Reaction Time

By Susan Wade

POMONA, Calif. — The National Hot Rod Association crowned its oldest champion — Funny Car’s John Force, 61 — and its youngest champion, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s LE Tonglet, 20 last weekend. And it re-anointed Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson and Top Fuel’s Larry Dixon at the Automobile Club of Southern California Finals.

However, Force barely had time to savor his 15th Funny Car championship and his victory last Sunday in the season finale at Auto Club Raceway. Longtime crew chief Austin Coil, who came to Force as a championship tuner and was architect of his record-smashing success, announced Tuesday he’s leaving the organization to relax first, then pursue other drag-racing opportunities.

It’s not the first time in 2010 that a trusted member of the Force Racing family left for another organization. John Medlen, antsy to have a real tuning job, a real responsibility after Mike Neff’s fourth Funny Car was parked at the end of 2009 and he was essentially a floater, bolted for Don Schumacher Racing. (He now finds himself out of a crew chief position, according to Schumacher’s statement following the final race of the year.)

But still, it was a blow to the Force camp. Instead of being able to share with the Ford Motor Company his tribute to its technical and engineering support, he hasn’t been able to exploit the fact that Ford helped make race cars safer, more aerodynamically competitive, and relevant to the automaker’s global sales and marketing initiatives. That’s lost in the shuffle of . . . well, a personnel shuffle.

Rather than savoring his triumph over broken bones, a winless 2009 season, advancing age (he’s 61), and the economy’s downward spiral — never mind his relentless and talented opponents — he’s once again trying to regroup.

The day after accepting his $500,000 championship check, Force told reporters, “I’ve got nowhere to go, guys. I ain’t trying to be no cool dude here that says things to make a story. I got nowhere to go. I go to the racetrack. It’s where I live. You all know that I love the race car. It’s what my whole life is, and I love the race tracks. NHRA is my home.

“My wife, everybody knows, threw me out 12, 13 years ago. Still married, still love the woman, got all these issues, love my kids more than anything in life. That’s what it’s all about . . . the family.”

He didn’t discuss the Coil situation directly but said Wednesday, “Boy, I had problems hit me this morning, but I take them one day at a time. Now I’ve got a whole string of new problems that just hit me this morning. That’s what I am. I’m a fighter. I address them as they come.”

But clearly he was referring to Coil’s bombshell.

Both have joked throughout the years about them being like a married couple. Sometimes they’re the Bickersons, sometimes the Waltons, but they always knew each brought a strength to the mix. For Force it was his ability to secure sponsorship. For Coil, it was finding the right combination for the car. Together they produced an unprecedented number of NHRA championships and other records. But as with any divorce, no one else knows everything that goes on behind closed doors.

Force did say, “I know the rumor mills are going crazy, and I have to address it. But it’s part of what John Force does. My heart’s pounding today over some things that have hurt me real bad, and I don’t understand. I’ve got to go find out.

“But I will be strong. My teams, Ashley Force [Hood] will be strong, Robert Hight will be strong, and we will prevail. That’s all I’ve got because, even when I lose, I still win if I believe. I gave it everything I had. And we gave it everything we had with a bunch of great kids. It’s called teamwork. That’s why John Force Racing, we win because we stay together as a team.”

But Force, still not 100 percent certain why this marriage with Coil was failing, didn’t discuss it directly. Publicist Dave Densmore said Wednesday morning that Force would not be making any kind of a statement until he had spoken further with Coil.

Part of the speculation is that Coil wasn’t keen on Force’s gushing about the contributions of Mike Neff and his tuning. But Force said, “I’ve got to give credit where due.”

Said Force, “The car does the running. All I got to do is keep the spark. Mike Neff went out there, teamed up with Coil and Bernie, and it was a brain trust of people, but we needed fire. We needed a young kid to light Coil and Bernie because Coil’s brilliant. So’s Bernie. They got me all these championships. And Mike Neff was the spark that we needed, because I needed that spark. I’ve got to give credit where due.”

While he said he’s “financially stable,” he acknowledges that’s because he had to make adjustments — adjustments Coil has said publicly that he didn’t especially appreciate.

