The last two seasons, he has finished no better than ninth in NHRA driver points. In pre-season testing, his Castrol GTX Mustang was the slowest of the three Fords on his own team. And, at 63, he is the oldest full-time driver in the entire Funny Car class.
Nevertheless, betting against John Force in this week’s 53rd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals – or any other event at Auto Club Raceway, for that matter – is like betting that the federal government suddenly is going to quit spending our money on frivolous projects and programs. It’s just not a smart bet.
That’s because nowhere has drag racing’s all-time biggest winner celebrated more often than he has at the Los Angeles County Fairplex track on which the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Series season will begin this week.
One of only two drivers to have won at Pomona in three different events (including 2001's 50th anniversary NHRA Nationals), Force has won a total of 15 races and 110 racing rounds. Both are records for a single track.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also is the defending event champion and will pursue his seventh season-opening victory at the wheel of an 8,000 horsepower Castrol Mustang prepared by the man he beat in last year’s final round.
After two successful years as both driver and crew chief, years in which he finished fifth and third in points, Mike Neff successfully lobbied to return to the singular role in which he enjoyed his greatest success – and Force couldn’t be happier about the decision.
That’s because the last time Neff concentrated solely on his tuning skills, back in 2010, the result was a championship with, guess who? John Force.
“It was Mike Neff’s decision,” Force said. “He obviously proved he could do the job as a driver but he thought that to do both, drive and tune, was getting to be too much. At the end of the day, though, I’m excited to have him back tuning my hot rod.”
Although he has won an NHRA tour event in 25 of the last 26 seasons and has posted a record 28 consecutive Top 10 finishes, all of them in Castrol-backed Funny Cars, Force is not without motivation as he begins his 36th NHRA season. For one thing, he has had a winning record in only one of the last four campaigns (he was 18-22 a year ago), prompting some skeptics to question whether he can any longer be considered a legitimate contender.
After all, after 15 championships, 134 tour victories and 12 “special event” wins, the most recent in last year’s inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout, what more is there for him to prove?
“It doesn’t matter how many you win, trophies or championship rings, you always want to win one more,” said the 2012 inductee into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
“As a driver you want to win for the crew chiefs, the sponsors, the people in the office, the people in the chassis, paint and machine shops because without them you wouldn’t be able to do the job you love,” he said.
“On top of that, there’s your own personal satisfaction. I still want to prove to Robert (Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford) and my two daughters that drive (Courtney, 24, and Brittany, 26) that I’m still in championship form,” he said. “I work out every day to stay in the game. That’s really what it’s all about.”
No one has “stayed in the game” at such a high level for as long as Force. Although he was winless in his first nine seasons and was the Funny Car runner-up in his first nine NHRA finals, the former truck driver has been part of the championship conversation for the last 26 seasons.
The bad news for rivals who have waited to fill his shoes is that, right now, those shoes are still full of Force. Don’t bet against him.