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Sunday, November 14, 2010
Force's 15th title makes him immortal

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

POMONA, Calif. -- The old man did it. Against all odds, he did it.

Other old-timers have come back for dramatic moments in the annals of sports.

None like this one.

John Force's legacy as the greatest drag racer ever to strap into a hot rod was secure before he clinched his logic-defying 15th NHRA Funny Car championship Sunday.

But now? Now he's something more. Now he's legend. Now he's immortal.

John Force
John Force basked in the glow of a 15th Funny Car title on Sunday.

Force is the man who defied what his body was telling him when his legs were a mangled mess of steel pins, plaster casts and hideous scars like Frankenstein in a fire suit.

"This means everything to me," Force said. "I love all the people who stood by me when I was sick. I had to get back. I couldn't let my career end with that."

He got back in a race car when he could have walked away, when many people told him he should walk away, at a time when he couldn't walk after a horrifying crash three years ago.

Now he's the oldest champion in NHRA history at age 61. And he topped it off by winning the event, beating Jeff Arend in the Auto Club NHRA Finals.

Henry Ford III was here to see it, standing on the podium with Force and holding the trophy. No truth to the rumor that Force knew Ford's grandfather.

Force's 15th title came on the same day that Pro Stock Motorcycle rider L.E. Tonglet (who looks 12) became the youngest NHRA champ at age 20. Force has fire suits older than that.

It also came on the same day that Tony Schumacher's six-year reign as the Top Fuel champion ended. Larry Dixon took the crown away.

But there was no denying Force, winning his first championship since 2006. Force started the day 38 points behind Matt Hagan, a 28-year-old rising star of drag racing.

Force needed to finish two rounds ahead of Hagan to do something he never had done in his previous 14 championship seasons -- come from behind in the final event.

Force needed a little help. He got it right out of the gate. Fellow Ford driver Bob Tasca put Hagan's Dodge on the trailer in the first round.

"We opened the door for Johnny," Tasca said at the top end. "Now go get 'em baby."

Hagan couldn't believe it. He was well on his way to a first-round win until he lost a piston with about 200 feet to go. The engine died and Tasca drove by him.

In 30 years as a sports journalist, I've rarely seen an athlete more distraught than Hagan as he climbed out of the car.

He hung his head and slowly shuffled away like a man moments away from the guillotine. He was crushed even though the title still wasn't lost at that point.

"It hurts," Hagan said. "It hurts deep."

Force easily won his first-round matchup, guiding his Mustang down the track in 4.116 seconds and 307.23 mph to defeat Gary Densham.

And for one of the few times in his career, Force was quiet, almost reverent.

"I want to stay calm and collected," he said. "It's too early to tell what will happen. I have to focus."

John Force Hagan's a great kid and has his whole life ahead of him. But my time is running out. Ford should have fired me. I sucked. But they stuck with me. This old man's legs ain't broke no more. My arms and legs are good again like I was 40. I'm still ugly, but I'm back.

-- John Force

The joke in the media center was that Force was walking over to offer second-round opponent Bob Bode a five-year contract.

Funny, but Bode's been around. He made Force earn the title. Bode made a respectable pass with a 4.225-second elapsed time at 295 mph. Not enough.

Force beat Bode off the line and ran a 4.162 ET at 304.6 mph. Force was a champion again.

"Hagan's a great kid and has his whole life ahead of him," Force said. "But my time is running out. Ford should have fired me. I sucked. But they stuck with me. This old man's legs ain't broke no more. My arms and legs are good again like I was 40. I'm still ugly, but I'm back."

Hagan was watching on a TV monitor back in the pits.

"You're not gonna see tears from me," Hagan said. "We fought a tough fight. We can't hang our heads. We're still learning this thing.

"But I'll probably lie in bed many nights to think about what we could have done differently. I'm proud of my guys. Sometimes you have to take it like a man. John beat us fair and square."

Take heart, Matt. Force has beaten all comers for two decades.

This time, he beat back the clock. He beat his gnarly old legs. He beat everyone who said his best days were behind him.

Old and grizzled was good enough.

"I've been beat up my whole life,'' Force said. "I was a poor kid from the trailer park who couldn't do anything right. But I found this thing called a race car and it made me somebody."

More than somebody, it made him immortal.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.