You could see who had the Force just by wandering through the pits. While there was a small swell around Tommy Johnson’s Skoal funny car and a larger swell near Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army top fuel rail, the biggest crowds at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis by far were jammed around the John Force racing team pit. They wanted to get a glimpse of John Force -- or his daughter, 24-year-old funny car hottie Ashley Force. Ashley’s got her own Barbie Doll and Hot Wheels diecast car. Not many professional athletes have these things.
Then, all of the sudden, the crowd erupted in cheers. “He’s coming out,” a woman yelled. “He’s finally coming out.” You could see John Force’s capped head bob up and down and then disappear in a roiling sea of raised arms and hands holding Sharpies and programs and visors and beverage cups -- whatever people could find to have him sign. And so it went yesterday during drag racing’s 22nd Annual O’Reilly Fall Nationals.
Ashley Force trounced Ron Capps in Round One of funny car eliminations. Then she knocked off Del Worsham in the second round. John Force leveled Tony Bartone. But when Force matched up with drag-racing legend Kenny Bernstein in his second elimination round, the hell within these 8,000 horsepower nitromethane machines broke loose.
After crossing the finish line, Bernstein drifted over the center line and appeared to have knocked a cone or a timing light into the right rear of Force’s car, which immediately began to shred and disintegrate. Force lost control and swerved violently into Bernstein’s car, plowing both cars into the wall.
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From the stands, all you could see was smoke and flying debris with no decipherable outlines of drag chutes or wreckage. The crowd in the stands gasped, stood and stretched on their seats to see what could be seen, then went silent as emergency trucks converged just beyond the finish line.
It wasn’t hard to understand. With 122 career wins and 14 funny car championships, Force is the charisma of drag racing. His mouth is as legendary as his motor, which has somehow made him the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of the drag strip. "I just traded one trailer park for another," he once said of his career, comparing his upbringing in a California trailer park with his current lifestyle in 18-wheel transporters and luxury buses.
When the track announcer informed the crowd that Bernstein was walking around and Force was alert and talking to the medics after his wreck, he joked that “it was vintage John, and any time John is talking you’d just love to have a microphone down there and hear what he’s saying right about now.”
The two cars collided at 300 miles per hour. Force’s car was cut in half. The engine and front wheels screeched eerily across the concrete before gently coming to a stop in the dirt at the end of the track. The track announcer said Force had two broken legs and a broken arm. A later update revealed Force had a broken left ankle, a severe abrasion on his right knee, a broken left wrist and broken fingers. The Forces didn’t make their semifinal slots. Cruz and Tony Pedregon ran their semifinal races alone, Force-less. The crowd cheered as the MedEvac chopper shuttled Force to Baylor Medical Center. They cheered for a good long time. --Mark Stuertz