Despite financial and personnel setbacks this year that rocked his team, drag-racing legend John Force has a solid shot at winning yet another championship as the NHRA holds its season finale this weekend in Pomona.
The popular Force, at 65, is in search of his 17th title in the funny-car class at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, which runs Friday through Sunday at Auto Club Raceway.
Force, who already holds the National Hot Rod Assn.'s funny-car record with 16 championships, is in second place in this year’s title standings, 21 points behind Matt Hagan, who won the funny-car title in 2011.
Force’s 26-year-old daughter Courtney, a four-time winner this year on her father’s team, is a distant third in the funny-car standings, 121 points behind Hagan.
For John Force, whose four-car team is based in Yorba Linda, winning yet another title would cap a tumultuous year.
He entered the 2014 season knowing that two of his main sponsors, Ford and Castrol motor oil company, would not return to his team after this year.
So when he wasn’t racing, Force was hustling to secure the new backers needed to help cover the $20 million or so to field his four cars each year.
He landed one replacement Nov. 1 when Peak, a maker of antifreeze and other auto products, signed up as one of Force’s main sponsors for next year. Force is expected to announce another new sponsor Saturday.
In the meantime, Force faced another problem last month, when he learned that his veteran crew chief, Jimmy Prock, planned to leave the team after this year.
Force, wanting his team to be intact as he searches for new sponsors, asked Prock to leave immediately, and Prock moved to Don Schumacher Racing.
Force — who began racing at NHRA’s highest level before the 31-year-old Hagan was born — has the ability to tune out those distractions once he’s inside his dragster. Force has three wins this season, as does Hagan.
“It’s been a struggle . . . but we’re going to make it,” Force said Thursday. “Hagan’s ready, I’m ready, let’s start the dance.”
Hagan said if he won he would devote a second funny-car title to his crew members. “It basically comes down to my team,” he said. “These guys are like my family.”
Tony Schumacher, another legendary drag racer, has a record seven titles in the top-fuel class, and he arrives in Pomona with a comfortable 109-point lead in the standings over second-place Spencer Massey. Massey is his teammate at Don Schumacher Racing, the team owned by Schumacher’s father.
“If we hold on, this will be as gratifying as any championship,” Tony Schumacher said Thursday. “It’s mostly because I feel that the competition level is as good as it’s ever been.”
NHRA awards championship points on a sliding scale for each event, depending on where a driver finishes, with the winner earning 100 points. Bonus points are awarded to the fastest cars during qualifying rounds.
Top-fuel dragsters and funny cars are the two elite classes of NHRA’s Mello Yello Series. The 8,000-horsepower cars, fueled by nitro methane, reach speeds surpassing 300 mph in less than five seconds during their 1,000-foot drag races.
At Pomona, drivers will hold qualifying sessions Friday and Saturday to determine the 16 drivers in each class who will race for the event wins — and ultimately the championships — in final eliminations Sunday.
In the pro stock class, Erica Enders-Stevens is trying to become the first female champion in that division. She carries a 17-point lead over Jason Line, a two-time pro stock champion, entering Pomona.
Andrew Hines, seeking his fourth championship in the NHRA’s pro-stock motorcycle class, leads the standings in that division with a 92-point advantage over his teammate Eddie Krawiec.