Force finally nails down win No. 100
After three false starts, John Force finally scrawled his signature on another piece of drag racing history Sunday when he drove his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang to the Funny Car championship at the15th annual O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park.
Undaunted by first and second round losses in the two most recent events in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, Force got his milestone 100th career victory on a track on which his team has been dominant for the last 13 years.
His final round conquest of Tommy Johnson Jr. secured his sixth victory in HRP's spring race and his seventh overall (including a 2000 win in the now defunct fall race). Teammate Tony Pedregon has won three times on the same track.
After qualifying fourth, the 10-time Auto Racing All-America selection beat Dale Creasy Jr., Del Worsham, and Whit Bazemore to reach an NHRA final round for the 156th time in his career and for the 10th time at HRP.
The win, his second of the current season, kept the sport's biggest winner in the Funny Car points lead in his bid to claim an unprecedented 10th consecutive title.
The track record holder at 4.788 seconds, 321.88 miles per hour, Force come near those performance numbers in Houston's heat and humidity, but he was good enough on Sunday to reach a milestone that, after misfires at Phoenix, Ariz., Gainesville, Fla., and Las Vegas, rapidly was becoming a millstone.
"I'm just glad it's over," said an obviously drained Force. "All I heard from everyone was '100 wins.' It's an accomplishment, but it was keeping us from focusing on the championship."
Indeed, 100 career wins is mammoth achievement. Only stock car legends Richard Petty and David Pearson reached that plateau before Force. In fact, 100 was a plateau many thought out of reach in drag racing. Just 10 years ago, the consensus was that no one ever would break Pro Stock driver Bob Glidden's records: 85 tour victories and 10 championships.
However, Force claimed his 86th win on June 4, 2000 and captured his 11th series championship last season.
The question now is how high he will raise the bar before he exits the cockpit. After all, he has this season and three more remaining on his current contracts with Castrol, Ford and Mac Tools. That means that at his current rate of production (he has won every third race contested since 1989), he could retire with upwards of 130 wins. And that's only if he hangs it up at age 55.
At 52, he is 15 years older than most of those presently trying to end his championship reign at nine consecutive seasons.
He proved Sunday, however, that he still can drive.
"It's only a five-second job," joked the 10-time Auto Racing All-America selection. "It's not like I have to drive around out there for 500 miles. I have to work harder to keep my leave times up. I have to work harder to keep my energy up. I take oxygen. I sugar-up. I work the practice tree. I use all the tricks."
Force's unlikely journey to 100 wins began modestly enough on June 28, 1987. Who could have imagined that a final round victory that day over Ed "the Ace" McCulloch in the only NHRA national event contested outside the continental United States (the Molson Grandnational at St. Pie, Quebec, Canada) would be his first step toward the Hall of Fame.
That victory, which came in his 66th career start, was as big a surprise to Force as to anyone else. After all, he had been to the finals nine times previously and on each occasion had come up short. Nine final rounds, nine runner-up finishes before McCulloch's Miller High Life Oldsmobile suffered a mechanical failure that, in essence, gave Force a free ride to the title. Taking no chances, Force guided his Castrol GTX Oldsmobile Firenza through the timers in 5.652 seconds, second best time during eliminations.
He wouldn't win his first race in the U.S. for 12 more months when he beat NHRA Champion-to-be Bruce Larson in the final round at Columbus, Ohio (June 19, 1988) on the way to a three-win season that included his only final round victory over Kenny Bernstein, to whom he lost in his first career final (the 1979 Cajun Nationals at Baton Rouge, La.) and five more times before winning at the 1988 World Finals at Pomona, Calif.
Win No. 10 came during the Californian's drive to the first of his 11 series championships and it again involved Larson, victimized in the final round of the 1990 Fram/Autolite Nationals at Sonoma, Calif.
Force's 25th victory came on April 25th, 1993 at Atlanta Dragway, where he beat Chuck Etchells. Six years later, the same track would yield victory No. 75, significant not because it came at the expense of arch rival Whit Bazemore, but because it represented the champion's smallest margin of victory (.001 of a second).
Between those two milestones, Force beat Cruz Pedregon in the final round of the 1994 Sears Craftsman Nationals at Topeka, Kan., to supplant Don "the Snake" Prudhomme as the biggest winner in Funny Car history (with his 36th title) and then stopped Etchells in the money round of the 1996 Gatornationals to earn win No. 50.
Before 100 finally became a viable target, Force raced past Glidden on the all-time list. He tied the former Pro Stock star with a victory in the 2000 Castrol Nationals at Dallas, Texas, and, just one week later, beat Jerry Toliver in the Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill., for No. 86.
When facing potential milestones, Force rarely has been denied.
He won his 25th race the first time he had an opportunity to do so. The same with his 50th and 75th wins. He won on his second attempt to claim win No. 36 and on his third try at 100. Outside of his first victory, this (four races) was the longest it ever took him to get a key win.
In his 16-year drive to 100, his most frequent final round victim was Cruz Pedregon, who was in the other lane in 12 final rounds. However, he has beaten 28 other drivers for titles including current teammates Tony Pedregon (10 times, second only to Cruz) and Gary Densham (three times).
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