Ford Drag Racing News: Force Looks Ahead at Pomona

Courtesy of Ford Media and PCGCambell

World Champion John ForceJohn Force, driver of the Castrol Edge Ford Mustang Funny Car, heads into this weekend’s 2009 Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., with four career victories in the season-opening event. Force, who has a record 126 career victories and 14 championships, reflects on his team’s 2008 accomplishments and looks ahead to this year.

JOHN FORCE – GTX Castrol Mustang – CAN YOU CONTRAST WHERE THE TEAM IS RIGHT NOW TO WHERE IT WAS A YEAR AGO THIS TIME? “Well, we’re in the middle of change right now. That’s what our new president Obama has been coming in and screaming and that’s what I have been hearing, you know, from all of the automakers, but Ford started change, we went back years ago. You know we knew this was coming; we are trying to get right and what I’m taking to my race team is I’m not going to wait for the opening race to figure out how to run on a budget – we saw this six months ago coming. We have got to cut back everywhere to make this thing in this economy work.”

CAN YOU REVIEW THE 2008 SEASON? YOU WON, YOUR DAUGHTER ASHLEY WON, AND ROBERT HIGHT WAS IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACE UNTIL THE VERY END. “Most importantly is the technology that we learned. We worked with NHRA and naturally with Ford to build a better race car because we lost Eric Medlen. It was very critical that we came out of that slump that we went into not just physically but mentally, and as we evolve through that and race technology is going continue. Ford is building a three-year program ahead with us to work with their technicians to build better, safer race cars. All that ends up in the Fords that you drive today, any of the Ford brand. So whether it’s the Lincoln or it’s the Flex, or Mercury, it doesn’t matter. Everything we do from NASCAR to drag racing to all that motorsports are involved in ends up on the street. So we have to evolve that. But we didn’t win the championship, but my driver Mike Neff in a Ford Mustang ended up rookie of the year and in the top 10. Ashley finished her season in the top five. I finished seventh coming out of a catastrophic accident with broken arms and legs. And Robert Hight didn’t get the title but he was right up in the top. So we got no complaints, and we’re learning to run on a budget.”

ONE THING YOU LEFT OUT FROM LAST YEAR, YOU WERE INDUCTED INTO THE HALL OF FAME. “Yeah, it was really exciting to go to Detroit and be right with my sponsors and be there to accept that honor for all the years that I’ve worked, but it really is a credit to not just myself but to my 70 employees that work night and day, the multi-car team, the four teams that we have to make that happen and right now, it’s all about the future and it’s all about change. We’ve got to learn to go after that championship, that’s what we want. The NHRA Full Throttle Championship, that’s what we live for, that’s what it’s about and along the road safety and there’s a new thing that’s been added, it’s not just winning, it’s not just safety, but it’s how to run on a budget and we’re going to learn how to do that.”

HOW IS THE ERIC MEDLEN PROJECT COMING ALONG? “Our shop is out here in California, 50,000 square foot, but most of the race teams are out in Indy, the Ford Motor program is in Indy, the Eric Medlen project is in Indy, everything now is housed under 50,000 square foot. You can see everything that we have developed working with NHRA, working with PRO and working with Ford Motor Company and their technicians. You can go there because we built a virtual reality tour and you can walk through and see it, what we’ve done. If you don’t want to believe us you can read the documentation that Ford has provided us that you can walk through it and get an education. When we do our car shows that’s where we are going to educate the people, to show them what we created from the crash of Eric, the loss of Eric something has to come out of that, and it has, a better and safer race car and it will still run for the title. So at the end of the day, Indy is our new deal because it’s cost effective to live in the middle of the country to make all of the NHRA races that are scattered all over.”

YOU TALKED ABOUT THE FORD ENGINE AND THE BOSS ENGINE PROGRAM. WHAT IS THE UPDATE ON THAT? “Well, last year we finished the season with the all-Ford Motor, understand it comes under the NHRA rules like a NASCAR spec motor, but there are rules that come into play, but we have been able to develop it from the supercharger to the heads that we run, it’s an all-Ford motor. We had it in two cars last year, and then it went into my car at the end of the year. We will start Pomona with all four Mustangs running the new engine.”

