Force’s First Appearance at Auto-Plus Raceway an Historic – and Weird – One
At races like this week’s 45th annual Amalie Oil Gatornationals, it’s not uncommon to see race cars on display across Gainesville, Fla., and the surrounding area. They’re at shopping malls, car dealerships, auto parts stores, restaurants, even airports.
However, that’s a relatively recent trend.
It wasn’t nearly as common in the 1970s when drag racing was just beginning to get its sea legs. Yet, in March, 1979, in the parking lot of the Gainesville Wendy’s store, there was a Corvette Funny Car bearing the familiar logo of the Ohio-based hamburger chain and its red-haired namesake.
What made that display so much different was that the car wasn’t a high dollar replica constructed specifically for display. To the contrary, it was an actual race car which, after completing its store assignment each day, was spirited to the track where John Force attempted to qualify it for Sunday eliminations.
That’s right. The car that was the backdrop for customer photos earlier in the day was the one pulling to the starting line for a last ditch qualifying attempt later in the afternoon.
It was an unsuccessful effort of course, as they were quite often at the outset of Force’s career, but it was an indication of the ends to which the former truck driver would go to chase his racing dream, something he has tried to instill in daughters Courtney, Brittany and Ashley.
The frustrated football quarterback (0-for-27 at Bell Gardens High) only got the opportunity because his idol, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, who was nationally sponsored by Wendy’s, thought that the display plan proposed by Wendy’s franchisee Phil Dunne was ridiculous. For Force, though, it was another chance to hang out with those in whose footsteps he so badly wished to follow.
Although he didn’t officially make the field, he did race on Sunday under an old NHRA rule that allowed alternates to compete if qualifiers couldn’t make the call on Sunday. Force got his chance when Larry Fullerton’s “Trojan Horse” Ford Mustang couldn’t answer the bell. That sent him up against another of his racing mentors, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, but there would be no Cinderella finish this day.
Force’s Corvette lost traction quickly and slowed to 7.23 seconds while McEwen’s ‘Vette, which just six months earlier had won the U.S. Nationals in the race featured in the movie “Snake and Mongoose,” motored away for the win.
It was just Force’s third race in the NHRA series. What a contrast to the present.
When the 16-time Funny Car champion returns this week, it will be to compete in his 638th NHRA event; his 35th at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville where he has won seven times and where he once strung together a personal best five straight Funny Car titles (1992-1996).
However, despite that success, the Hall of Famer has not won in Florida since 2001. How long is that? Well, two of the four drivers he eliminated en route to that victory no longer compete in the Mello Yello Series (Chuck Etchells and Dean Skuza), one is no longer alive (Al Hofmann) and, since he last took a Castrol GTX Ford to the winners’ circle, five of his own John Force Racing teammates have celebrated victories.
Tony Pedregon prevailed in 2002, Gary Densham in 2003, Ashely Force Hood in 2004 (in Top Alcohol Dragster), Mike Neff in 2011 and Robert Hight in 2012.
That said, Force returns this year with more confidence than he’s had in years, the result of having qualified No. 1 at the last five events, of having reached the finals in six of the last seven races and of having set NHRA national records for time (3.965 seconds) and speed (324.12 mph) for the first time since 2006.
Moreover, since second youngest daughter Brittany reached the finals of the CARQUEST Nationals three weeks ago at Phoenix, the 64-year-old icon knows that there exists a real opportunity, before he retires, to share a winners’ podium with her, as he did with Ashley at the 2004 Auto Club Nationals in which he won Funny Car and she won TAD.
That alone is enough to keep him going.