Funny car driver John Force freely acknowledges he was "real nervous" moments before his first qualifying run at the Circle K National Hot Rod Assn. Winternationals in Pomona.
Force has been a professional drag racer for nearly four decades, but there was a bit more on the line this time, coming off what he calls "the toughest two years" of his career.
Force lost money — he estimates $15 million. He lost valued sponsors and team members. He switched manufacturers, from Ford to Chevrolet. But his enthusiasm for the sport didn't waver.
"I never lost heart," Force said. "You've got to look back to when I started. [Last season], my daughter goes, 'Dad, I'm trying hard to win, I'm struggling.' I said, 'Honey, you've already done more than I accomplished in 10 years.' I never won for 10 years, I was a joke. They called me a leaker, my car was always leaking oil, but I kept fighting."
Force made other changes to get himself out of his recent rut, including a new workout plan instead of spending "two hours a day in the bar" —a habit he says he's abandoned.
"I'm in the gym now. I have a gym in my home," Force said. "I've had people and doctors say, 'You're 66? You might look 56.' But I don't think I'm pretty at all, I'm pretty beat up."
Along those lines, Force — who had the sixth-fastest qualifying time on Friday at 4.017 seconds — believes his career mirrors that of another legend in a different sport.
"I look at Peyton Manning, who's beat up, tired, like me," Force said. "He's 39 going on 40, and I'll be 67 here in May. I'm the Peyton Manning of drag racing."
Both Force and Manning have experienced sustained periods of success. Force, a 16-time NHRA world champion, has won the season opener at Pomona seven times. But unlike Manning, who is rumored to be seriously considering retirement, Force has no end date in sight after previously suggesting he might reassess his options at age 70.
"I said three years, I hinted at it, and I'm taking it off the table," Force said. "I'm going to go until I'm blind, until I'm out of money, until I can't crawl in that seat."
Two more qualifiers will take place on Saturday at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. At that point, 16 participants from each class will advance to Sunday's elimination rounds.
—Bo Butner had the top pro stock time at 6.606 seconds. Last year's pro stock champion, Erica Enders-Stevens, finished ninth on Friday.
—Robert Hight, who had one top qualifying time during the 2015 season, finished first in funny car (3.942 seconds). Fellow John Force Racing driver Courtney Force was close behind at 3.945 seconds, and 2015 titleholder Del Worsham had the third quickest run.
"We've worked hard, we had a great test session out in Phoenix a week ago," Hight said. "We came right in here and obviously showed it's not a fluke with Courtney and I at No. 1 and No. 2."
—Tony Schumacher qualified first in the top-fuel category at 3.722 seconds. Antron Brown sits in sixth place, and Shawn Langdon, who won at Pomona a year ago, ended the day in eighth place.
"It was a good run," Schumacher said. "The No. 1 spot earned a few points, and I'm proud of the guys. Couldn't be happier."