Force finally collects his first win
Reprinted from the July 10, 1987 issue of National DRAGSTER
NHRA GRANDNATIONAL - The courtship is over. John Force's 14-year, frustration-filled romance with NHRA's "Oscar" ended with a blessed union in the romantic Quebec countryside. Let the record show that Force, the sport's most prolific "bridesmaid" of late with nine runner-ups, "got married" on June 28 at Le Grandnational-Molson (he also turned out to be the "best man"); Force finally won his first National event!
Force, who has looked sure victory in the eyes so many times before only to blink at a critical moment and leave "Oscar" waiting at the winner's circle altar, was unflinching at Le Grandnational. His Castrol GTX/Jolly Rancher Olds Firenza was the favorite from qualifying through eliminations, and everyone from the pits to the grandstands knew that if he was ever going to win a National event, it was going to be here. If he didn't get cold feet, this one had his name written all over it; there would never be a chance like this again.
Force must have had an inkling of what lay ahead on a cloudy, rainy Canadian weekend, as he reflected before qualifying began, "Through it all, I've never really lost confidence in myself, but sometimes I just look back on everything that's happened and begin to wonder whether it's really in the cards for me to win one of these things.
"But, when you have your family, your crew, and, most of all, your sponsors standing behind you, never giving up, it makes you never want to give up. I haven't given up; we're tired of getting beat by Bernstein and beating ourselves. This weekend is gonna be different; we may hurt some stuff, but we're going to change things here."
It is ironic to note that when the Yorba Linda, Calif., driver and his crew chief Austin Coil did get their first win, they actually made it look easy and did so on a race track that was giving most of the top teams fits. There is a good reason for that: Force and Coil are perhaps the only National event tour regulars who also match race extensively. There is no doubt that the experience gained in racing under less than National event conditions on tracks across the country played a large role in Force's win.
Sanair International Dragstrip had a new 200-foot concrete launch pad put in a month before Le Grandnational, and early qualifying showed that the lack of rubber accumulation was going to be a problem, especially in the left lane. Only one Funny Car made it off the line in that tricky left lane in the first session: the Castrol GTX Olds of Force. It was to be a telling point of the whole race.
"I sat back there (during the first session) and watched all three cars in front of me smoke the tires on the line," said Force. "I looked over to Austin and said, 'This reminds me of Tucson (a now-closed Arizona track known for its lack of traction).' He said, 'Well then drive the car like it is Tucson' and I went out and made a half-throttle launch and ran 5.78. When no one else made it down that lane, we felt we had a little edge on everyone and couldn't wait to run the right lane."
Though Ed McCulloch led that first session with a right-lane 5.72 in the Miller American/Larry Minor Firenza, Force bettered that number in the second session with a great 5.68 into a medium headwind; McCulloch, knowing he had to run the left lane, sat out that session and the next. Billy Meyer's left-lane 5.79 was the other highlight of the session, and that time slipped the Waco, Tex., track owner into third place and showed very definitely that his Springnationals win was no fluke.
After two sessions, the big surprise was that defending Grandnational and World Champ Kenny Bernstein's "Budweiser King" Buick was in the No. 14 spot after two aborted 20-second passes, one in each lane. Bernstein finally made it down the right lane in the third and final session (Saturday-morning rain cancelled one session) with what sounded suspiciously like a high-gear-only 5.80, 259.51, though Bernstein crew chief Dale Armstrong later said that the clutch was just set up loose for the run. That effort pushed the "Bud King" into the No. 4 spot, and also marked the first time this year that Bernstein would not collect the $3,000 low qualifier's "Big Bud Shootout" bonus check, and the first time in two years that he has qualified lower than No. 2. The barriers of tradition were crumbling already.
Don Prudhomme was the only driver beside Bernstein to run a five in the last session (a left-lane 5.83 to qualify No. 5), so everyone was surprised when Force decided to take his last run despite already having locked down the No. 1 spot.
"We had the low spot nailed down at the Springnationals, too," explained Force, "until Bernstein stole it from us at the last minute. When he did that there, we decided we couldn't run that quick and we towed.off. I told myself I would never pass up another shot at bettering my position, so we set the car up here for a low, low 5.60 Low E.T. pass on our last run and just went for it."
Even though the right lane wouldn't hold the power and Force smoked his way to a 19.81, his decision to run when it wasn't necessary showed a new, determined John Force, and the mood in their camp was very optimistic (although Force would only go as far as to predict a first-round win; he had an odd-lot bye for the 15-car field).
With another full day of rubber down on the track, Force and Coil decided to hop up the green-and-white monster for a new Low E.T in their first-round bye. Despite the fact that the left lane had given out some good numbers in the last two sessions, Force (and everyone else with lane choice) still opted to take the right lane, where he did as planned, setting a new E.T mark with a 5.669 (just missing Bernstein's 5.660 track record).
