John Force called his shot.
"They asked me today if I was passing the torch," he observed on Sunday morning's telecast, prior to elimination rounds at the 50th annual Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. "I told them 'Hell no!' Somebody will take it and then you earn it back. My job is to get it back.
"There's always a lot of other kids out here. But so is John Force. I will be back in 2010, and I will do some real damage."
The 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion proved good to his word by besting Ron Capps in the final to claim his first overall event win since he triumphed at Topeka, Kan., on June 1, 2008. It was the perfect way for Force to kick off his 25th anniversary season with sponsor Castrol Motor Oil, and it served notice that at age 60, the old man still has the bite to match his legendary bark.
"I don't know how I got around Ron Capps," Force exclaimed after his 4.124-second holeshot victory. "He's a great kid. I'm excited. This ain't just about winning a race, it's about coming back from the dead -- broken legs, broken arms, and I'm alive again."
Force was referring to the injuries he suffered in a devastating September 2007 accident at the Fall Nationals in Ennis, Texas. Although he posted that win at Topeka nine months later, Force finally admitted Sunday that he wasn't fully recovered until recently.
"My trainer told me if I kept working I could get my legs back," Force said in a release. "He told me I had to keep building my legs so I could push on that gas. My leg was shaking so bad last year holding the clutch and you can't drive like that. But I wasn't going to cry about it. I didn't want you all to know I was so screwed up.
"Over the winter I hit it harder, and all of a sudden I had strength to get through the day," he said. "It's awesome. I remember I got on the treadmill and I couldn't run for two minutes. Now I can go for an hour. Man, this is big for me."
Force's path to victory included a tense quarterfinal victory over his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, who herself had to deal with the stress of having her chute come unpacked prior to the run. After some confusion about whether the race would be waved off, she recovered well to post a 4.187-second pass (despite no burnout and a slow 0.178-second reaction), but her father beat her by clocking the fastest run of the finals with a 4.120-second effort.
"I'm just glad he ran a 12 because I really screwed up on my leaving," Force Hood remarked on the telecast. "After all that, the car goes down the track but the driver sucks and takes an hour to leave."
Force also had had to deal with significant changes at John Force Racing, including cutting back from four cars to three. Mike Neff, who was victorious at Pomona in November 2009 in his last start driving for JFR, now serves as co-crew chief with longtime Force ally Austin Coil.
"Mike Neff coming in to this team has been a great thing to bring some youth into our organization," Coil told a TV reporter. "John Medlen's first in-house chassis is obviously working just absolutely wonderful. The whole crew of guys we've got this year is just a big breath of fresh air from the past. I'm a very happy man."
"We have shuffled our team around," Force confirmed in a team release. "Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly have teamed up with Mike Neff. All of them, together with Jimmy Prock, John Medlen, Guido [Dean Antonelli] and Ron Douglas, were in the think tank trying to figure me out. Just seeing the younger generation with the older generation works. My change worked."
Force revealed on the telecast that he also got a bit of race-day motivation from his wife, Laurie.
"I said to my wife this morning, 'Baby, it's getting tough,'" he recounted. "She said, 'I've never heard that out of you -- ever. It's Valentine's Day -- get out there and win that thing for me.'
"So Laurie, this one's for you!"
Although it was just the first round of 23, the Winternationals demonstrated that 2010 could be a vintage year for drag racing. Mike Edwards continued his mastery of the Pro Stock class, posting a relatively comfortable victory over Greg Anderson. And Larry Dixon and Al-Anabi Racing showed that they intend to end Tony Schumacher's streak of consecutive Top Fuel titles at six.
Dixon and Schumacher met in the semifinals at Pomona and produced the best race of the weekend, both posting identical 3.836-second, 317.05 mph runs, with Dixon emerging victorious thanks to his superior .068-second (versus .085-second) reaction time.
Dixon's 3.808-second/316.60 mph effort topped Doug Kalitta (3.848/310.05) in the final.