BRISTOL — Funny Car legend John Force added to his record as the winningest driver in NHRA history Sunday at the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals.
Rickie Smith added to his record as the winningest driver in Bristol Dragway history with his second straight Pro Mod victory.
Despite all the previous success, the accomplished drag racers ranked the wins among their best ever.
It was a fourth Thunder Valley Nationals title for Force in Funny Car, breaking a tie with Ron Capps for the most in the event’s history. It was also his 135th career NHRA win, easily placing him No. 1 on the all-time list.
But there was so much more involved.
Force snapped a 31-race winless streak, dating back to the 2012 season-opening race at Pomona, Calif. It also came on Father’s Day, and Force’s toughest challenge of the day came in the opening round against his youngest daughter, Courtney.
“It’s big because when you’ve been out of it awhile, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said the 64-year-old Force. “I’ve got (middle daughter) Brittany and Courtney with me at the other end (of the track). We loaded up everyone and went to the winner’s circle with mom. It’s just a great day for the Force family. To do it on Father’s Day, the good Lord must love me.”
Force beat points leader Matt Hagan and Blake Alexander in the next two rounds, and was quicker off the starting line than longtime rival Cruz Pedregon in a rematch of the 2007 Bristol final. Force’s Ford Mustang was steady running down the track with a pass of 4.148 seconds at 305.29 mph. Pedregon’s Toyota struggled at the end, crossing the finish line at 224.02 mph.
“I told them to give me a good race car,” Force said. “A good race car gives you that confidence, and when you have that, you’re natural on the tree (at the starting line). My lights were good today. I’m coming back around.”
It was no surprise to Force that his daughter provided his toughest competition. He sure wasn’t about to give her any type of advantage.
“I got back to the hotel the other night and ate a little too much,” he said. “My wife says, ‘You know Courtney’s already gone to the gym.’ I’m sitting there with my old belly sticking out and I went right to the gym. I’m not giving her any edge. You can’t give her any because when you’re 24 like her, you have that spark.”
Smith, the King, N.C., racer who will turn 60 in December, also proved tough for the younger drivers.
He recalled it’s not all been good times at Thunder Valley. In 2011, he had a severe crash at Bristol that left him with a broken leg. The past two races, however, no one has been able to touch his Camaro.
Even though he beat the Corvette of defending NHRA Pro Mod champion Troy Coughlin in the final round Sunday, it didn’t mean Smith’s weekend was trouble-free.
“We’ve got one motor, and we spun a bearing on it Friday night,” Smith said. “We sand-rolled it and Mickey Moused it back together. We tried to hurt the motor every round and in the semis, I shut it off. But we’re glad to win this thing. I’m close to 60 and still running a fast car like that. To go out and be winning every now and then, it’s a major accomplishment.”
Despite numerous race wins in the NHRA, IHRA and ADRL, as well as seven IHRA championships on his resume’, Smith still counts being named Legends of Thunder Valley as his greatest honor. He fought back tears explaining how much Bristol Dragway means to him.
“This has been such a good track to us over the years,” he said. “The Good Lord has blessed us here. They put my name up there with Don Garlits, Larry Carrier, people like that, that’s probably the biggest accomplishment in my career, even more than all the championships I’ve won.”