“Let’s just say that I have not been overwhelmingly happy with the financial arrangements ever since the restructuring caused by the economy,” Competition Plus quoted Coil as saying in an interview published Thursday.

So that isn’t the only drama that is keeping Force from enjoying his record accomplishment.

Wife Laurie is pushing him to participate in an upcoming 5K run in Yorba Linda, Calif.

“My whole family is running in it. I can’t run. You saw me run down the side of the racetrack when I won the championship with the fans,” Force said. “She said, ‘You’ve got to do this now.’ The woman is driving me crazy: ‘You’ve got to go run in this marathon.’ I don’t know if I can run 30 feet, let alone three miles.”

When he finally knew he had his championship in the bag (as NHRA’s oldest, just before NHRA crowned its youngest champ, biker LE Tonglet,), Force outran photographers who were about 15 years younger than he is. He sprinted the length of the grandstands, doing the so-called “Lambeau Leap” (of Green Bay Packers fame) into the stands, hugging his well-wishers and reveling in the moment — all in high gear. But he said it drained him.

“I run on a treadmill. I don’t have a problem. But my knee is so bad. When the pipe went through my knee in the crash at Dallas — I had polio as a kid anyway. My right leg was always bad. And I always said the race car did the running. But the knee won’t take the pounding,” he said. “When I run on a treadmill for 30, 40 minutes, I don’t run fast. Just a good old hobble along to get cardio, get the heart going, whatever that stuff does.”

He’s already pondering knee surgery, what might happen with a vacant cockpit, when married daughter Ashley is going to have children, when single daughter Courtney is going to start driving a Funny Car, what’s ahead for the NHRA and all of motorsports in America, and what will become of America itself.

“I’m going to try to have knee surgery over the winter,” Force said. “They wanted to do it last year, and I keep putting it off. I just want to make my body stronger where I can still run the run. Hell, I believe, if I could get my knee right, I’d go another ten years.”

For some reason, he jumped onto the subject of who might need to replace him the car.

“If something blows up here down the road, if somebody gets sick, if I fall out of the seat, you know who’s going back into my Funny Car right away? It would be Mike Neff.,” he said. “Mike Neff was a driver, had to give up the seat because I had lost money. Mike Neff will step back in that seat if John Force gets [in a position not be able to drive].”

He said, “Those are the things that I talk to the sponsors about. I talk about Ashley. They all want to know when Ashley’s going to have a baby. I don’t know. When Ashley tells me, you know what I mean?

“I’ve got a baby girl coming up that wants to race, Courtney. She’s graduating this year, and I’m going to be testing her next year in a fuel Funny Car,” he said, adding the new year will include “learning the ropes for my kids so when I do step out — because I don’t want to go to the racetrack if it’s not my family.”

He became more and more animated, waxing philosophical about solders, the sanctioning body and the USA.

“Our men and women in the armed forces that fight every day, we’ve got a great country. We’re going to save America. It needs saving. And John Force, I fight for NHRA. That’s where I start,” Force said. “And NHRA’s a great company. I don’t always agree with what they do, but they are my playing field, and I will stand by them to the end, and I will fight that fight. I’ll fight with [NHRA President Tom] Compton and his people, Graham Light [NHGRA senior vice-president of racing operations]. But at the end of the day, they give me a playing field, and I respect and honor them for that.”

Teamwork is one of the sturdiest pillars of his organization. However, he said, “I got a few hiccups there right now that’s got me worried, but I take it as it is. I fight the battle as a team, because no man’s an island. Even when I fall, this machine will go on. NHRA has got to go on. We’re like Ford Motor Company. We’re a big part of the American scene. We cannot fail. NASCAR can’t fail, and drag racing cannot fail, and I’m not going to allow it. I’m going to be part of it, and I’m going to grow with it.”

One only can hope that he gets to take a deep breath somewhere along the line.

Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) weren’t quite as boisterous as 15-time Funny Car champion when they claimed their National Hot Rod Ass’n. crowns this past weekend at the Automobile Club of Southern California Finals.

But just like Force, each had overcome adversity.

