Commentary

Force joins elite cadre of drag-racing Hall of Famers

Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Joe Amato, Don Prudhomme, Connie Kalitta. The list of legendary drag racers inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America is an elite group. Where does newest inductee John Force rank among them? Do you need to ask?

Updated: August 15, 2008, 12:28 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

The names are familiar to two generations of drag racing fans who have directed their motorsports devotions to the great stars who shone brightly in the NHRA firmament.

Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Joe Amato, Don Prudhomme, Chris Karamesines, Connie Kalitta and Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins have all received their just rewards as world-renowned drag racers previously inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Detroit, Mich.

On Wednesday night, John Force became the latest drag racing luminary to be inducted in ceremonies at the MHFA in Detroit.

One need not dig deeply to uncover the career statistics, performance milestones and title-winning credentials that make Force a Hall of Fame shoo-in. Fourteen POWERade championships, 126 national event wins and 131 No. 1 qualifying starts are just the obvious excerpts from his body of work that qualify him for quarter-mile immortality. But what Force possesses -- perhaps in far greater quantity than the other drag racers with whom he now shares Hall of Fame floor space -- is his charisma, character and raw star power.

Tom Compton, the president of the National Hot Rod Association, served as presenter at Force's induction ceremonies Wednesday evening and is lavish in his respect for the sport's all-time winningest driver.

"John Force has been one of drag racing's brightest lights for many years," Compton said. "His value to the sport can't be measured simply by how many wins he achieves or how many championships he earns.

"John represents the unlimited excitement and energy that NHRA POWERade drag racing brings to people everywhere, and what he has come to mean to his countless fans and to the new fans discovering our sport every day is impossible to measure. I think we can all agree that John is a one-of-a-kind individual who we're very fortunate to have playing on our team. We'll never see another John Force in our lifetime."

For Force, induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America is yet another accolade that seems almost surreal to him when he reflects upon the obsequious and unremarkable roots from which he sprung as a young man.

"I often think about how I got from where I came from to where I am now, and sometimes it seems like a dream," said Force, whose childhood years were spent growing up in the blue-collar neighborhood of Bell Gardens, Calif., watching his parents often struggle to make ends meet.

"If what happened to me can be described as going from rags to riches, I guess I may be a good example. Winning races and championships with my guys, [Austin] Coil, Bernie [Fedderly], John [Medlen] and Jimmy [Prock], is something to point at and take a lot of pride in. But now that my girls Ashley, Brittany and Courtney are out there racing and putting their own careers together, it makes whatever I do that much more special."

His fans are the most vocal, fervent and relentlessly loyal in all of drag racing -- quite possibly in all of motorsports. His generosity and unselfishness in supporting a host of charities are a model that many of his racing peers strive to emulate, and his random, rambling, rambunctious interviews continue to amuse and delight grandstand and television audiences with unfailing regularity.

Force has more than fulfilled the requirements expected of any professional racing personality to legitimately reach Hall of Fame consideration and he has done so on every level upon which eligibility can be weighed.

Tom Compton had it right. John Force is definitely one of a kind.

And at the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, he'll be in good company:

• Garlits -- better know the world over as "Big Daddy" -- was a chippy, defiant Pied Piper of speed and ingenuity during the formative years of nitro drag racing who could do it all and do it well. Designing and building revolutionary chassis and engines, clever and innovative speed parts, and using his remarkable cunning and guile to win countless drag races with his supercharged sleight of hand.

• Muldowney, the three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion, combined her remarkable driving savvy with her unmistakable force of will to put an end to the gender barrier in drag racing while proving beyond a doubt that women deserved the chance to race against the men, and earned their respect. She was the first woman in any professional racing venue who didn't wait to be invited to the party. Shirley opened the door for herself.

• Amato was Top Fuel's first five-time champion during a period when almost every dragster in the class carried a potential champ. Amato raced and beat them all: Garlits, Bernstein, Ormsby, Beck, Hill, McCulloch, Kalitta and Dunn, and when he won three consecutive Top Fuel titles between 1990 and 1992, it was the category's first threepeat.

• Karamesines, the "Golden Greek," never broke through for an NHRA championship but belongs in any racing hall of fame on the basis of longevity. He began racing in the 1950s and made his name on the match racing trail with a series of immaculately prepared dragsters wearing the name "Chizler." Karamesines races to this very day at an age when most men drive only as quickly as they're capable of when heading for the golf course.

• Kalitta, another granddaddy of the Top Fuel discipline, boasted carbon-steel toughness and a pit-bull demeanor in carving out a major role in the growth of big time drag racing. He has been as much a showman as a mechanic, and the Kalitta legend has long been established, while still moving toward its yet-to-be-written final chapter.

• Jenkins became a hero to anyone who pinned his or her hopes of quarter-mile glory on the Chevy nameplate when factory drag racing was still emerging. His "Grumpy's Toy" logo splashed on the doors of a long stream of Chevy Super Stock and Pro Stock war machines struck fear into the hearts of competing drivers who many times, in futility, sought to outrun the massive power and lightning-fast driving talent of William Tyler Jenkins.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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