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.”
PHOTO FINISH OR TOTAL DOMINATION?
Some round wins are better than others, and for Top Fuel racer Morgan Lucas, as for most drivers, the close ones are the best.
“Those are the ones you really remember,” says Lucas, driver of the GEICO dragster. But a neck-and-neck Top Fuel race isn't like a last-lap dash in other forms of racing. First, the cars are going waaaaay too fast, obviously, and second, drivers can't actually see their opponents to know just how close the race really is.
“The body around the roll cage is so high, and you're sitting so far back in there, that you can't see any part of the other car – not unless you're way behind, anyway,” Lucas explains. “But if it's close, you can hear him. It's like a blind person's other senses getting sharper. When the other guy is just a few feet ahead of you, it's even louder, I guess because his engine is right across from your roll cage.
“If he drops a cylinder or something and falls back, you can hear that, too – the pitch changes. And if the other guy smokes the tires and you win by a mile – especially if you make a really good run – it's almost like you wasted it.”
DO YOU EVER GET USED TO IT?
Funny Car ace Ron Capps (RIGHT) has started every NHRA race since the 1990s, and even he doesn't know what his car's going to do when he crawls into the seat for another run.
“Some of the nervousness you used to feel during pre-race introductions or while you're sitting there all strapped in, listening to the cars in front of you, goes away after you've been doing this long enough,” says Capps. “But with a Funny Car, there's still that uncertainty about what the car's going to do when you step on the gas. They're just completely unpredictable. John Force has been doing this longer than anybody, and he'll tell you the same thing. You know what the car's supposed to do, but you don't know what it's going to do. Every time I stage, I'm expecting something out of the ordinary, because there are just so many things that can go wrong. But that's why I've wanted to drive one since I was a little kid.
“The first test day of the season is always one of my favorite days of the year,” he adds. “That first time you warm it up on the jack stands, there's 8,000hp belching and snorting two feet in front of your face – and it's just idling. Then you step on the gas for that first run and hear the noise and feel the raw power and the unbelievable G-forces, and it's like you're starting all over again. It reminds you just how badass these cars really are.”
REFLEXES: NATURE OR NUTURE?
Why are some drivers better on the Christmas Tree than others? Do some people just have better reflexes, or is it something you can work on?
“Both,” says Shawn Langdon (RIGHT), the quickest-reacting driver in Top Fuel. “It takes natural ability, of course – some people are just quicker than others – but I think a lot of it is your mindset going in. There's a huge difference between telling yourself you're going to have a .050 light and thinking, ‘Oh, I hope I get at least a .070.' “
Langdon came up in the NHRA sportsman divisions of Super Comp and Super Gas, where it's not the heads-up, all-out sprint to the finish that professional racing is, and where the performance of the car usually has less to do with winning and losing than a driver's reaction times do.
“So much of racing is mental,” Langdon says. “Your attitude can be the difference between a .045 light and a .065 light, and it can be the difference between having a good light and red-lighting. Tell yourself not to red-light, and that's right when you'll either red-light or be dead late trying not to. Some people psyche themselves out before they even get there.”
WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BLOW UP?
“There are two kinds of blowups,” says Top Fuel veteran Larry Dixo. “The first is when the engine's burning itself up way before the finish line. You can feel the car start nosing over – that's your warning, the only one you're going to get.
“If it happens in qualifying, you shut it off because things are only going to get worse. If it's eliminations, you stay in it and hope the finish line gets there before the engine levels itself. The thing doesn't just have its tongue hanging out; its tongue's hanging out so far that you're driving over it. You already know you're bringing a dead horse back to the pits either way, so you just keep your foot in it and hope for the best. And that's the good kind of explosion.”
The other kind is worse...
“It usually happens when something in the valvetrain breaks, and there's never any warning,” Dixon says. “That's when they really blow up. Everything will be going fine, no problems at all, and then boom – it blows up and throws your head forward. That's when the fire burns your helmet so bad the paint starts running off of it. Those, you never get used to.”
and you've got races decided by a couple hundredths of a second all the time. Sometimes it's thousandths – sometimes it's even 10-thousandths.
PRO STOCK ROCKS!
Pro Stock cars don't shoot fire from the exhaust or shake the ground like nitro cars when they launch, but they have their own unique appeal. And, to some fans, particularly those in NASCAR country, they are drag racing. Who better to extol the virtues of the fastest gas class in drag racing than the Pro Stock racer many consider the best pure driver ever, four-time world champ Jeg Coughlin? Here's his take on what makes Pro Stock great…
Most races are decided by less than a car length
The entire field at any given race is usually separated by just five-hundredths of a second, from the No. 1 qualifier down to No. 16, and you've got races decided by a couple hundredths of a second all the time. Sometimes it's thousandths – sometimes it's even 10-thousandths.
