John Force Racing isn't like other teams. Top 10 finishes mean nothing – it's the championship or nothing. For Force himself, even second place in the NHRA Funny Car standings is unthinkable, so imagine how he felt after finishing ninth, five spots behind teammate Robert Hight and four behind Mike Neff, who led the standings almost all year.
“I don't make excuses,” Force says of his lowest finish since 1984, which, not coincidentally, is the year before crew chief Austin Coil joined the team. “Matt Hagan beat us fair and square. I really have to give [Hagan team owner Don] Schumacher credit. Only a few have beat us over the years, and they did it. Schumacher has a machine now, just like I do. He's got personal wealth, too. I don't. I have to have a game plan.”
Last year, that meant agreeing to smaller deals to keep his sponsorships alive. “Had to,” Force says. “Look at all the teams that are going out of business. I took cuts to get five-year programs, and when money isn't falling out of the sky like it was four or five years ago, it really changes things. I used to build anything I wanted, hire anyone I wanted, test as much as possible. I couldn't just throw money at problems last year like I used to. After the season, I went to our sponsors. ‘Can we win the championship in 2012?' I asked them. ‘Without a doubt – we've won 17 in the last 20 years, haven't we?' But we needed more money.”
Now Force has it, and it's all going toward precisely what got him on top in the first place: personnel. “Coil made me who I am today. He left. [Former key member of the JFR brain trust] John Medlen is a genius. He left, too. I asked Robert where I failed, and he told me that it was in letting key people get away. I've got five corporations, you know? And I've been growing all these companies, but the people I had running my racecars were the same ones who were running the companies, and you can't have that. You can't have people running a racecar and running a machine shop, running a chassis shop, flying back and forth across the country all the time. I had them all over the place. Guido [crew chief Dean Antonelli, with Force, RIGHT] and Ron Douglas were testing [daughter Courtney's car, equipped with a restrictor plate] after every race and tuning my car. How am I ever supposed to run any good when these guys have two different tune-ups in their heads all the time?”
Of course, no one is ever busier or more distracted than Force. “My focus last year was Courtney, teaching her the business, letting her learn how to drive one of these things, trying to get her to study each driver. She says, ‘Why, Dad? I never did that in A/Fuel.' I said, ‘Yeah, well you never won much either, did you?'”
Last year, neither did Force. For the first time in his life – even going back to the bad old days when he had about as many fires as he did round-wins every year – he got knocked out in the first round of eliminations a staggering seven straight times. Force, who'll have more to deal with than ever this year as Courtney (LEFT) hits the tour full time and another daughter, Brittany, gets her feet wet in Top Fuel, ended the 2011 season that way, ousted in the opening round not just at all six Countdown to the Championship events but at the last race of the regular season.
“You have to have a car that the crew chief can pull back and still outrun everybody,” he says. “Last year, when we had to pull it back, we couldn't outrun anybody – all we did was smoke the tires. We spent the whole year trying to develop stuff for the future and didn't hit our ass.”
Neff and Hight did. Hight, the 2009 NHRA Funny Car champ, reached six finals and won five of them, a career high. Neff, who had tuned Force to the boss' 15th championship in 2010 and who had won just once as a driver before his return to the driving seat in 2011, dominated the first two-thirds of last season. He, like Hight in 2007 and Tim Wilkerson in '08, would have won the title if not for the Countdown format and if every race counted the same.
“We didn't have a bad year,” Hight insists. “Between the three of us, we won half the races [11 of 23]. We just didn't win them at the right time. We were having a great season up until the Countdown. Then we tanked.”
Neff, who serves as his own crew chief, won Gainesville in just his second start since '09 and later scored in Englishtown, Norwalk, Chicago and Indy, and, over one amazing stretch in the second quarter of the season, reached the final round at six of seven races. Hight opened the season with a victory in Pomona and won again in Las Vegas, Bristol, Topeka and Reading. Through the first 12 races, Force or one of his drivers won nine times, capped by Force's lone victory in Denver. But, in the Countdown, Force and Neff were shut out and Hight was held to a single win, in Reading. Even then, the team didn't gain much ground because Hagan opposed him in the final.
“We didn't do a good job in the Countdown – any of us,” Hight says. “John didn't win a single round, just like I didn't last year. Other people caught up to us and now they've passed us by. We changed too many things. You need to already have it together – not be hunting for something – when the Countdown starts. At Vegas, we all should have won the first round, and all three of us lost. We were terrible at two races – there and Phoenix – but with this Countdown, that's all it takes. That's not going to happen this year.”
For 2012, Force is bringing even more mechanical talent on board. He hired Danny DeGennaro, who helped Cruz Pedregon to a third-place finish in the 2011 Funny Car standings, and Dickie Venables, who was Tony Pedregon's crew chief when Pedregon won the 2003 championship driving for JFR.
“People keep asking me, ‘Are you nuts, Force? Why don't you just go hire everybody?'” he says. “Well, I ain't nuts. This is exactly what this team needs. The difference between right now and all our years of domination is that we fell behind on technology. You can't think, ‘This is John Force Racing. We always win.' We're at a crossroads right now. Do we accept losing and just be glad we're still a part of racing? I've watched that happen in NASCAR and IndyCar. Or do we do what it takes to get back on top?”
You know which one he chose.
“I'm not gonna just retire,” Force says. “I'm not walking away from all this. What the hell would I do all day? Kenny Bernstein just retired so he can do all the things he always wanted to do but never had the time for. Well, this is the only thing I ever wanted to do. I've never had any other dreams; this is my dream.
“There's no time to retire anyway – too many contracts are already locked in. I know how we dominated. I know where it came from: from building a brain trust. And that takes time. Austin and I were together for five years [1985-89] and didn't win a damn thing. I'd say, ‘Coil, what's wrong?' And he'd say, ‘You think this s*** happens overnight?' And he's right. It doesn't.
“Except I never give up. I'm always swimming, like a shark. If a shark stops swimming, he can't survive; he just sinks to the bottom of the ocean. And we ain't sinking to the bottom of the ocean. We've already fallen far enough.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.