Exploding engines, DNQs latest maladies for John Force Racing

John Force didn't win -- again. Ashley Force survived a fiery engine explosion. And Robert Hight failed to qualify for the first time as a pro. What's wrong with John Force Racing?

Updated: June 15, 2007, 12:12 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

For those who have been around NHRA drag racing long enough, it's difficult to remember a time when 14-time Funny Car champion John Force has been in as unrelenting a winless streak as the one he now finds himself in.

And recently, his rough sledding has trickled down to his two team drivers, daughter Ashley and son-in-law Robert Hight.

Although Hight has clearly been the best performing member of John Force Racing's triumvirate with two wins and a second-place hold in the POWERade standings, in the past two NHRA national events, he suffered a monstrous engine explosion in Topeka, Kan., that prevented him from a final-round rendezvous with Jim Head. Then he racked up the first DNQ of his professional career last week in Joliet, Ill.

Ashley's 2007 has been decidedly hot and cold, but last week at Route 66 Raceway, she survived a ferocious engine explosion and fire in qualifying before losing in Round 1 in Sunday's eliminations.

"You need to have patience in this sport -- I proved that when I first started racing," John Force said recently. "Everyone thought that guy Force ought to give it up before he burns up every Funny Car he gets into. But everything goes through cycles and this is no different.

We're patient, the fans and sponsors are patient, and in the end, it will be worth the wait.

John Force

"We've been trying some new things and haven't worked them all out yet, but when we do, we'll be running the way we expect to. We're patient, the fans and sponsors are patient, and in the end, it will be worth the wait."

For Force, a quick look at his season stats is all it takes to see how uncharacteristically bleak 2007 has been for the sport's top driver. He has but a single round win after eight races.

But there have been previous instances of some of the NHRA's most successful and dominant champions hitting prolonged losing streaks despite having Hall of Fame careers.

Joe Amato, who has won more NHRA national events (52) and POWERade championships (5) than any other Top Fuel driver in history, won his final title in 1992 and spent the final 10 years of his tremendous career watching such drivers as Eddie Hill, Scott Kalitta, Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi and Tony Schumacher rule the category.

In fact, Hill was the 1993 Top Fuel champion but never again wore the T/F crown. Between 1994 and 1999 -- when he retired -- one of the sport's most popular drivers of all time won only two national events.

And following Bernstein's remarkable string of four consecutive Funny Car championships from 1985-88, the "King of Speed" switched to Top Fuel in 1990. The transition was a prolonged period of adjustment for Bernstein, who had to wait until 1996 before tasting the fruits of his next pro championship.

And so, the picture for Force remains daunting as he stands on the threshold of missing the 2007 Countdown for the Championship in its debut season. Both Ashley and Hight are in much stronger positions to remain in the Elite Eight with eight qualifying events to go. Still, the prospect of the NHRA's biggest drawing card being relegated to the role of spoiler when the schedule rolls into O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend for the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals won't help energize ticket sales.

It's also entirely possible that Force's current malaise will be broken next week at the race in Englishtown, N.J., and by the time the Western Swing wraps up in Sonoma, Calif., in late July, Force will be poised for a run at his 15th title. But that's a mighty big step forward for a driver who finds himself in 17th place in the point standings and hasn't won a race since November.

But this isn't just any driver we're discussing. It's John Force, his prior record of performing the miraculous and the unlikely speaks for itself.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com

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