For the first time in 14 years, irrepressible John Force is not in position to win the National Hot Rod Assn.'s funny car championship. Technically, he has a shot with two events remaining but, realistically, he is out of it.
Tony Pedregon and Whit Bazemore, the two candidates trying to replace the Yorba Linda speed king, have been staggering down the home stretch of the 23-event Powerade series like a couple of exhausted marathoners.
Pedregon, who drives a Castrol Mustang for Force, had won seven races and held a 177-point lead at midseason, but with a stretch of first-round losses, he lost the lead to Bazemore after a competition at Memphis, four events ago.
Then Bazemore went into a tailspin of his own, losing in the first round at Chicago, where Pedregon won; failing to qualify in the postponed event at Reading, Pa., then losing in the second round at Dallas two weeks ago.
That leaves Pedregon with a 114-point lead going into this weekend's Las Vegas Nationals.
To clinch the NHRA crown on the strip by the Strip and join brother Cruz as the only drivers to unseat Force since 1990, Pedregon needs to finish two rounds ahead of Bazemore on Sunday. If he does not, the championship will be determined at Pomona in the 39th Auto Club Finals, Nov. 6-9.
Cruz won in 1992. Tony, 38, of Chino Hills, has been runner-up four times to his boss, most recently last year.
"It's really simple for us, we absolutely have to win Las Vegas," said Bazemore, 40, of Indianapolis, who drives a Dodge Stratus. "It's pretty cut and dried. If we win Sunday, the odds are still against us, but we could make up a lot of ground."
Pedregon, though wary of what could happen, says he wants to win one for his boss -- in case he leaves Force next year and perhaps joins Cruz on an all-Pedregon team.
"I'm no math wizard, but if my calculations are right, all we need to do is equal what they do," Tony said Thursday from Miami, where he was making an appearance for Ford. "I don't want to go on the defensive, however. I'm just fortunate we won six races in the first half, because we've been staggering ever since."
The win at Chicago on Sept. 28 was Pedregon's only second-half victory.
"We've had plenty of chances to slam the door on Whit and haven't done it," he said. "But maybe Whit had better start looking behind him too, because John is only 63 points out of second place."
Bazemore, a three-time winner this year, says he's not looking back.
"I don't care about where John is, I'm just looking forward," he said. "If we have a bad race, we may lose second, but that is just more impetus for us to have the very best race we can."
Force says he could have a role in determining his successor -- by exercising team orders.
"Ford does not want to see the Powerade championship go over to Chrysler or General Motors, so we have to win," he said on Speed Channel. "When we start the season with our three teams, we say everybody gets to fight for the win. But when it gets later in the year, we've got to help each other. That's the bottom line. If I don't do the job, then [Ford] will get somebody else to do it.
"I'm gonna be honest. If we get down to the last race of the year and I take out my own teammate and lose [the title] to Bazemore, it would be pure suicide."
The other two major categories were decided at Dallas, where Larry Dixon of Indianapolis clinched his second consecutive top-fuel crown and Greg Anderson of Duluth, Minn., won his first pro stock championship. It was old hat for Anderson in one way, however, as he was crew chief when Warren Johnson won in 1991, 1992 and 1995.
Another NHRA series, Summit Sports Compact, will end its third season this weekend at Pomona Raceway. It is the final of 10 events in the $2.1-million series for the rapidly growing sport compact car market.
In addition to the professional classes, there will be two elapsed time bracket classes that allow the public to race on one of the world's most renowned strips.
Imports, notably Honda, Toyota and Mazda, dominate the sport, but domestic manufacturers such as GM, Dodge and Saturn have strong entries.
Abel Ibarra's Mazda R-100 will become the first sport compact to be displayed at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona. An induction ceremony will be held Saturday.
'"I'm really happy [because] this little car really deserves it," said Ibarra, a former street racer from Riverside who hopes to become the first driver of a rotary-engine car to make a six-second, 200-mph run at Pomona in his current Mazda RX-7.
Travel Agent Needed
Jimmy Vasser will be back in Fontana next week to defend his California Speedway CART victory in the King Taco 500, but those 500 miles will be nothing compared to his globe-trotting travels.
After racing in Mexico City two weeks ago, Vasser flew to Italy to watch his former teammate, Alex Zanardi, race for the first time since an accident two years ago that severed both legs.