstances, the result was a blessing: "The whole tire came off -- the whole tire. And that's lucky."
Reflecting on the two disastrous accidents in 2007, he said, "My tire stayed on, and so did Eric's. But we also have that three-rail chassis that will protect you. The thing's a dump truck. You couldn't break it if you dropped a crane on it."
Maybe he shouldn't invite any more ugly scenarios.
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