We're on the edge on every run
If you're not, you lose. If you're not really pushing it on the Christmas Tree and your shift-points, or your crew chief isn't on the ragged edge with the clutch, gearing and downforce, your win light's not going to come on, because the guy in the other lane will be. You can't leave anything on the table, ever. I've probably won only three or four rounds in my whole career when I made a mistake. Even a little one, and the party's over.
No other class has the level of engine development
Our program is on the same linear path as the engine program for a NASCAR team, only we're not spending 28 to 30 million dollars a year... Those guys get their hands on parts and materials from all over the world, and it's been going on in Pro Stock for eight or 10 years now, too.
Ours still look like actual cars
Fans come up to me at the ropes all day long and say how they're pulling for me because I'm driving a Chevy. I'm sure it's the same thing for Allen Johnson with Dodge fans and Larry Morgan with Ford fans. Funny Cars are a long way from what they started out as in the early days – they've had to, to get the downforce they need to go that fast – but my Cobalt still looks a lot like the production car.
They drive (somewhat) like real cars, too
My car has a pedal clutch and a 5-speed transmission, not high-gear-only and a centrifugal clutch like a fuel car. You pop the clutch to leave the line, shift gears with your right hand and steer with your left.
We still race a full quarter-mile
The race isn't over at 1,000ft, like it has been in Top Fuel and Funny Cars for the last few years. In Pro Stock, things are just getting interesting at 1,000ft. Whoever I'm racing, he probably isn't half a car ahead or half a car behind me.
MORE “PRO” THAN “STOCK”
Pro Stockers are the closest cars to actual production vehicles in all of professional drag racing, but they're a lot more “pro” than “stock” and have been since the class's inception in 1970. They're purpose-built racecars, with $125,000 chromoly tube chassis and, unlike Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, full suspensions.
Pro Stock cars have infinitely adjustable shock absorbers on all four corners and a four-link suspension in the rear. “The shocks have undergone more development than probably any other area of the car over the past few years,” says Jeg Coughlin. “They self-adjust during the run. They're relatively stiff for the launch, then adjust with pneumatically operated timers to be a little softer for all the bumps downtrack.”
The engines are radically refined, carbureted, gas-burning 500cu.in. monsters, and gains on the dyno don't come in dozens of horsepower anymore, but rather one or two at a time. Finding even a few additional horses over a long winter of dyno testing constitutes a monumental success. Drivers leave the starting line at between 6,500 and 7,000rpm – higher at night and on tracks with tacky starting lines, lower during heat-of-the-day rounds.
Power is transferred through a tiny, 6.25-inch, 3-disc titanium clutch to a 5-speed transmission. Drivers don't push in the clutch pedal to change gears – their right foot is buried in the throttle for the full quarter-mile – but they still have to shift manually, four times in the first four seconds of each six-and-a-half-second pass. The shift point is about 10,400rpm, give or a take a couple hundred rpm. Exact rear-end ratios, like everything else in Pro Stock, are a highly guarded secret, but the average team on the average track has a 5.30:1.
The wheelbase is about 105 inches, and the car has to weigh 2,350lbs (including the driver) when it crosses the scale after each pass. “Pro Stock isn't like a lot of classes, where you might think about running the car a little on the heavy side, just to be sure you make weight,” Coughlin says. “We're all running so close together now that everybody's pretty much on the minimum, from 2,350lbs to, at the most, 2,355. You can't afford to give anything away anymore, not even one pound.”
IT'S CONTROLLED CHAOS
Six drag racing aces try their best to describe the indescribable – letting loose an 8,000hp nitro car!
Ashley Force Hood
“It's not fast – it's beyond fast. It's violent. It's just this heaviness on your chest – on your whole body, really. You feel like you can't breathe in or out. I got the wind knocked out of me one time when I was a kid, and this feels just like that, like you can't breathe.”
“It's controlled chaos! It's amazing the engine doesn't explode every time you hit the throttle, and it's two feet in front of your face. The smell, the noise, the vibration…it's like your whole world's coming apart. You squint your eyes and grit your teeth, and if anybody says they're in control for the first half-second, they're lying – you can't even see.”
“It's not like anything you could ever think of if you haven't done it before. It's the most Gs you've ever felt on any roller coaster you've ever been on in your life – times three. All that force and all that pressure against your body is just indescribable.”
“It's like being the rock in a slingshot. There's no progression to it; it's just instant Gs. You go from a dead stop to hanging on for dear life. It's a struggle to stay on top of it, and to hold your head in position, from the starting line to the finish line, every single time.”