LOOKING AHEAD IN 2009 AT THE FUNNY CAR DIVISION, YOUR DRIVER ROBERT HIGHT HAS SAID HE THINKS IT’S THE MOST COMPETITIVE DIVISION WITHIN THE NHRA. WHAT IS YOUR OUTLOOK FOR CLASS OF 2009? “ Well we’re going out for the championship and not just with Ford Funny Cars but there’s two other teams that have evolved under the Motorcraft brand. You’ve got the Tasca family and Tim Wilkerson, they’ve teamed up, so there’s six Ford cars on the NHRA circuit. It’s going to make us strong, even though we’re separate teams and we can’t share technology. NHRA has a four-team rule, but Tasca, they are a family, they introduced me to Ford and we’re excited about going after the other brands, whether it’s Toyota, I know there are some other automakers that we never thought would look at NHRA drag racing but are looking to bring teams in, so we’ve got a fight on our hands.”

LAST YEAR, ASHLEY AND YOU WERE ASKED TO PARTICIPATE IN A NEW FORD RACING PROMOTION KNOWN AS THE “I’M DRIVING ONE” CAMPAIGN WHERE YOU GOT TO DRIVE VARIOUS FORD AND LINCOLN CARS AND TRUCKS AND THEN BLOG ABOUT IT. “Yeah, they took Ashley, Robert, Mike Neff and myself to Salt Lake, we went to a number of the Ford training camps and they were able to drive some of the new product. My daughter came back and said, ‘Wait until you drive these other Ford products like the Flex, it’s really awesome.’ In fact, on the road this year our team is using seven Ford Flexes. In the past we have run Excursions, but this year we are making the change to the Flex. Now, what does that mean to me? A different brand, no, the Flex, I think it gets like 22 miles to the gallon on the road and that is a huge cost savings for me running a multi-car team over the course of a year traveling hundreds of thousands of miles. That is a lot of money in this economy. Drive a Flex, it makes sense.”

SO OFF THE TRACK JOHN FORCE RACING IS DRIVING THE FORD FLEX? “And that’s what I’m going to be driving on the street. The idea is, I always drive a Ford or a Lincoln, but this year I’m going to be in the Flex and I’ll tell you why. I never thought about gas before, but I sure did in ’08. So I want to be focused on the car that will give me the best gas mileage, and that’s the Flex. Now, Ashley – she loves that Ford Mustang convertible, but I’m going to be in a Flex.”

LOOKING BACK OVER THE SECOND HALF OF LAST YEAR, THE BIG CHANGE CAME WITH THE 1,000-FOOT RUNS. YOUR THOUGHTS? “Couldn’t have been a better decision by NHRA. Number one, we’re still filling the grandstands, the people are packing in, half of them don’t know the difference between 1,000-foot or 1320. 1320s are heritage, the quarter mile, all of my records that I’ve set over the years, and I’ve had as many or more than anybody. Maybe that they don’t have the meaning that they did, but there are new records to be set in that new Ford Mustang and they’re going to start with me because that’s what I’m going after, so is Ashley , Robert, and so is Mike Neff.”

THE 1,000-FOOT ASIDE, WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHANGE YOU’VE SEEN IN THIS SPORT SINCE YOU’VE COME INTO IT? “You know, in the sport, the biggest change was the technology of computers. That you can get the data after the car had made a run, that is, over my career of over 30 years. That was big, but to see the change to what made this car run faster. Now, the computer couldn’t run anything but it could to tell the crew chief what the fuel pump was doing, what the blower was doing, everything it was doing they could make that happen. So the computer was important, but the one thing we did wrong in the 50 years of our sport, as much safety as we evolved with, one of the biggest changeS I believe is what we did with Ford Motor Company and NHRA. We evolved the chassis. The chassis, if you look at the car I drove 30 years ago, was the same car that Eric and I crashed in in ’07, and the new chassis evolved from a four-rail to a six-rail where the driver’s cockpit that protected the driver with the tub around him, and we got that through the Ford technicians and all of those guys were able to study those cars. This has been an on-going process since March of ’07, since we lost Eric, and all of ’08 and it’s not going to stop. We’re working on helmets with the impact and testing, all of that stuff is going to continue to grow. But Ford came up and got the idea to put a black box, we call it the blue box. They paid for it, it was put in by Delphi but it was put into every car. Ford said put it in the GM cars, put it in the Toyota, put in the MOPARS, let’s find out what happens when something goes wrong, and that is a big change. We’ve always been about horsepower, well, now, safety and that’s the biggest change in the sport.”

