John Force Racing Inc., NHRA Drag Racing’s most successful Funny Car team, announced Thursday an historic expansion that for the first time will give it a presence in a professional racing category other than the one in which it has been dominant for almost a quarter century.
While the team again will campaign four fuel cars, one will be noticeably different from the others. After winning a record 217 NHRA Funny Car races and 17 Winston, POWERade, and Full Throttle Funny Car championships, JFR this year for the first time in its 35-year NHRA history will field a Top Fuel dragster.
Powered by the potent Ford BOSS 500 nitro engine developed by JFR in collaboration with Ford Racing, the Castrol Edge Top Fuel dragster will be driven by rookie Brittany Force and maintained by crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli and assistant crew chief Eric Lane.
“It really is a big honor to be the first to drive a Top Fuel dragster at John Force Racing,” said 26-year-old Brittany, who will be the third of John Force’s daughters to turn Pro. “This team has done so much over the years to evolve, and adding a Top Fuel car into the mix I believe will help us continue to grow as a team.
“Being able to drive the first JFR Top Fuel dragster with my dad’s support and with Castrol Edge as my sponsor is still very surreal to me, but I think it’s something we’re all excited about, and I’m going to do the best job that I can.”
A graduate of California State University, Fullerton, the second youngest of John’s four daughters, has put a potential teaching career on hold while she learns the family business from the seat of a 330-mph rolling “office.”
Although she earned her teaching credential and completed her student teaching assignment, Brittany never planned to immediately seek a job in education.
“My plan from the very beginning was to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree before really pursuing racing,” Brittany said. “I earned my B.A. in English and then did an extra year to earn my teaching credential. I never had intentions to go right into teaching; I just wanted to get school finished because I knew that if I took a break from it, I would never go back to finish.
“I will always have teaching to fall back on if things change down the road,” added the former star of the A&E real-life series Driving Force, “but I am very happy with where I am and where things are heading.
“I have many goals for next year and can’t wait to get started in Pomona. One of my goals is to really get to know my guys so that we can become a strong team together. My other goal is to get my first win in my Top Fuel car as a rookie driver.”
Interestingly, Brittany has more dragster experience than anyone else assigned to the Castrol Edge Team. While it is the first dragster assignment for both crew chief Antonelli and assistant crew chief Lane, Brittany has never driven anything else.
After earning her Super Comp license under the tutelage of current NHRA Funny Car champion Jack Beckman, Brittany drove A/Fuel Dragsters for Jerry Darien and spent all last year testing in a Top Fuel dragster.
Brittany, second from left, becomes the third of John Force's daughters to race Professionally, joining sisters Courtney, left, and Ashley Force Hood, second from right, both of whom have raced with their father in Funny Cars.
When the season begins Feb. 14-17 with the 53rd renewal of the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries in Pomona, Brittany will become the 15th different Professional drag racer to compete for Team Castrol, the third to do so in the Top Fuel category, in which the late Gary Ormsby won the championship for Castrol GTX in 1989.
“I’m so happy to be working with Dean Antonelli and Eric Lane,” Brittany enthused. “ ‘Guido’ was the crew chief for my dad the last two years, and before that he taught Ashley [Force Hood] to drive a Funny Car. They were so successful together, and I’m really excited to have him on board with me.
“I spent the majority of my testing season working with Eric and Jimmy Prock from Robert Hight’s team. I get along with Eric very well. He has always been so patient with me. We always talk about the runs before and after, which helps prepare me for future passes. I think we are a good match, and we will teach each other so much next year. I think we are all going to make a very strong team.”
Antonelli, who guided Ashley to the Auto Club of Southern California’s Road to the Future Award in 2007 and tuned John to victory in last year’s inaugural Traxxas NHRA Nitro Shootout, gets his first assignment in Top Fuel as mentor to another of John’s racing daughters.
Lane, 39, moves to Top Fuel after 12 seasons with the Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car, the last four as assistant crew chief to Prock.
“I’m excited because I’ve only ever worked on Funny Cars,” Antonelli said. “Just in the testing we’ve done so far, it appears you can be quite a bit more aggressive with a dragster.
“It’s an exciting opportunity, and I’m honored that Brittany would want me to be her crew chief and that John trusts me with her,” said the man who celebrated 10 series championships as the team leader on John’s crew from 1995 through 2006.
