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Force determined despite crash

The seriously injured NHRA great vows to race on in a season also marred by a tragic loss.

September 25, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

The crash that seriously injured John Force on Sunday added to what already was the most agonizing season of his celebrated career in drag racing.

But even at age 58, Force -- a 14-time champion in the NHRA's "funny car" class, arguably the sport's most popular figure and owner of his Yorba Linda team -- said Monday he's not leaving racing.

"I'm not going to turn off the switch and go home," Force said in a telephone interview from Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, only 24 hours after undergoing six hours of surgery to fix his injuries.

In fact, Force said he hoped to be back in his Ford Mustang for the National Hot Rod Assn. race at Las Vegas in late-October, despite suffering a broken left ankle, a severe cut on his right knee, a dislocated left wrist and other severe cuts and slight fractures on his right hand at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis near Dallas.

"I think I'll make Vegas," he said, which is followed by the season finale in Pomona on Nov. 1-4. "I'll see you in Pomona too."

Force also said the tragedy that befell his team this year, when 33-year-old teammate Eric Medlen died of head injuries from a crash in practice March 23 in Florida, played a role in protecting Force from an even worse fate Sunday.

As his wife, Laurie, looked on, Force crashed moments after he and Kenny Bernstein crossed the finish line on the quarter-mile track in the second round of eliminations at the O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals event.

Their parachutes had deployed but the cars were still traveling about 300 mph when something appeared to explode in the rear of Force's car, breaking the chassis in half.

The cockpit with Force strapped inside tumbled briefly and stopped in a heap with the dragsters' two big rear tires still attached. The car's front end, with the engine attached, swerved right and slammed into Bernstein, sending both machines into the wall. Bernstein was not hurt.

Force said it might have been a rear tire that exploded but that his team wasn't yet sure. "I feel very lucky, if [the cockpit] would have rolled it would have taken my legs," said Force, adding that this was the worse accident of his career. "I never had a broken bone in my life.

Force, a native of Bell Gardens, is perhaps the most charismatic driver in the top-level Powerade Drag Racing Series. His family -- including daughter Ashley and son-in-law Robert Hight, also Powerade series funny car drivers -- is involved in the sport, and starred this year in its own TV reality series.

Force's ebullience was sorely tested after Medlen's death, a loss Force was trying to partly overcome by winning an unprecedented 15th championship.

Yet Medlen's death also prompted the NHRA and its teams to quickly introduce more safety equipment around its drivers' heads this season, and Force said that "without a doubt" saved him from worse injuries Sunday. "My head is fine," he said, noting that CAT scans taken after his crash came back negative. "Eric's crash might have saved my life."

Asked if he truly believed he could race again this year, Force said his team already was working on a makeshift automatic clutch for his dragster because Force's immobile left leg can't push the pedal. "I already called the NHRA and said, 'Don't count me out yet,' " he said.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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