If that didn't make Force's day, Bernstein's surprising first-round loss to Mark Oswald and the Candies & Hughes/Motocraft T-Bird did. Bernstein's Buick lost a clutch disc on the line and slowed to a 5.95 while Oswald rolled into round two with a 5.88. Things were definitely looking Force's way to this point.
Despite having made only one qualifying shot, McCulloch and his crew chief Bernie Fedderly were also impressive in a 5.76 win over Johnny West's game 5.83. When Meyer's Dave Settles-tuned Chief Auto Parts Firenza cranked out a steady 5.79 to bury Eric Reed's ailing 6.08, it looked like a three-horse race, with Force ahead by several lengths.
Force kept up the pressure in round two with an effortless 5.684, 249.51 to trailer "the Snake," who melted a piston big-time for the second round in a row in a losing 5.89, 203.85 effort.
About this time, though, the race seemed to take on a different -- if familiar to Force -- slant. As more and more traction-enhancing rubber was laid down, the track, much maligned during qualifying, was fast becoming quick. Force's advantage of having tricky track expertise evaporated when Meyer screamed to a 5.688 to beat Tom McEwen's Coors Corvette (which came to a dead stop 200 feet downtrack) and when Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes were finally able to give Oswald the power they'd held on reserve; Oswald also hit a 5.68, but with a "7" in the thousandths column. Suddenly, Force's lead had narrowed to milliseconds, and the dream of finally winning a big one again seemed very fragile.
Oswald had lane choice over McCulloch in their semifinal match, as "the Ace" had broken a rocker arm and slowed to a 5.82 in his second-round win over Jim Head. With Oswald in the favored right lane, things looked grim for McCulloch until Oswald wisped the tires on the dry hop and McCulloch hooked up. To his credit, Oswald managed to get the Motorcraft Ford 100 feet off the line at the green before blazing the tires. McCulloch's run was clean, although he dropped a cylinder downtrack and slowed to a 5.74 that he knew would probably cost him lane choice.
The two lanes worked in very different ways. Starting line bite in the right lane was there, but anywhere from 100 to 200 feet out, the going was a little treacherous; the left lane's woes were behind the line, and most racers found it impossible to get even the rear end to the photocells before losing traction.
Force earned his lane choice over Meyer by just .001-second and, after watching Oswald's run before him, still opted to stay with the right lane. Force knew that if he ran into traction problems, he still had the power to drive through it. Meyer did a good job getting off the line in the left lane, though he (and all of Force's opponents, as it turned out) trailed Force at the green, .505 to .550.
If Force and Coil were worried about the precarious footing in the right lane, it didn't show. Force reset the track record with a stunning Low E.T. 5.64 while Meyer's yellow Olds fell off to a 5.75.
Strategy in the two finalists' pit areas differed immensely: Fedderly and crew, hunting for the cause of the dropped cylinder, put in a new set of coils and dual magnetos; Coil spent the time, preparing Force for the race in a manner similar to the strategy that served them so well in that first qualifying session.
"Austin told me to just imagine that I was in 'my lane' at Englishtown," said Force, in referring to his incredible match-race win streak at the New Jersey track. "He told me not to get worked up about winning my first National event, just to relax and do the job like I would anywhere else."
With everything -- lane choice, Low E.T., a tenth-of-a-second performance advantage, and three flawless pre-final runs -- in his favor, it was easy to see how Force could get excited about the prospects. Then again, he's been there nine times before and was yet to cash in. In contrast, McCulloch, who also had nine runner-ups (but eight wins) coming into the final, was the cool, calm, collected veteran, and many felt that Force's advantages were offset by his lifelong jinx and didn't mean a thing when stacked up against McCulloch's steadiness. Some were already betting that Force would throw it all away on a red-light or get greedy and smoke the tires.
Had Force seen or known that McCulloch smoked the tires on his left-lane dry hop in the final, it might have unsettled him and cost him the race. Instead, Coil said nothing as he backed Force up from his stout dry leave.
At the green, the story was the same as on the dry hops, as "the Ace's" red Olds went up in smoke before getting 10 feet downtrack, and Force streaked unmolested to a 5.65, 257.28 and a date with his first winner's circle.
McCulloch and crew took the loss in stride (we're not sure if Force would have been able to do the same), attributing the tire-smoke to the newfound power created by the new magneto implant. Had they discovered that solution earlier, they might have been able to take control of the race, but it still speaks well for their chances at the Summernationals in Englishtown.
Force, too, is looking forward to Englishtown and a chance to prove, once and for all, that he can win the big one(s). He was effusive in his thanks to Castrol GTX's John Gardella and Jolly Rancher's Bob Harmsen for their never-ending support, and he promises some major surprises in the very near future.