John Force's eye for talent in the Funny Car ranks is a special quality
John Force isn't just the NHRA's most prolific winner on the track, he's one of the best talent evaluators off it. That's why his Funny Car team is so often on top, writes Bill Stephens.
Updated: May 5, 2008, 5:03 PM ETBy Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com
He has competed in a remarkable 501 NHRA national events and won an equally phenomenal 1,000 rounds of eliminations -- 125 of them finals -- and 14 POWERade championships, all representing benchmarks in the sport of professional drag racing. He is a philanthropist who rarely turns down requests for his time in assisting charitable causes, and he sometimes finds it close to impossible to just relax and take a breath as he commands his four-car Funny Car team while at the helm of John Force Racing, a multimillion-dollar enterprise.Welcome to the life of John Force.And yet, one of the most overlooked skills this 59-year-old icon has exhibited time after time is his ability to recognize the untapped driving talent of younger racers moving into professional Funny Car racing and turn them into winners.Mike Neff might end up being his latest hit.As unlikely a choice as any of Force's previous freshman drivers, Neff came to John Force Racing already a champion -- but as a tuner, having guided Gary Scelzi to the 2005 NHRA Funny Car crown. Following a pattern that is well established at JFR, the mechanic-turned-driver had never raced in a nitro machine. But in his ninth pro start, Neff advanced to his first career final round in Madison, Ill. So, what is Force's secret for sniffing out future winners in spite of the skepticism of the naysayers?"I look for what's inside someone's heart," he said. "You can teach anyone the physical part of driving one of these hot rods, but you can't teach them how to want to win. "But I keep telling everyone that it's all about teamwork. Drivers are only one part of the game, and unless you have people like [Austin] Coil, Bernie [Fedderly], [John] Medlen, Jimmy [Prock], 'Guido' [Dean Antonelli] and [Ron] Douglas out here giving the drivers Mustangs they can win with, it doesn't matter how good the driver is. Winning 1,000 rounds looks good in the media, but it wasn't John Force winning all those rounds by himself."
The most obvious recent example of Force's eye for talent is his daughter Ashley, who now is in her second full season in a nitro Mustang after gaining solid experience on the sportsman level. She already has won numerous awards and accolades for her driving accomplishments and widespread popularity. She recently won her first NHRA national event, and until this past weekend's race in Madison, she led the 2008 points standings.Force's knack for identifying rising stars was first put to the test in 1996, when he hired an unheralded 31-year-old second-generation journeyman to join Team Castrol, ushering in the era of multi-car operations in the Funny Car category.
That driver was Tony Pedregon, who provided steady tactical support for Force in his championship seasons from 1996 to 2002. Pedregon won his first of two titles in 2003, before leaving JFR the following year and moving on to field his own team alongside his brother, Cruz Pedregon. Tony Pedregon won his second championship last season.Following Pedregon's departure, Force was besieged by numerous drivers looking for employment at the sport's most successful and visible team. But deciding to promote from within, he gave the vacant seat to Eric Medlen, who for eight years had been a mechanic on Force's car while competing as a professional calf roper on the rodeo circuit. The 31-year-old was a quick study, winning six national events out of nine final-round appearances before losing his life in 2007 in a testing accident in Gainesville, Fla.Force's son-in-law, Robert Hight, 39, was another youthful protege who shifted from the role of mechanic to driver with startling ease. Hight's 2005 rookie season was impressive, with two wins out of four final rounds, a five-race string leading the points and more No. 1 qualifying spots (six) than any other driver that year, earning him the AAA Road to the Future Award.Now, Force's two youngest daughters, Brittany, 22, and Courtney, 20, are expected to graduate from the Top Alcohol Dragster class to the nitro ranks in the foreseeable future. If history is any indicator, John Force Racing certainly will be well stocked with potential champions for years to come. Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Bill Stephens/ESPN.comJohn Force, right, with wife Laurie, has a lot of jobs to juggle as the NHRA's winningest driver and a four-car team owner.