POMONA, Calif. -- The SoCal locals apologized for the cool temperatures and relative lack of sunshine for the first day of Qualifications at the 54th annual Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.
But the many NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series teams that are based in Brownsburg, Ind., weren't complaining. After all, the wind chill back at home this morning was something like 15 degrees below zero.
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJohn Force started his 2014 Funny Car title quest with a national record on the first day of the Winternationals.
Meanwhile at Pomona, the partial cloud cover, combined with ambient temperatures in the 60s and track temperatures peaking in the 80s, made for nearly perfect drag racing conditions. That much was evident when John Force ran a track-record 3.983-second pass in his first run of the new season.
The 64-year-old legend obsoleted his first record run in the cool of the evening, going even faster at 3.966/324.17 mph. It's Force's first national record since 2004, though it's provisional for the time being because it could still be beat over the rest of the Pomona weekend.
"That old Ford Mustang, she's dancing!" exclaimed the 16-time and defending Funny Car champion after his first run. "When you win the championship, you come back and you never know how your old junk is gonna run."
After going even faster in the cool of the evening, he added: "How about that? I saw [teammate Robert] Hight run 3.99 so we knew it was out there. Didn't think it would run that quick, but you never know what Jimmy Prock is up to. He's got his stuff together. Never thought it would run a 96. That impressed me -- I told 'em 'Check the clocks!' "
"This is great for us," deadpanned crew chief Prock. "We worked on our stuff a little bit and it's a good start for us. The team is doing a great job."
It was a great day in general for John Force Racing, which announced a five-year contract extension with Auto Club of Southern California and a new major associate sponsorship agreement with PEAK Antifreeze and BlueDEF Diesel Exhaust Fluid.
Mike Neff, the crew chief for Robert Hight's Auto Club-sponsored Mustang out of the JF stable, said that Friday's conditions were pretty much ideal for speed.
"It's the beginning of our season, and everyone is trying different things trying to get them sorted out," Neff said. "Any time the air temperature is in the 60s and the track temp is in the 80s, I think you'll see some very good times."
Ron Capps was having a spectacular run in Round 2 in his Don Schumacher Racing Dodge, but blew an engine just short of the line. He still stopped the watches in 4.014 seconds for the fourth fastest time of the day despite rolling through the trap at just 304.67 mph.
"I'm OK," Capps said. "That was pretty sudden. Something came up and hit my helmet and went across the shield and there was a lot of fire, but IMPACT did a great job with the safety equipment."
"Funny Cars are fun to drive, but that kind of thing is going to happen to you once in a while," he added. "That was an exciting shutdown, but we're in the show, right?"
Courtney Force rebounded from a DNS in Round 1 (broken throttle stop) to post a 4.046-second pass in Round 2 with the top Funny Car trap speed of the day at 320.13 mph, putting herself solidly into the top five.
Defending Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon started the 2014 season the way he left off, leading Round 1 with a 3.746-second pass to edge Doug Kalitta. Antron Brown went 3.734 in the very last run of the day to claim FTD honors.
2012 champion Allen Johnson's Dodge was fastest in Pro Stock, running 6.517/212.530 mph in the second session, while Vincent Nobile's 6.528/212.290 mph in the first session was good enough for P2 in his first official day on the job for KB Racing.
"The air got better and we missed it pretty horribly the first run," Johnson said. "We knew we had a little in the bank if we could get it through second gear.
"We'd like to get in the 40s here [a run in the 6.4-second bracket]," he added. "That would be a dream come true. If the weather gets a tick better, you might see a 49-9 [6.499] or something."
Saturday will feature two more rounds of qualifying, with Eliminations set for Sunday live at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN3 and highlights on ESPN and WatchESPN at 8 p.m. ET.