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Sunday, February 12, 2012
Old John Force shows how it's done

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

POMONA, Calif. -- NHRA rookie Courtney Force made an impressive Funny Car debut, reaching the second round and having smooth and quick runs all weekend at the Winternationals.

But if she really wants to learn how it's done, all she had to do was watch the old man.

Three months shy of his 63rd birthday, John Force out-raced rookies, veterans and anyone in his way to win the NHRA season-opening event for the sixth time in his illustrious career.

And here's an interesting little note. The five previous times Force won the Winternationals, he also won the championship that season. Is a 16th title in the offing for a man who was a teenager when John Kennedy was president?

"I'm just glad to get another win." Force said. "You realize how much you miss it when you get here again."

Sunday also was a successful start for another AARP-eligible racer. Four-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson, who turns 51 next month, defeated old rival Jeg Coughlin in the final.

And it was a day of redemption for the young-guy winner Sunday. Spencer Massey, 29, defeated Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown in the Top Fuel final.

Massey, who came four-thousandths of a second short of winning the 2011 title three months ago on this Auto Club Raceway track, also set a national record in the semifinals with a run at 328.88 mph, the fastest pass ever since the nitro classes switched to 1,000 feet in 2008.

But the old drag-racing legend stole the day. Force won only once last season, coming at Denver in July. He hadn't won a single round since the Seattle event last August.

Washed up? Not a chance.

John Force
John Force took home his 134th Wally for his win at Pomona.

"I haven't been a winner in a while," Force said. "My baby girl [Courtney] did her job this weekend and I'm proud of her. But my guys are back together. I'm giving this trophy to my brain trust. I've got me a hot rod again and a brand new leg."

Force made a major effort to beef up his racing hierarchy at JFR in the offseason, adding highly respected tuners Danny DeGennaro and Scott Wible. Along with his staff changes, he had knee surgery to repair a damaged ACL.

But the heart-felt changes for Force were bringing back some big-name guys who were part of the organization in the past. Dickie Venables returned, as did Force's old friend, engineering and safety guru John Medlen.

"Those guys had their reasons for leaving," Force said. "And sometimes I thought, 'How did I screw this up so bad?' But getting them back filled a hole for me. It was the one thing I did right. It's all back the way it was. It's all good."

Including 23-year-old Courtney, who surprised almost everyone in winning her first round matchup against Bob Tasca. She lost in the next round to Mike Neff, but ran her best pass on the weekend (4.14 seconds at 313 mph). She consistently ran 4.20 seconds or better for four days at Pomona.

"I'm so proud of her,'' John Force said. "I wanted Courtney to know that feeling of winning a race. My baby girl has always wanted this. She ran to the winner circle with me from the time she was 1 year old. She's really good. Boy she works it hard. She's all heart."

Just like her dad.

"I'm so excited right now I'm shaking," Courtney said after her first-round win. "That was seriously unreal. This is so amazing. This is way better than I expected."

Seeing his daughter so pumped up and running well seemed to inspire Force. He approached the entire weekend with a renewed vigor.

Sunday he started by beating the other rookie woman in Funny Car this year, Alexis DeJoria. That came moments after he watched Courtney win.

After his old friend Ron Capps won, Force walked up to Capps and called DeJoria "LeJoria" saying, "Man she's gonna be good." Then he kissed Capps on the cheek.

The old Force, the zany guy with fire in his eyes, was back. Force won in the second round over Tim Wilkerson before an easy semifinal victory when Gary Densham jumped the start.

That made for the all JFR final with Neff. But Neff had a horrible reaction time at the start and Force won it on a holeshot, a victory with a slower elapsed time (4.08 seconds at 315 mph to Neff's 4.03 at 316 mph).

"No excuses," Neff said. "I feel terrible for my guys. I thought I heard John's engine rev up. I was dead late. It's a little embarrassing. I was hearing things."

A lot of drivers have heard things over the years when lined up against Force. It was the first time Neff had faced his boss in a final round.

The victory over Neff was the 1,100th round win in Force's career and his 134th victory.

"I'm a blessed man,'' Force said. "We couldn't hit our tail last year, but we got our people back and our focus back. You gotta have a race car and I've got it now. Them boys are bad [meaning good] out there. And my baby girl is gonna get after it, too."

Courtney Force is the NHRA's future, and the future looks bright. Some people may have thought her dad was the past, but the old man isn't quite done yet.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.