Force going all out for 15th title
The old man versus the young phenom. The glorious past against the bright future. "What Was" taking on "What Will Be."
Call it whatever you like. The final race for the 2010 NHRA Funny Car championship isn't Good versus Evil, but it has all the other drama any fan would love.
John Force, drag racing's biggest star, wants to prove that a 61-year-old man three years removed from an accident that mangled his body and almost ended his career, still can outrun the best in the business and win the crown.
Matt Hagan, an aw-shucks Virginia farm boy who grew up idolizing Force and hoping someday to race against him, wants to prove he can beat the best there ever was in a hot rod.
Line 'em up and let 'em go.
"I've always believed you've got to make your own destiny," Force said. "I have a chance to come back when sponsors should have let me go. They want a kid that's strong like Hagan. I have to work every day just to be able to play the game with him."
Hagan is 28, competing in only his second full season as a Funny Car driver. Don't let the inexperience fool you.
Hagan is the real deal, as talented a driver as the NHRA has seen in a long time. And he drives for Don Schumacher Racing, one of the best teams in the sport.
Hagan enters the NHRA Finals at Pomona with a 37-point lead (a little less than two rounds of racing) over Force, the 14-time champion.
"He made drag racing what it is today," Hagan said about Force. "He's one of those guys that everybody knows. That's the guy you model yourself after and you want to be like."
And the guy he wants to beat. No better way to win your first championship than to outrace the sport's iconic driver.
"We're going to come out guns blazing," Hagan said. "John's got 14 of those rings. If we can get one, we've done something, especially to mix it up with a guy like him."
Some of Force's championship seasons came against guys he wasn't particularly fond of, a nice way of saying he didn't like them.
That's not true with Hagan. Force likes him and respects him. He sees a young driver worthy of wearing his crown.
The two men are nothing alike. Force is a Southern California hotshot who could talk his way out of a firing squad execution. Hagan is a quiet cattleman with good-ole-boy Southern manners.
But their differences fade away when they get behind the wheel. Despite an age gap of 33 years and living a continent apart, both men have a relentless will to win and the skills to do it.
"I'm a big-mouthed guy and he's not," Force said. "Hagan is respectful. That's the kind of guy that bothers me. When I'm talking he's thinking.
"But the kid's good and I want a competitor that fights. If I'm going to get the sword, I want it done by a guy like that."
Force won two weeks ago at Las Vegas, beating Hagan in the final to send a message that the game is on until the end.
One thing Hagan might want to skip this week is a look at the historical facts. They're a little intimidating.
For example, Force has seven career victories at Pomona. Hagan has none. Force has won 56 rounds of racing at Pomona. Hagan's round wins at Pomona -- one.
Force has been down this road many times, but it's all new for Hagan.
"I'm just trying to keep everybody laid-back and go out there and have some fun," Hagan said. "You can get wrapped up in trying to win too hard.''
He recently got some advice from teammate Tony Schumacher, the seven-time Top Fuel champion.
"It's great to be able to go to him," Hagan said. "Tony told me, 'Just enjoy it, brother. Take it in. It's something special.'"
"You have to step back sometimes and just really enjoy the moment, enjoy being out here mixing it up with John Force. It might not happen again."
Almost no one thought this would happen again for Force. He's contending for the first time in four years. Just walking again was a chore, much less racing, after he suffered multiple leg and hand fractures in a crash at Ennis, Texas, in 2007.
At the end of the day, this isn't just John Force trying to win a 15th championship. This is John Force trying to stay in the business. I've always said, when I can't cut it as a driver, I'll step out of the seat. I'm trying to get this win so I can keep my job.” -- John Force
But he made it back by changing his life. Force quit drinking and began a rigorous workout routine.
Robert Hight, the defending Funny Car champ and Force's son-in-law, said he has never seen anyone so determined and focused to get back on top.
"John has such incredible desire in him," Hight said. "There's nobody that wants to drag race and win more than him.
"The thought of drag racing being taken away from him and never being able to do it again is something that scared him to death. That's what motivated him to get to this point. He was willing to do whatever he had to do to get back."
Win or lose on Sunday, Force has made it back. He could walk away knowing he had a heck of a run when many people thought he was done. But he isn't walking away.
"At the end of the day, this isn't just John Force trying to win a 15th championship," he said. "This is John Force trying to stay in the business. I've always said, when I can't cut it as a driver, I'll step out of the seat. I'm trying to get this win so I can keep my job."
In case you didn't know it, Force is prone to exaggeration. His job is safe and so is his three-car team that includes Hight and daughter Ashley Force Hood.
Force signed a new four-year deal with Ford last March that keeps him in the driver's seat until he's 65. The future is secure, but Hight said Force still wants to finish what he started and earn the title.
"I can see how bad he wants this and how bad he needs this," Hight said. "This season has turned him around. It has rejuvenated him, but it won't be complete without the championship."
So what will we see on Sunday, a legendary comeback or a legend in the making?
May the best man win -- old and gruff or young and tough.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at email@example.com.