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A New Force

Capps Makes Move in Funny Car Series

November 12, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chasing John Force is one thing, catching him is quite another. Beating him seems almost out of the question.

The irrepressible funny car driver from Yorba Linda is on the verge of winning his eighth National Hot Rod Assn. championship in nine years. All he needs to pocket the $200,000 champion's prize is to win one round in this weekend's Winston Finals at the Pomona Raceway.

"It's getting tougher each year," Force said. "The competition isn't letting up. I knew that Snake [funny car owner Don Prudhomme] was going to be tough when he hired that kid, Ron Capps. I've got to keep an eye on him. All he thinks is win. Those kind of guys get you on the ropes.

"I know how good he is, I tried to hire him, but Snake got to him first."

Capps, a second-year funny car driver from Carlsbad, is the only competitor within reach of Force. He is 91 points behind and to win the championship must win the Winston Finals, set a national elapsed time record--and hope Force loses his first-round match.

"I thought we had him when we got to the U.S. Nationals [Sept. 7]," Capps said. "We had the lead, and I thought we had the momentum. I was thinking what it would be like to get that championship ring."

At that stage of the season, after 17 of 22 events, Capps had won two final rounds in his Copenhagen Camaro. He beat Force in the finals at Seattle, then on Sept. 6 at Indianapolis won the Big Bud Shootout against the year's leading funny car drivers.

"When Force beat us in the second round on [Labor Day], it was probably the turning point in the season," Capps said. "He went on to win the nationals and left Indy with the lead. We've been chasing him ever since, but he's been just too tough.

"For a sophomore year, I'm still proud of the Cope team and what Don [Prudhomme] and [crew chief] Roland Leong have done. We feel good that we took Force all the way to the last race of the season."

When Capps held the funny car lead going to the nationals, it was the first time in nine years that Force had not led at that point. Even in 1992, the year he lost to Cruz Pedregon, he led going to Indianapolis.

"His consistency is what killed us," Capps said. "We kept losing in the first round. When Force lost, it was usually later in the day. We won more races, five to his three, went to the finals seven times and still didn't win the championship. That tells you what kind of a champion he is."

Qualifying for the Winston Finals starts today at 2 p.m., with another round Friday and two on Saturday to set the 16-car field for Sunday's eliminations.

"Pomona is home to our team and we'd like to finish on a high note in front of our friends," Capps said. "We'll try and get a good number Thursday and concentrate on winning Sunday. We know we need to set an ET [elapsed time] record, but when you work too hard on that, you're more likely to end up in trouble. We know."

Capps was trying for a record at Memphis last month when his funny car stood on end in a spectacular funny car wheelstand.

"We pushed the car to the edge of the envelope, and a little bit farther," he said. "I felt like I was trying to rotate the earth when the front end came up. When you've got a hot run, the front end always lifts a little, but not like this. As I remember it, it came up, and up and up, until I thought it was going over backwards."

When the car slammed down, it broke the frame, but Capps escaped with only a stiff lower back.

Once the Camaro was back on its wheels, Capps climbed through the roof hatch, opened his visor and stood on top of the car, waving to the crowd.

"That was the loudest I'd ever heard the crowd," he said.

The ET record Capps will aim at is 4.807 seconds, set Nov. 2 at Houston by Cruz Pedregon. Capps is a second-generation hot rodder who says he feels as if he was born to be a drag racer.

"My folks tell me I was conceived at the March meet in Bakersfield, so I guess it was my destiny," he said. "When I was a kid growing up in San Luis Obispo, though, I dreamed of being an Indy car driver. My idols were Danny Sullivan and Rick Mears."

He began his drag racing career as a mechanic for the late Blaine Johnson when the Johnson family was campaigning a top-alcohol dragster out of Santa Maria in 1990 and 1991.

"I learned most of what I know mechanically from Alan Johnson [crew chief and owner of the top-fuel car driven by NHRA champion Gary Scelzi] when I'd drive down from San Luis to work on Blaine's car. I told people then that as soon as Alan got a top-fuel car, those other guys had better watch out."

Blaine Johnson was close to winning an NHRA championship in 1996 when he was killed in an accident during the U.S. Nationals. Alan Johnson picked Scelzi to drive the car last year and he became the first rookie to win a major championship. All Scelzi needs to do to repeat as champion is to qualify.

For years, Capps longed to be a bull rider. Last week, he went to Las Vegas to watch the top 45 bull riders in action.

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