John Force finally gets 100th win

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John Force is just that - a force.

The winningest driver in drag racing history beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on Sunday, hitting 310.20 mph and rocketing down the quarter mile at Houston Raceway Park in 4.991 seconds.

Those numbers aren't records and really aren't even that fast these days. The significant number for Force on the unseasonably hot day in Texas was 100.

After four unsuccessful tries this season, the gravel-voiced, fast-talking icon of his sport joined only stock car drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) among racers in a major series reaching the century mark in victories.

NASCAR's Petty and Pearson both got most of their victories in the 1960s and '70s. Force has been the winningest driver of the last two decades.

Sitting on 99 entering the season, it was agonizing for Force to have keep answering the questions about the next win. The pressure mounted with each loss, although he was running well enough to be leading the standings in the Funny Car division.

"I'm just glad we finally got it done," Force said. "Now I can get just get back to racing and focus on winning a championship."

Another title would be no shock to anyone. After all, Force, who will be 53 on May 4, already has 11 NHRA titles, including the last 10 in a row.

To describe the stocky driver from Yorba Linda, Calif., as the Jack Nicklaus of his sport would not be an exaggeration.

It didn't start out that way, though.

In his first nine years as a professional, beginning in 1978, Force reached the finals nine times - and lost them all.

The first win finally came in 1987, two years after he hired crew chief Austin Coil. Those two have been together ever since, and Force sees him as his secret weapon.

"People forget that Austin has 107 wins," Force said, grinning. "Austin turned my life around."

Coil, 56, is considered the top car tuner in the drag racing world and it was a coup when Force was able to hire him.

"Getting together with John was a gamble. Back in the early days I was just happy if he could give me a paycheck that wouldn't bounce," said Coil. "We blew up a lot of stuff back then. Of course, we still do.

"Over the years, though, I've developed a respect for John as a driver, a leader and an organizer unsurpassed in motorsports."

Both Force and Coil also give a lot of credit for all the success over the last 15 years to sponsor Castrol GTX, which has provided the all-important bankroll.

"What keeps this machine rolling is just buckets of money from our sponsor," Coil said. "As long as the sponsors keep feeding John the money, he keeps spending it on his race team.

"Some guys are prone to try to sock it away for their old age," he added. "Not John. For all the budget meetings we've had, there isn't ever anything left over at the end of the year."

Force won 11 times in 1993 and passed Don "The Snake" Prudhomme's record of 35 Funny Car victories.

In 1996, he had the best season of any drag racer, ever, advancing to 16 finals in 19 races and winning 13 times. That earned Force the Driver of the Year Award from a panel of national motorsports media, and he remains the only drag racer ever to win that title.

Two years ago, Force passed Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden as the winningest driver in NHRA history, surpassing Glidden's 85 victories.

Perhaps the most incredible Force statistic, though, is his career won-loss record of 768-255. No one else has come close.

Force is both funny and self-effacing, giving most of the credit to his crew, particularly longtime friend Coil.

"He never panics in the heat of battle," Force said. "I may be throwing up in the staging lanes, but Austin is always there for me, always cool.

"People ask me, `How can you do this?"' Force added. "I don't have a clue, but I know it takes money, luck and talent. My luck changed and I finally got some money after I got Austin."

Kenny Bernstein, 57, is one of Force's few contemporaries still on the NHRA circuit.

The sport's longtime Top Fuel king earned his 62nd victory in Houston on Sunday, third on the all-time list but the first of what he says will be his final season behind the wheel.

Asked if he would follow Bernstein's lead and step to the sidelines in the near future, the trademark toothy grin flashed across Force's weathered face.

"Retirement is for old guys," he said. "I've still got some championships to win."

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