Force swaps teams; Dixon returns at Gainesville

Give NHRA legend John Force time to think about gaining consistency in his four-team John Force Racing squad and you can be sure he’ll find a way to mix up the ingredients.

Force swaps teams; Dixon returns at Gainesville
John Force
John Force
Robert Hight
Robert Hight
John Force and Courtney Force
Robert Hight
Funny Car winner John Force
Larry Dixon Racing's Top Fuel dragster
Larry Dixon
Larry Dixon
Larry Dixon
Larry Dixon

Force, who runs three Funny Car NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series teams for himself, daughter Courtney and son-in-law (and company president) Robert Hight, together with a single Top Fuel dragster for daughter Brittany, decided to make some personnel changes between the second race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside Phoenix, Ariz. and next week’s Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.

While keeping personnel intact, he’s authorized a swap of teams, between himself and Robert Hight. Hight has had a tough time in the first two races of the year and currently stands tenth in the Funny Car standings, while Courtney Force holds third-place points and John Force is in fifth place. It was evident something wasn’t working well for Hight and Force decided to shake things up.

A march across the voluminous John Force Racing headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind. is in the works. The team that has worked on John Force’s PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS for the first two races - crew chief Jimmy Prock, co-crew chief Chris Cunningham and the entire crew - are now assigned to Hight’s Auto Club of Southern California Camaro. Mike “Zippy” Neff, together with co-crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, and that crew move to Force’s car.

The moves are homecoming for Prock, Neff, Schaffer and McCulloch and their squads. The latter tuners worked with John Force for the past couple of years when Prock moved over to Don Schumacher Racing to work with Jack Beckman. Neff tuned John Force to his 15th championship in 2010; Prock helped him secure No. 16 in 2013. Prock tuned Hight to his sole title in 2009, securing 27 Wally trophies during their time together.

Well-thought-out decision

All told Force’s Funny Car teams have won 247 races - Force currently owns 147 Wally winner’s trophies; Hight has 37 National victories. “I never do anything on the spur of the moment,” Force said. “I take days to think it out.” After Phoenix, Force sat down with former crew chief Austin Coil, the architect of his initial 14 titles, and discussed ideas to move the team forward and enhance consistency. Coil retains a consultancy role with the team.

After careful deliberation, Force made the changes. “The cars are all doing good, but to put Robert Hight back with Jimmy Prock, who he won the championship with, and to put me back with Mike Neff, who I won a championship with - and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, who I won four races last year with - it just made sense. I called in the crew chiefs, asked them what they thought and we came to an agreement to make the swap. Change is good,” Force acknowledged. “Austin Coil always told me change is good, even when things are going right. This will build us stronger in the long run.”

Dixon back in the game

Brownsburg, Ind. is the center of nitro-based NHRA drag racing teams. Among the teams is a new enterprise owned by three-time Top Fuel titleholder Larry Dixon, who has been plotting a return to competition since being shuttled out of the Bob Vandergriff Racing Top Fuel squad following the 2015 season. That year, he not only finished fourth in the standings, battling throughout the 24-race season after sustaining two fractures (T-4and T-5 vertebrae) in a 109g airborne crash in the third race at Gainesville. If that weren’t enough, Dixon faced a larger battle with throat cancer, and licked that as well, before the 2015 NHRA season began.

Throughout 2016, Dixon worked to build his bespoke Larry Dixon Racing team. That group will make its debut on the NHRA Mello Yello campaign next weekend when the tour convenes for the third race of the year at Gainesville. “i don’t have any second thoughts about returning to Gainesville,” Dixon confirmed. “I was there last year as a spectator and, to be honest, it’s not as much fun.

“It is especially intriguing that we are running our own Top Fuel car (at this track). I have so many big moments from Gainesville. Of course, the most recent with the crash in 2015, but I won four trophies at the Gatornationals and I actually took my Top Fuel license runs in ‘Snake’s’ (Don Prudhomme) car at Gainesville back in 1994. That was ‘Snake’s’ final season driving and he wanted to put me in his car next year. That was quite an honor.”

A winner at this seminal race on four occasions, Dixon returns to the Gainesville track with his own dragster and team, led by crew chief Mike Domagala. “I think we have some excellent personnel; a lot of them have won races and championships. We have some new parts and pieces for the engines. Obviously, we will be sorting out our combination and there is no better place to go than Gainesville. NHRA does a great job preparing the track and the conditions will be outstanding, as always. We have been working hard in the race shop to get ready for this one.”

The 50-year-old Californian, currently living in Avon, Ind. has a total of 62 NHRA national Top Fuel event victories to his credit, including four at the Gatornationals. As he’s worked to prep his team for its 2017 debut, Dixon kept his hand in with two starts in Mello Yello competition last year with Australian-based Rapisarda Racing and also broke a national record in Australia in 2014, again racing for Santos Rapisarda, who is supporting this new program.

With 17 entries for Top Fuel in the 48th annual Gatornationals, Dixon and his new squad definitely have their work cut out for them to ensure a coveted spot in the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations. They’ll have three added shots to make the field, at 5PM Friday, along with Saturday’s scheduled 12:45 and 3:15PM Top Fuel qualifying sessions.

The event will be televised throughout the weekend of FS1.

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