As they took center stage amid fireworks, oversized mock checks, cheering fans, eager photographers, and celebratory music at Auto Club Raceway, they surely could remember a time that they doubted this scenario would be theirs at the end of this year. They surely could recall disheartening days in which this joy might have been unfathomable.

Dixon lost the Top Fuel title to Tony Schumacher by a mere two points last season. His is hardly a heartrending story, compared to Anderson’s or Tonglet’s.

Anderson watched Mike Edwards gobble up the bulk of the Pro Stock goodies last year and this most of this season, as well, while he couldn’t seem to recapture the performance glory that was his for consecutive campaigns in the early 2000s. But this season began with an especially heavy heart, as Anderson’s Summit Racing Equipment team rallied around benefactor Ken Black, who had suffered a stroke in December 2009. And a house fire displaced Anderson’s family in January.

“This has certainly been the most trying and absolutely the most rewarding season that I have ever had in drag racing and one I will certainly never forget,” Anderson said Saturday after clinching his fourth title, his first since 2005, and his first with the Countdown format that started in 2007.

“I know they say your first championship is always the most special, but considering how hard this Summit Racing team had to fight and claw to get back to where we could win races on a consistent basis, and that we had to do it for most of the season without our team leader Ken Black, puts this one right at the top.”
Anderson said, “In the early part of the season, we so wanted to put a smile on Ken’s face, I think we just tried too hard. He’s like a father to us, so we wanted to make him proud of us, thinking it would help with his recovery. Unfortunately, we weren’t doing well in any facet of the program, and that was driven by our minds not being right.

“He finally had to make us realize that he was going to be OK and that we needed to go back to having fun at the racetrack and stop worrying about winning for him,” he said. “Ironically enough, once we did that, we were able to go back to running the way we are capable of and started winning again.”

He said he understands the heartache Edwards must feel with a season-long lead and 11 final rounds to his credit this year, only to have the title slip through his hands in he Countdown. “I feel horrible for Mike and know how he feels right now, because I’ve lost championships in a similar fashion,” Anderson said. “But I am so proud of my race team for what they have done. Mike is a great driver with a great team, but he didn’t hand the title over to us – we took it from him. This was a complete team effort, with the KB Racing team getting the job done.

“A few months ago,” he said, “you couldn’t have bet me any amount of money in the world that this would happen. But it did, and it’s because this Summit Racing team refused to give up. Our performance over these last few races was not a fluke or because we got lucky. We made some moves to make ourselves better.

“This Pro Stock category is so tough,” he said, “that you have to earn every single point. So right now I feel like I just jumped over the moon.”

In the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, Suzuki rider Tonglet jumped over one big financial hurdle, thanks to a late-season infusion of cash from Nitro Fish team owner Kenny Koretsky.

Team Tonglet, which includes dad Gary and brother GT (who plans a comeback in 2011), was out of parts and out of money on the eve of the Countdown. But Koretsky stepped up to fund the 20-year-old rookie’s campaign.

It paid off in Sunday’s second round, as Tonglet defeated Steve Johnson with a stellar 6.860-second pass, then — all to the blaring “We Are the Champions” by Queen — accepted the $75,000 champion’s check from NHRA President Tom Compton and Full Throttle’s Chris Lopez in a trackside ceremony.

On a day Force became the NHRA’s oldest champion at age 61, Tonglet is the NHRA’s youngest. He follows Gary Scelzi (Top Fuel, 1997) and Frank Hawley (Funny Car, 1982) as only the third racer and first biker to win the championship in his rookie year.

For his late-season surge, Tonglet was named the next night as recipient of the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award. It honors the NHRA’s top rookie performer.

“This is just unbelievable,” Tonglet said. “I can’t thank my family and Kenny Koretsky enough for this. Without Kenny, we wouldn’t have made it past the race at Indianapolis. We were on a tight budget, and thankfully he stepped up at the right time and we have just been on a roll since then.

“This is for my dad because he hasn’t won one of these, but we came close a few times. This is just awesome to be going back home with this championship,” the Metairie, La., native said.

Tonglet, too, fouled out, against eventual race winner Eddie Krawiec in the semifinals. But he said, “That red light didn’t hurt too badly. It still hurts, but at least we got the big prize.”