YOU MENTIONED THE BLUE BOX IS DATA, BUT YOU ALSO MENTIONED THE INFLUX OF COMPUTERS INTO IT. HOW MUCH OF AN ADVANTAGE IS IT TO BE A FOUR-CAR TEAM AGAINST WO-CAR TEAMS? “Well, number one, there was a lot of people that complained about a multi-car team but I didn’t create the concept. There were two-car teams before me, but at the end of the day you can share that technology. If the driver makes a run, then we are allowed to see that run and learn from it, so that can give you an advantage. But sometimes it can confuse you and that’s why downstairs and at the shops in Indy we’ve gone back to basics. We’ve gone back to our roots, that’s our theme. One, we’re going to learn how to run on a budget, two we’re going to learn that you don’t have to test all year to win championships and spend buku bucks because we were beaten by teams that didn’t have the budget that I had. So, NHRA has leveled the playing field, you can only take one motor to the starting line, but at the end of the day the multi-car teams, they gave drivers the chance that never got the chance, not just through John Force Racing but through Prudhomme, back though Schumacher, back through Bernstein, back through Kalitta. All of the teams had multi-car teams because of the competitive advantage and that helped fill the field. So, NHRA will have full fields this year and I’m excited about that.”

AND IT’S SIGNIFICANT THAT NHRA FUNNY CAR CLASS IS GOING TO HAVE A FULL FIELD IN THESE TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES. YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THAT THIS SPORT HAS ALWAYS LEARNED TO OPERATE ON A BUDGET. “This sport has. And if you look around here, yeah, I got a car museum that’s kind of cool, but it’s all the stuff that I raced and a few cars that Ford Motor Company gave me. You know what I’m saying. In our economy we’ve all got to learn change. Better listen to Obama. Whether you like him or not, you’re for him or against him, he’s our President, we need to follow him. We need to change. We listen to all of our sponsors, whether it’s AAA, Brand Source or Ford Motor Company. We’ve got to learn within a budget, and I’m going to do that here at John Force Racing.”

YOU GOT TO DRIVE A COBRA JET AFTER THE LAST RACE. YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE 2008 40TH ANNIVERSARY COBRA JET? “This car is unbelievable; I drove it. This car is a race ready drag car that you can take to NHRA tech the minute it is delivered to you. It even comes with drag slicks with stuff that I didn’t think Ford could do, so Ford is thinking out of the box. That’s what’s really exciting about it. This car is a 10-second car. I drove it, I raced Tasca in Pomona last fall in it. It’s got the big motor, it’s got the transmission, the gear ratio, the big tire, the aero-dynamics, everything to give you a car that can kick some butt. So there is big change there. Ford is thinking, but beyond that, think about this, they have asked me to go to the Barrett-Jackson auction to sell this car for charity. I thought I was going as a celebrity – I liked that. Then they tell me that there’s a few other cars there they want me to sell, so now I’m a car salesman, proud to be, so I’ve said it already: get into a Ford and Drive One.”

WHAT ACCOMPLISHMENT THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF? “I’ve got 14 championships, 15 as a team owner, I’ve got ET records, I’ve got speed records, I’ve been giving everything you can imagine from the Hall of Fame to whatever. I think my biggest accomplishment, well there are two. One of them is being a team owner because at the end of the day you got to lead your troops. Like Vince Lombardi said, ‘No man is an island.’ Vince didn’t say that, who said that? Teddy Roosevelt? Okay, but at the end of the day, my biggest accomplishment, because I knew that when I was on top the fans loved me, but when I was down and everybody thought I would never come back and race, the fans were still supporting me. You know what I mean, whether I drove again or not, they were telling me that they still loved me, and that was the energy that brought me back. The fans are what keeps us going, they buy our brands, they buy our products, and they’re why the sponsors give us money. At the end of the day, they love me, they love my daughter, they love Robert, they love Mike Neff, they love my team and that’s what I love about it. And the fans are my biggest accomplishment of my life, because in the end the money will be gone and in the end if the fans still love you. Understand, I’m a blue-collared guy, I am the backbone of America, I live in the middle of that. You know, I’ve met with Presidents and spoke and sometimes I’ve embarrassed myself and I can talk to the guy who drives the trash truck because at the end of the day we’re all doing a job and this is at a time in our economy where the backbone of our economy is the working man and the working lady and I’m part of that and that’s why the fans relate to John Force Racing and our drivers because we’re just like them. We’re just trying to make a living, feed our children and go to college. And if you haven’t noticed, we are in a tough economy, but I’m going to listen to Ford and I’m going to learn from them and I’m going to change my operation. And I’m going to listen to all of my sponsors don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day, I’m going to figure out how to survive and we can. That’s the bottom line.”