Gainesville, Florida is a very emotional place for NHRA Funny Car driver John Force. The 16-time champion has seven wins at Auto Plus Raceway at Gainesville, home of this weekend’s Amalie Oil NHRA GatorNationals, but also suffered one of his greatest losses at the track: driver Eric Medlen, who died from injuries suffered in a testing accident at the track in 2007.
“I was focused on making movies, and I should have been on the starting line with Eric Medlen,” remembered Force, Medlen’s car owner at the time. “I was actually with USA Today doing a story in the trailer when Eric crashed on Monday…I was on the phone doing it, but I know more about these Funny Cars than anybody, because I've done it the longest. I've made more runs. Now that I'm one of the oldest left in this business and I look out and I should have been there to see what took place, and all I had was the wreckage to evaluate. The videos that we did have, we went through because the TV show was filming, but we buried them. They'll never be seen by anybody out of respect to that kid. But it was a wakeup call how important safety is.”
The patriarch of the Force family brings a new set of emotions to Gainesville this year, in the form of a sponsor search. Castrol and Ford will both leave John Force Racing as sponsors at the end of 2014, and Force is “reinventing” himself and his teams.
“You know, I'm working so I don't have to go back to that trailer house and back to driving that truck,” said Force. “Not that it was a bad life, but I fought to get out of there, and I ain't going back. We won't fail. We're working on it hard every day. I've hired Just Marketing, Octagon with our TV show. Lot of stuff happening, and I'm going to stay in business.”
The John Force Racing teams most affected by the sponsorship departures are Force and his daughter Brittany, who races in Top Fuel. Brittany, the 2013 Road to the Future Award winner as rookie of the year, made the first final round of her young career at Phoenix against 2012 Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, and her father is determined that it won’t be her last.
“My daughter last year struggled mentally,” said Force. “‘Dad, will I ever win?’ And I said, honey, this is the best time of your life…It's about learning. It's not just about winning. You've got to learn how to lose to learn how to win. I've seen guys that jumped out at the first national event and won, and then they just took it for granted and never won again and got out of the business. I have witnessed it. I said, if you don't have the pain of defeat, you'll never have the happiness of victory. When she got down there, I had a chance to win, dad and I didn't win. I said, no, but you were taught by the best. Antron Brown beat you. It's a learning lesson that he gave you for free. Not that you were late on the light, not that your car was wrong, he's better. And if you motivate yourself to be as good as him and you work harder on that tree, then you'll be a champion. Otherwise you will fail. I went five, six years before I could get to a final. She's in her second season. No, I'm proud of her. I'm proud, and my job is to find a sponsor for her. I cannot set her on fire…I'm not going to fail my children.”
“I'm going to fight for this sport until I drop dead, and I'm going to give you everything I've got when I get to Gainesville.”
Pro qualifying for the 45th annual Amalie Oil NHRA GatorNationals at Auto Plus Raceway at Gainesville in Florida gets underway Friday, March 14th at noon and 2:15 p.m. ET, with final rounds on Saturday, March 15th at noon and 2:15 p.m. ET. Eliminations begin Sunday, March 16th at 11 a.m. ET. Keep up with the action at www.nhra.com.
Quotes in this piece provided by the NHRA.
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