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John Force: Racing into the record books?

The 61-year-old legend, coming back after being severely injured in a crash three years ago, will try to win an unprecedented 15th funny car championship as he competes this weekend in the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona.

November 10, 2010|By Jim Peltz

Drag racing couldn't have scripted it much better.

As the National Hot Rod Assn.'s elite Full Throttle Series holds its season finale this weekend in Pomona, the legendary John Force -- at age 61 -- is trying to win an unprecedented 15th funny car championship.

It's not just Force's age that makes his title run so impressive in a sport in which drivers top 300 mph in four seconds down the 1,000-foot drag strip used for funny cars and top-fuel, the NHRA's other premier class.

The effusive Bell Gardens native, long one of drag racing's most popular drivers, also is fighting for the championship three years after he was badly injured in a racing crash in Texas.

"I am lucky, I got a second chance," said Force, who won his last title in 2006.

But standing in Force's way is a driver less than half his age, 27-year-old Matt Hagan, a Virginian who holds a 37-point lead over Force in the standings in only his second full year in the series.

Hagan had led by 64 points, but Force slashed his advantage nearly in half at their most recent race, on Oct. 31 in Las Vegas, when the two faced off in the final round and Force prevailed. Jack Beckman of Norco, Calif., is a long-shot third in the funny car standings, 136 points behind Hagan.

In the top-fuel division, Larry Dixon appears poised to win his third championship and finally break the remarkable streak of Tony Schumacher, who has won the title for the last six years and has seven championships overall. Schumacher drives for his father's team, Don Schumacher Racing.

But Tony Schumacher, 40, also won in Las Vegas to climb to second place in the standings, 85 points behind Dixon. It's a sizable gap for Schumacher, but not an insurmountable one.

In this year's pro stock standings, three-time champion Greg Anderson holds a dominant 115-point lead over reigning title-holder Mike Edwards.

It all will be decided at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona. Three days of qualifying rounds start Thursday, with final eliminations Sunday.

Hagan is well aware that his first funny car championship would negate Force's comeback story and disappoint Force's legion of fans.

"To be able to race John Force, first of all, is an honor and to be able to win against the guy is something else," said Hagan, a three-time winner this season. "We are just going to line him up and let the cars do the talking. We have a job to do."

Force has five wins this year and led the point standings for most of the season until he was overtaken by Hagan.

"We've had a steady race car, a good race car, and we've gradually gained points all year long to get into the position we're in," Hagan said. "We just have to keep doing that, keep our heads on straight and not do anything crazy or stupid."

If Force wins the championship, he would surpass Warren Johnson as the oldest driver to win a major NHRA division. Johnson, who drives in the pro stock class, won his sixth title at age 58 in 2001.

Force, a onetime truck driver who spent years learning his craft with second-tier equipment and skimpy budgets, didn't win his first funny car championship until 1990, at age 41. Then he was nearly unstoppable, winning the title in 11 of the next 12 years.

But Force suffered serious injuries to his arms and legs in the 2007 crash that occurred when his 8,000-horsepower dragster collided with one driven by Kenny Bernstein.

While his body slowly healed, Force began ardently working out in the gym. His regained strength, combined with his superb reflexes at the starting line, paid off again this season.

"The last two years I stunk, but I stayed with it," said Force, who also heads the John Force Racing team that includes daughter Ashley Force Hood. She's fourth in the funny car standings, 149 points behind Hagan.

"I won for so many years that after a while you take it for granted," Force said. "Then you are laying in a hospital bed and the doctors are saying you may not walk again."

Now Force said he faces a challenge in Hagan. "He's very focused," Force said. "So we can't wait for him to err. We can't afford any mistakes, none."

Force added: "I don't want Hagan to knock me off this train."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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