It has not taken long for John Force to see a difference in his John Force Racing team in 2016. In fact, it has been all of two events during the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the legendary Force has seen an improvement compared to the early stretch of 2015. The fruits of a busy, productive and important off-season have already had an impact, as the four-car JFR team (Top Fuel’s Brittany Force, Funny Car drivers John Force, Courtney Force and Robert Hight) has posted two final appearances through two events.
Three of the four are in the top three in points and 16-time Funny Car world champion John Force hopes to get the team’s first win during this weekend’s 47th annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in his 10,000-horsepower Peak Antifreeze Chevrolet Camaro SS. “I think we are just more focused,” Force said. “Having PEAK with us all year and also all our sponsors back from Traxxas to Auto Club to Monster, (and) we have a really good group leading the brain trust. We have Alan Johnson and Brian Husen over on the Top Fuel dragster and Mike Neff is leading the brain trust for the Funny Cars. I still love this and I think all the work we did in the off-season is starting to pay off. We are running with all the top teams again.”
Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the tradition-rich event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including live finals coverage at 1 p.m. (ET). It is the third of 24 races during the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Series season and Force has started the year strong, posting a final round appearance at the most recent event in Phoenix.
That comes on the heels of a semifinal performance at the opener in Pomona, leaving Force, who has 143 career wins, excited for Gainesville. The facility has always held a special place in Force’s heart, providing plenty of memories along the way. His seven Gatornationals victory are a Funny Car best, but it was the moments leading up to that first win in 1992 at the track that really stand out.
“I’m a West Coast guy and in the early days I had never been to the East Coast,” Force said. “I went to Englishtown and Gainesville. My first reaction to getting to the Gatornationals was it was unbelievable. It was a happening and there were so many people there. There were people there from all over the country and even Canada. It was more than a drag race. It was a chance for people to get to some warm weather and enjoy the beauty of Florida. For me, my first memory was the Holiday Inn when I saw The Snake and the Mongoose and I saw how the people reacted to them. They were walking idols. That is where the dream of wanting to be a star started.“Just to be beat up by Mongoose, the people you dreamed to be like, that was unimaginable. The dream wasn’t winning it was just qualifying. I was lucky if I could make the show. If you got in the show you got picked off in the first round. The dream was there to someday win it.”
Force did it for the first time in 1992, kicking off a string of five straight victories in Gainesville. But the iconic star hasn’t won at the track since 2001, a streak he would love to break in 2016. In preparing for the race, Force can’t help but look back one more time to the early days of racing at the facility.
“The ride to the race track was where the dream really started every day,” Force said. “I remember talking to guys like Tripp Shumake and Gary Densham, they were the little guys like me. The Prudhommes, the Garlits, and Shirley Muldowney all walked on water. I couldn’t even talk to them. We went there to chase the dream and [wife] Laurie went with me. You wanted to stand on the starting line with the dream to win. There were great times there for me. The first time I won the Gatornationals was big. That was a big time race.”
An abundance of accomplishments have followed for Force, who is currently second in the Funny Car standings. Plenty of stars, including Ron Capps, who won in Pomona, Tim Wilkerson, who won the most recent event in Phoenix, defending world champion Del Worsham, Alexis DeJoria, Jack Beckman, Cruz Pedregon, Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr. will try to keep Force from adding another, but there is one last special aspect of racing in Gainesville in 2016.
The 50th anniversary celebration of Funny Car is taking place this year, and the immense history of the class is something that is not lost on Force.
“(Don) Prudhomme and (Kenny) Bernstein moved to Top Fuel and the Funny Car world was changing,” Force said. “(Al) Hoffman was a fighter. Cruz (Pedregon) was always right in the heat of battle. The ’90s were a new era of Funny Car. We were match racing all the time too. Cruz, (Chuck) Etchells, and Hoffman and us would match race. Prudhomme had all the money along with McEwen and Garlits so they could race just the national events. We would have to race in the next town at a match race. We were all over the East Coast just trying to make a living. That is where we earned the money to get to the national event. We were selling t-shirts out of the back of our trailers. It was a different world.
“In the early days when I was trying to win the Gatornationals I was on fire almost every time. I was on fire sideways and then you got out of the race car screaming at [NHRA announcer] Steve Evans about how awesome racing was and capturing that moment. It was never about going to the Gatornationals and being a champion. I would love to hear the cheer of the crowd because I was brave or dumb enough to drive one of these cars when it was on fire. It was about chasing the dream and the struggle. The struggle is what makes you who you are. My kids are going through that now. It you didn’t have a struggle then winning would have no meaning.”
In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence will bring the confidence he gained from his win at the Winternationals in Southern California to the tradition-rich Florida race. Drivers like reigning world champion Antron Brown, four-time Gators winner Tony Schumacher, 2014 event winner Doug Kalitta and rising star Leah Pritchett, who won her first career race in Phoenix, will do everything in their power to knock him off the top, as will Shawn Langdon, J.R. Todd, Brittany Force and Clay Millican
For the new-look Pro Stock class, Anderson will ride into Gainesville trying to defend his 2015 Gatornationals title. Anderson defeated teammate Jason Line in the final round of the event last year and both already have victories in 2016. The Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro tandem has combined for seven victories at Gainesville Raceway, but get tough competition from reigning world champion Erica Enders, two-time Gators winners Allen Johnson and Jeg Coughlin Jr., and category young guns, Drew Skillman, Chris McGaha, Vincent Nobile and Bo Butner. The sleek new Pro Stock cars feature fuel-injected engines, shorter wheelie bars, flat hoods and a 10,500 RPM rev-limiter.