“It's like a runaway freight train. It's like driving a semi down a mountain with 80,000lbs behind you and no brakes. The thrill is trying to keep all of that horsepower under control. You're on the line, and out there is the unknown. What's it gonna do this time?”
“It's like taking off in a rocketship with three boosters. At 150ft, the first afterburner kicks in and you accelerate even harder – and you were already going 200mph. Then, at 500 or 600ft, another afterburner kicks in like a sonic boom. My first run, I thought, ‘You've got to be kidding me. This is ridiculous.'"
GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT
It took Hector Arana two decades of struggle and perseverance to become an overnight success in Pro Stock Motorcycles. Can the 2009 champion do it again this year?
Drag racers are usually oblivious to what's happening outside of their own category and even outside their own team, but competitors all across the sport were thrilled to see overdue Hector Arana bring home the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in 2009.
“I always told my kids, ‘Anything is possible. Never give up,'” says Arana, who struggled for nearly 20 years to compete with the top teams. “I used to leave for races, and the kids would be all excited. As soon as I'd get home, they'd ask, ‘Did you win, Dad?' No. Next time, ‘Did you win?' No. After a while, they quit asking. They got older, and one day it dawned on me: They're not even asking if I qualified anymore.”
It wasn't all bad in those seasons of near-perpetual struggle, and there were some days when the sun shone briefly on Arana. He qualified No. 1 and set low e.t. at the 1994 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., and he earned a pair of final-round appearances and a few top-10 finishes later in the 1990s. He was runner-up to three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion John Myers at the 1997 Slick 50 Nationals in Houston and to three-time champ Matt Hines at the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., later that year.
The one against Hines hurt the most. “I had it won but the chain broke,” Arana says. “Matt didn't even make a good run, but all I could do was sit up and watch him ride away from me. I thought, ‘Years are going by…when's it going to happen?'”
For 10 long years, it didn't look like it ever would. From late 2000 through mid-2007, short weekends became the norm, as Arana failed to qualify 34 times from 35 attempts.
“I'd work all the time, never take a vacation,” Arana says, “I'd think, ‘What am I doing wrong? What kind of example am I setting for my kids? The only thing they're going to learn is, ‘Why should I kill myself all the time like my dad? For what?' But I always kept believing that one day I would win.”
Finally, increased backing from his longtime sponsor Lucas Oil, whom Arana credits for much of his success, and engine-development work from Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan started to turn everything around.
By 2008, Arana, no longer trying to do the work of five men, was getting faster by the race. At the Norwalk, Ohio, event that June, he finally went the distance, defeating veteran Craig Treble in the final for his first NHRA event title. Even Treble was happy for him.
“What a relief that was,” Arana says. “Two of my boys were there, and that made it really special. ‘See?' I told them. ‘You really can get what you want if you keep going.'”
Last year was even better – a whole lot better. At the season opener in Gainesville, Fla., Arana set low e.t. for the first time in 15 years and top speed for the first time in 12 years. And, most important, he won, putting it away past champion Matt Smith in the final round.
Arana closed the pre-Countdown part of the season with victories at the final two events, the Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., and the sport's most prestigious race, the U.S. Nationals, in Indianapolis. He didn't lose a bit of momentum when the Countdown to the Championship playoffs began, lowering the Pro Stock Motorcycle national record to 6.85sec in Memphis, winning in Charlotte and Dallas, and finishing second in Las Vegas.
“It's just as hard to ride as it ever was,” he says. “You have to be right on the edge at the starting line or you'll be late, and it's so easy to red-light. And, if you don't, you'll get beat on a holeshot, guaranteed. But it's a whole new feeling to race with the combination I have now. I feel like I can win any race we go to.”
Arana didn't win a race in the 2010 regular season, but still made four final-round appearances and entered the Countdown to the Championship ranked number 2 after leading much of the way. He has at least as good a shot at the title as anybody on two wheels and, of course, he already has one in his pocket.
“Last year was everything I could ever have dreamed of,” Arana says, “especially after all those years.”
ARANA: THE MILESTONES
1990 Pro Stock Motorcycle debut – Indianapolis
1991 first round-win – Gainesville
1993 first semifinal appearance – Indianapolis
1994 first No. 1 qualifier – Gainesville
1994 first Top 10 finish
1996 first Top 5 finish
1997 first final-round appearance – Houston
2005 qualified for the only time from Oct. 2000 to May 2007 – St. Louis
2007 first six-second run – Englishtown
2007 first round-win in eight years – St. Louis
2008 first victory (and first final in 11 years) – Norwalk
2008 qualified for all 16 events for the first time
2009 first NHRA championship (five wins in six final-round appearances)