In the beginning, there was so much hope. But now, after a campaign that has absorbed so much misfortune and disappointment in the past nine months, John Force will remember the 2007 NHRA POWERade season as one of the most physically and emotionally grueling of his legendary career.
During Sunday's second round of Funny Car eliminations at the 22nd O'Reilly Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex, south of Dallas, Force was involved in a catastrophic collision with Kenny Bernstein just after both cars crossed the finish line. Bernstein's Monster Energy Dodge -- racing in the right lane -- edged toward the centerline and struck a foam timing block, resulting in immediate disqualification, just as Force's Castrol Syntec Mustang was thrown into a sudden swerve, striking Bernstein's race car broadside.
Force's chassis split in half and was demolished; Bernstein's Funny Car had its body knocked off, otherwise avoiding any hard impact. Bernstein safely coasted to a stop and walked away uninjured.
Force, though, was still strapped in the cockpit of his machine when NHRA Safety Safari rescue workers reached the 14-time champion. After being removed from the wreck and airlifted to nearby Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Force was diagnosed with a severely broken left ankle, a deep laceration on his right knee, a fractured and dislocated left wrist, and abrasive injuries to his right hand.
John Force Racing spokesman Dave Densmore reflected the sentiments of everyone who had witnessed what is considered to be the worst accident of Force's career.
"John is very, very lucky he wasn't hurt more seriously," he said. "It could have been much worse."
Shortly after Force arrived at the hospital, the waiting area at the hospital was filled with family members and friends, including Bernstein, wife Sheryl and son Brandon; Gary Scelzi; Force's wife, Laurie, daughter Ashley and teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight; and the JFR tuning team of Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, John Medlen and Jimmy Prock.
Heading into the 2007 season, John Force Racing was anticipating a banner year. Force was prepared to defend his unprecedented 14th championship; Ashley was making her professional debut aboard a fourth team car; Hight had finished second in the 2006 points in only his second season in the category; and Eric Medlen was primed and ready to improve upon his fourth-place points finish in '06.
But Force got off to the slowest start of his championship era, falling back in the points early on and failing to win his first national event of the year until Bristol, Tenn., in May. He rallied late in the Countdown to Eight to move into the playoff segment of the new points system, but now has seen his season come to a devastating halt with three events remaining.
His close friend and talented teammate Medlen lost his life in March after a testing accident in Gainesville, Fla., inspiring Force to implement his own research and development efforts to increase the level of driver safety in the Funny Car class.
Meanwhile, Ashley battled inconsistency in her program throughout the early stages of the season, preventing her from making the elite eight in the Countdown rankings. Her frightening accident during the national event in Seattle in July gave her family and team members an anxious moment as she escaped injury when her car made hard contact with the retaining wall at Pacific Raceways.
Only Hight has pieced together a relatively consistent season, remaining at or near the top in the Countdown points and positioning himself for a solid run for the '07 title. Despite a DNQ this weekend, Hight will enter the final race of the Countdown to Four in Richmond, Va., in two weeks in second place. Had Force not suffered the second-round collision with Bernstein, he would have left Dallas in no worse than fourth place in the Countdown standings.
But with Force's lengthy recovery period on the horizon and the 2007 NHRA schedule winding down, the sport's winningest driver has been robbed of his role in the dramatic conclusion to this year's Funny Car championship saga. To say his presence will be missed on the drag racing stage would be an egregious understatement, and for many devoted fans of the sport's biggest attraction, the season might already be over.
In the final analysis, that might not be an altogether bad thing. This has been a year to forget for John Force.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com