He said when he saw the win light in his race against Johnson, he told himself, “Please don’t wake up.”

He said Wednesday that he and his family “never even thought about” winning a championship or rookie-of-the-year honors. “We didn’t even think we’d be able to win a race. That was our goal. We went to Gainesville just to qualify and get enough money to go to the next race.

“We just had fun all year long, and winning just makes it that much better. I couldn’t ask for much more than this year that I had right now.”

The 20-year-old’s grand performance has attracted new and younger fans to a sport that needs to lower the median age of its fan base if it is to continue its popularity beyond its 60th birthday that it will celebrate in 2011. And Tonglet is one of the sanctioning body’s biggest assets.

“I had more fans come up to me in the last two races, Vegas and Pomona, saying that I’m the reason they’re watching Pro Stock Motorcycle now. So that’s just awesome that we’re getting new fans to the class, and that’s what we need because without the fans we wouldn’t be there,” Tonglet said.

“And with me winning the championship, you know, that really opens the doors to anybody who wants to come out and compete because you can buy the stuff that you can win a championship with. And Vance [& Hines] will sell you the power, and you can find the bikes all over the place. Our bike is almost 10 years old. So any bike is capable of winning. You’ve just got to find the setup and the right engine combination, and it could be yours,” he said.

“There should be a lot of new people out next year, and it’s going to be hard to repeat,” Tonglet said.

Dixon seemed destined to win his dream third title by virtue of this year-long points lead and a perfect showing in 12 final-round appearances in the Al-Anabi Toyota Dragster. But Tony Schumacher threw some marbles in his path in the Countdown.

“I know there’s been a lot of talk about miracles,” Dixon said Sunday after prevailing by 102 points over the seven-time and reigning champion Tony Schumacher. The U.S. Army Dragster driver has carved a reputation for absurdly impossible comebacks among his title runs, and he said he caused the Al-Anabi team some concern.

Said Schumacher of Dixon’s crew (who helped him perform those miracles before bolting to the Alan Johnson-managed Al-Anabi team), “They said they hadn’t slept for two days because they knew if they made a mistake first round, we were going to go out and do what we had to do.”

In the end, Dixon said that evening losing by two points last season, he had as much fun battling Schumacher then as he did this year and that “this is a notch above that.” As for the miracles, Dixon said, “The guy who has performed all those miracles (Alan Johnson) is in my corner now. He’s my coach; he’s my cut man.”

And Dixon scored the TKO, ending Schumacher’s reign Sunday.

Said the Southern California-born, second-generation Top Fuel driver, “I’m so lucky to be able to do this, to make house payments and take care of my family out of something I love to do.”

Ending Schumacher’s dominance — which he also did at the U.S. Nationals, where Schumacher was gunning for a record ninth Top Fuel triumph — was not as over-the-top for Dixon as it was for the media and fans.

“We’re friends away from the racetrack,” Dixon said. “He’s definitely a champion. He knows what it takes to win one of these and how hard it is to win one. He’s still a seven-time champ.”

He said Schumacher kept his word that if Dixon won, he would shake his hand.

“He came by. We were getting ready for — I don’t know — I guess it was the semifinal, and he came by the staging lanes and said congrats and good job and all of that. So he’s definitely — he’s a man of his word.”

In the end, Dixon remained true to his words all season long and accepted victory with humility.

“I think that winning any championship in any category is a very cool thing to do. And it’s — I feel, on my end of things, it’s just — it’s a huge — it means so much, and it’s just a huge accomplishment. And anybody who wins one in any category certainly is deserving of it. It’s very, very hard to win one of these things because you have to be good throughout the season.

“The playoffs change it up a little bit. You definitely have to shine during the — during those last six events, but you can’t be chopped liver, you know, those first 18, 17 races,” Dixon said.” So it’s very important, and I just — I’m very — still honored about it. There’s no givens.

“You could have the most talent — look at the New York Yankees, where money’s not an object, and they didn’t win the World Series. They weren’t even in the World Series. So it doesn’t buy you anything. It still has to be a team to be able to get it done day in and day out. And I’m proud to be a part of this.”

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