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Can Force do it again? Only three races remain in NHRA’s Mello Yello championship

October 3, 2013

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John Force surrounded by daughters Courtney and Brittany – Anne Proffit photo

It’s back to the future time in the NHRA, particularly in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car class. It feels kind of like 2010 all over again, when the seemingly ageless John Force put together a comeback appearance that gained the legend his 15th Funny Car title.

At that time, Force was playing chase Don Schumacher Racing’s Matt Hagan for the title, one he triumphantly glued together with wins in the final two races of the year. As the NHRA heads for Reading and the Auto-Plus Fall Nationals this coming weekend, Force stands just six points behind Hagan, who fell early in the most recent round in St Louis.

There are some integral differences between then and now, of course. Both drivers have had their triumphs and setbacks – Hagan took the title the following season and then failed to repeat, having a horrible campaign in 2012. His team was reconstituted for the 2013 Countdown to the Championship, as team owner Don Schumacher brought in Dickie Venables as crew chief. It’s been a revelatory change.

Similar things happened in the John Force Racing camp. Force put his enviable energy toward bringing daughters Courtney and Brittany into the Funny Car and Top Fuel classes, respectively. He lost the services of core tuner Austin Coil, who left the team after 2010, having instrumented all 15 titles for John Force.

John brought Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas to the tuner’s table when daughter Ashley Force-Hood left her seat, then had that duo move to Brittany’s and Courtney’s cars (respectively), stripped Mike Neff of his driver duties and had him tuning the Castrol Ford Funny Car. Mid-season this year he changed everything around again, moving Neff to son-in-law Robert Hight’s flopper and enlisting Jimmy Prock to tune John’s car. So far it seems to have worked out, hasn’t it?

Last weekend in St Louis, Force won the final round to take second place with three races remaining in the six-race Countdown. He joined fellow winners 2012 Top Fuel champion Antron Brown (who’s been mired in an inexplicable slump of his own), a resurgent Erica Enders-Stevens in Pro Stock (she missed much of the  later regular season with financial woes) and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle, who usurped former season-long points leader Hector Arana Jr to lead the category after St Louis.

It sure looks like all four championships in the Mello Yello pro NHRA standings will come down to the wire in Pomona like they usually do. The Pro Mod championship already belongs to Rickie Smith (father of Matt), who secured that crown last weekend.

Shawn Langdon has the lead in Top Fuel with five victories, but has Doug Kalitta, Spencer Massey, Morgan Lucas and Tony Schumacher hot on his heels. Brown isn’t far behind the top five either and still has a chance, albeit slim, to wrench the crown again.

In Funny Car, it’s four-time winner Hagan, Force, a resurgent 2012 champ Jack Beckman, Hight and hot/cold Cruz Pedregon (who has four wins) in the top five. Perennial bridesmaid Ron Capps lies sixth and still has a mathematical chance.

Mike Edwards, the 2009 Pro Stock champ holds sway in his category, followed by four-time champ Jeg Coughlin, Jason Line, Enders-Stevens, Shane Gray and 2012 champion Allen Johnson. Edwards has six wins this season but none in the Countdown thus far, AJ owns four victories, Coughlin’s got three, as does Vince Nobile, who’s hit a cold streak of late.

It sure is strange not to see a Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle out in front after the Vance & Hines duo of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec dominated the last two seasons of drag racing. Smith catapulted to the top with his Midwest Nationals victory, followed by Hector Arana tied with son Hector Jr, Michael Ray and Krawiec. Arana Jr has four wins this year, Smith has two as do Ray and John Hall. Hector Arana Sr has no victories but has ridden a very consistent Buell all year.

So coming into the Fall Nationals, where the weather always dictates very quick and fast times and speeds and where records tend to fall, every class still holds its question marks. But one thing for sure this year, is that if the mouth that roared, one that belongs to John Force, manages to keep up his momentum, he could be looking at a very sweet 16th Funny Car title.

Words and Photo By Anne Proffit

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