Forces, Power Aim To Rule At NHRA Arizona Nationals
By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
PHOENIX -- New equipment and improved measurement techniques have compelled engineers to increase from 8,000 to 10,000 the estimated horsepower developed by a supercharged, nitromethane-burning, 500-cubic-inch engine like the Ford BOSS 500 that rests between the frame rails of five of the race cars competing this week in the 29th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird Raceway.
However, as impressive as it is that a single cylinder in a BOSS 500 Funny Car or Top Fuel motor produces almost half again as much power as the engine in a NASCAR-style stock car, the value of that resource is subject to interpretation.
“(Whether it’s) 6,000, 8,000 or 10,000 horsepower, the real issue is how much of it you can use; where and how you apply it on the racetrack,” said Mike Neff, the former driver/crew chief who this year is focused exclusively on tuning John Force’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. “That’s the challenge I enjoy as a crew chief.”
In fact, with Neff providing the mechanical expertise, Force is expected to mount a serious challenge for this week’s Funny Car title along with defending event champion Robert “Top Gun” Hight, Mello Yello points leader Courtney Force, a resurgent Bob Tasca III and a determined Tim Wilkerson.
Nevertheless, it is the Force-Neff threat that is the most intriguing.
The last time the two collaborated at Firebird, during their 2010 championship season, the result was a runner-up finish. That is significant because it’s the only time in the last six years that the 63-year-old Force has advanced beyond the first round. It could have been even better, in fact, had the race been completed on time.
Instead, the final round was postponed for one day and the minimal change in conditions resulted in a loss of traction when Force hit the throttle. All that horsepower, 6,000, 8,000 or 10,000, simply produced a cloud of tire smoke as the tractionless Mustang free-wheeled at the starting line.
There was a time, though, when Force owned the track located within the Gila River Indian reservation. From 1994 through 2001, the Hall of Fame driver won seven times in eight years. Overall, he has eight wins at Firebird, three more than anyone else including Ford Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden.
“I was there when Charley Allen opened the track (in 1985),” Force said. “It was a match race (a booked-in show not part of the championship series). Then we came back in the fall and lost John Collins in the final. We’ve done a lot of testing (at the Phoenix track). My girls have made a lot of runs there. So has Robert.”
In fact, Force never has failed to qualify for an Arizona race and has gone to the finals 12 times in 28 previous appearances.
That said, the sport’s biggest winner lost to his daughter in last year’s opening round and is coming off a first-round loss in last week’s season-opening O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Remarkably, the consensus favorite at Firebird is Courtney Force, the second-year pro who won last week from a No. 1 start at the wheel of the Traxxas Mustang. She will be seeking her third pro victory in Sunday’s eliminations, and it is difficult to imagine anyone more excited about the prospect.
“It's definitely a big boost of confidence coming off of a win at the first race and going into (the Arizona Nationals with) the points lead,” said the 24-year-old phenom, who last year was the pro tour’s Rookie of the Year. “We definitely hope to keep this momentum going but I know that everyone is going to be coming after us this weekend.
“It was a huge accomplishment matching up against my dad last year in the first round and turning on that win light,” beamed the spokesperson for Ford’s Driving Skills for Life initiative.
“I think it throws my dad off of his game a little when he has to race his kid. We had a good race car last year, but racing someone like my dad, a 15-time champion, and getting the win was so exciting. I've grown up watching him race, but he has also taught me everything I know about driving.
“In that round a year ago, we were messing with each other a little bit, and it must have worked in my favor because I was able to grab the win. I’ll never forget that day, (and) I'm looking forward to seeing how our car will run at this race.”
If there is a Ford driver looking forward to the weekend with any more anticipation, it could be Tasca, who took the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang to the semifinals last week and rolls into Firebird in fourth place in Mello Yello points. Not even a foul start against Courtney Force she smoked the tires, but we made a full pull, and that’s great data for the team, considering the things we were trying in that semifinal.
“For us, (this week) is about going down the race track and really picking away at our tune-up. We were pretty happy about that last run (at Pomona, 4.142 at 311.34 miles per hour),” Tasca said. “Even though it wasn’t a 4.02, there was a lot on that run we were happy about and it gives us a great place to start in Phoenix.”
While the Forces and Tasca roll in brimming with confidence, the same can’t be said for Hight and Wilkerson.
The former struggled once again with the Auto Club Mustang, completing only one of five runs under power and falling to two-time world champion Cruz Pedregon in Round 1. Moreover, on the one run that put him in the show, Hight had to do a masterful driving job just prevent an engine failure after the throttle stop came off of the car on the burnout.
Still, the 2009 series champion knows that his team is capable of turning things around after struggling down the stretch last year. After all, his 2012 win at Firebird sent him on a four-in-a-row winning streak, the longest of his career.
“Getting the win at Firebird last year was big for our team,” said the 27-time tour winner. “We got some momentum and we carried it for the next four races. This year I think we can get that momentum again. I’m glad to be going right back to the racetrack after our weekend in Pomona.
“We’ve put that race behind us, and Jimmy (crew chief Jimmy Prock) learned some things which we will try this weekend,” Hight said. “You're not going to get any easy round wins in Funny Car. When over half the field is running 4.0s (as was the case last week), you better have your game face on when you roll up to the starting line.
“This season is long and you can’t let yourself get too down. You want to win every race but there are seventeen more races before the Countdown starts. You want to get into the Top 10 and then make a strong run over the last six races of the season. That is what wins Mello Yello championships. I won the first Full Throttle Funny Car championship and my goal is to be the first Mello Yello champion, too.”
Like Tasca, Wilkerson exited last week after a rare foul start in Round 1. He is determined to atone for it this week.
"We all try to hit the throttle as soon as we see the amber bulbs flash,” explained the man who is both crew chief and driver of the Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang. “That's the amount of time it takes your brain to tell your foot to go. Looking at the video, I hit the throttle at exactly the moment the ambers flashed and my brain obviously knew it was too soon, so I automatically double-stepped it. You don't have time to think that out, you just do it, and as soon as you do it, you know you messed up.”
Still, it wasn’t exactly a lost weekend for the veteran and his independent team.
"I don't care how much you practice or train for this, you just can't imitate or fabricate what it's like to work on one of these cars when the pressure is on, people are staring at you, and the clock is ticking," Wilkerson said of two new crew members who made their Funny Car debuts at Pomona.
"It's easy to panic a little, and when you do that it takes even longer because you're not being a natural mechanic,” he said. “My guys can all do these jobs, but the first few qualifying laps and eliminations rounds are the times when they'll earn their stripes and become a team.
"They earned a little bit of a stripe there on Saturday, servicing the car and bolting it together perfectly, so we could go out there and put back-to-back 4.09s on the board. They're getting there, and they'll continue to get better.”
Two other Ford drivers looking for a measure of redemption at Firebird are Pro Stock veteran Larry Morgan, who after earning a Top 10 finish last year in the Lucas Oil/MAV TV Ford Mustang, failed to qualify for the season-opener, and Brittany Force, the second youngest of the Hall-of-Famer’s four daughters, who again will try to get the first round win in more than 40 years a Ford-powered Top Fuel dragster.