One's got 14 of them, one's defending his first, and one's still pushing to join the club. Meet John Force Racing's title-chasing trio...
John Force Racing's three drivers – Robert Hight, the reigning NHRA Funny Car champion; Ashley Force Hood, John's daughter and maybe the most popular driver in drag racing, and John himself, the most prolific racer in the history of the sport – each bring a different perspective to this year's six-race Funny Car Countdown to the Championship.
Can Hight do what Force says is even harder than winning a championship in the first place – successfully defend one? Can Force Hood be No. 1 in the standings like she is in the hearts of fans? And can Force complete his miraculous comeback and win his first championship in four years, giving him a record 15th overall?
Force and Hight entered the Countdown 1-2 in the standings, but the playoffs points reset meant their lead over some contenders had been slashed from hundreds of points to a fraction of that.
“Nothing that's happened all year matters now,” says Hight, who won last year's title after starting the Countdown in 10th place. “These six races are everything, and you can't let the pressure get to you. The only pressure should be what you put on yourself anyway. You have to let all the rest go, or it will consume you.”
Only Force, who topped the standings as the playoffs began, could possibly wish someone else was in first place.
“I do,” he insists. “I know how stupid it is, but I hate being in the lead. Now everybody's chasing me. I've seen guys kill everybody all year, then they get in the Countdown and can't hit their ass. It's the pressure. You get down to these last few races and everything starts to mean a whole lot more.”
Daughter Ashley readily admits that it can start to wear on a driver.
“Some people excel under pressure, some don't,” she says. “I'd never say it doesn't get to me – it does. Last year, we were consistent all season. That's how you used to win a championship. Then we got to the Countdown, barely qualified in Vegas, lost to Robert in the first round and it was all over. You never forget a moment like that. You're like, ‘Wait a minute, two weeks ago everything was going great. Now, the whole year's gone.' We got so close, and we may never get that close again. In just four seconds, everything can change.”
Nobody knows that better than her dad, who has three times as many victories as anybody who ever strapped themselves into the cramped confines of a Funny Car.
“I've always been afraid it's about to end,” he says. “Don Prudhomme told me when I won my fifth championship, ‘Be happy, Force. That's the most anybody's ever won. One day, it will all just stop and you won't know why.' I still live with that gut ache every day, every single run, big or small. Doesn't matter. I have to win this round, this one right here, every time. Yeah, I've won 14 championships. Well, so what? I haven't done s**t for the last three years.”
This year, Force has battled his son-in-law, Hight, for Funny Car supremacy from the outset. Force dominated early, then Hight ruled in the second quarter of the season, and both have fended off challenges from Don Schumacher Racing drivers Ron Capps, Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan, each of whom scored at least once during the regular season.
“Anybody can win this thing,” Hight says. “Look at what I did last year: started last and finished first. The only reason I won that championship was because of the Countdown format. I was the underdog going in. Even we didn't think we could do it. We were already talking about making sure we were ready for 2010. Then we win the first two races of the Countdown and, all of a sudden, we're in first place.”
In the '08 Countdown, Cruz Pedregon, who had won just one race in the previous eight years, won three in a row and stole the championship from Hight and Tim Wilkerson. Hight just missed it not only that year, but in many others.
“I've had the points lead at some point in every year of my career,” he says, “but until last year, I was always second or third, never got the job done. After a while, you start to think, ‘Maybe I don't have what it takes...' Winning the championship last year eliminated that doubt from my mind. Now I know I can do it, and I'm not satisfied with just one. I want more.”
Who better to tell him how to do it than the greatest drag racer of the past 20 years, his own father-in-law? Who better to tell Ashley exactly what it takes to get that first one than her own dad?
“I've told 'em both everything I know,” Force says. “Don't read the paper. Don't listen to what the announcers are saying. Don't listen to the fans, either – unless they're cheering. Then believe every word they say. Don't change anything you're doing. It took me forever to learn how to win a championship, how to win one race, because I always used to fall apart under pressure. Then I figured it out: Just do what you already know how to do. You've gotten this far, haven't you? It doesn't matter how much money this round's worth. Doesn't matter who's in the other lane. In time, you learn how to deal with it.
“Robert and Ashley probably help me now more than I help them, to tell you the truth,” he adds. “You know why? Enthusiasm. They're racing just to race – to win. I've got a million things on my mind. I'm running a business here. I'm on overload all the time. I've got to keep this whole thing going. Them? They just want to race. They just want that championship. But so do I. It all comes down to turning that switch off when you get in the car, tuning out everything except what you're doing right then and knowing how to focus. And nobody knows that better than me.”
SHARING…TO A POINT
John Force's Funny Car teams share information just like other multi-car teams do. But it only goes so far...
“When Robert [Hight]'s team struggled last year, everybody else jumped in to help,” says Ashley Force Hood. “Problem is, each team runs its car a little differently, so even if they're all set up identically they won't necessarily run the same. Another team's information might even slow you down.”
“Everybody here shares everything they have,” says the boss, John Force. “But you get to a point where that's over.
“If we get down to a final and I go over to Ashley to talk to her about the track, ‘Guido' [Dean Antonelli, her crew chief] might say, ‘She's fine, John. Leave her alone.' You notice the drivers and crew chiefs aren't saying too much to each other after a while. If it's one of us against the other at the end of this Countdown, it'll be everybody for himself.”