Three Funny Cars and a reuniting of a championship duo
While Brittany vies for rookie honors in Top Fuel, her father, John; brother-in-law Robert Hight; and younger sister Courtney will compete for the first Mello Yello Funny Car championship in hybrid Mustangs sponsored by Castrol GTX, the Auto Club of Southern California, and Traxxas, respectively.
John, a 134-time tour winner believes reducing his Funny Car inventory from four to three — Mike Neff, a two-time championship-winning crew chief will return solely to tuning — will make his team better overall.
“With four cars, you’re always running into each other,” said the 134-time tour winner. “I think we’ll be better with three cars. Courtney and Neff ran great last year, and we’ve worked really hard to make sure we have three Fords that can run for the Mello Yello championship this year.”
John Force, left, and Mike Neff last worked together as driver-crew chief in 2010 when Neff tuned Force to his 15th world championship.
The move reunites John and Neff, who will be back calling the shots on his Castrol GTX Mustang, just as he did when John won his last championship in 2010. Neff, who never has made a secret of the fact that he prefers the challenges that fall to the crew chief rather than the driver, emphasized Thursday that the decision was his and his alone.
“It was just such a long weekend [doing both jobs],” he said. “Not only were you focusing on tuning, but you had to do the driving part and the media and you had to run here and there for sponsor appearances. There was no downtime. After a while, it got to be too much. It just wore me down. You could never seem to take five and focus. I just got pulled in a lot of different directions.
“Force was really good about it,” Neff said. “When I first brought it up [in the middle of last season], he wanted me to really think about it. He didn’t want me to make any quick decisions. He basically said I could drive as long as I wanted to. He left it up to me, [and] I just felt that it was time.
“I never planned on driving for very long,” said the man who won the first of his crew chief championships with driver Gary Scelzi in 2005. “The first couple of years I drove [2008 and 2009], I felt unsatisfied. I didn’t win like I wanted to, and I just didn’t feel like it was a success.
“Getting the opportunity to drive again [after Force Hood stepped out of the cockpit to start a family] was totally different,” acknowledged the former off-road truck mechanic. “I’m proud of what we accomplished. We won Indy twice [2011 and 2012] and led the points for most of the season. It was just a great experience.”
Neff led the points after 15 of 23 races in 2011, claiming the regular-season championship before stumbling in the playoffs and finishing fifth. In 2012, he again led the points, won the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis for the second straight year, and finished third as the highest ranked of the Ford drivers.
Neff is anxious to focus on getting John back into the hunt for the championship, and he believes that the team that already is in place, the one he has directed since 2008, is capable of delivering another title to the sport’s all-time winner.
“I attribute our success over the last few years to this team of guys working on the car,” Neff said. “Everyone says they have the best team, blah, blah, blah, but, seriously, this team is as good as they get. They are world champions. They have proved it, and they make my life a lot easier.
“That’s the thing. It’s a team effort. John Shaffer does a great job as the leader of my team. I get a lot of the credit for tuning, but really, what these guys do is more important [to our overall success].
“In a nutshell, I’m just very thankful to [have had] the opportunity to drive. Thanks to John, along with Castrol and Ford Racing. That is something I will remember forever. It is something very few people get to do. To tune it and drive it and be able to win, I couldn’t ask for anything else.
“Now, I’m looking forward to racing with John Force again. He is the most exciting guy out there. I enjoy being around him. He’s a fun guy to be around. He is funny and intense. He is a legend, and to be a part of that and be the guy running his car is an honor. There are only a couple people that will ever be able to say they tuned John Force’s Funny Car.
“You have high expectations [in that position],” Neff acknowledged. “You look at what Austin Coil did for him [in a 25-year collaboration]; all their success. John Force is a winner. He has 15 championships. He deserves to go out on top. I am hoping we can give him a good car and get him back into contention and win some races.”
Hight, Courtney focused and excited for new year
Robert Hight is entering his ninth season as a Funny Car driver, again piloting
the Auto Club Ford.
JFR President Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford, and 24-year-old Courtney, second-year driver of the Traxxas Ford, also are looking forward to the new season.
Hight, the 2009 series champion and the biggest winner in the Funny Car category over his eight seasons (27 wins), will try to keep alive a trio of streaks in a car on which his crew chief will be assisted this year by veteran Danny DeGennaro.
A 43-year-old former world class marksman, Hight has won at least two races in every one of his eight Pro seasons, has started No. 1 at least once every year, and has led the Funny Car points every year, a performance without precedent.
As for Courtney, she just hopes to maintain the momentum generated in her rookie season in the Traxxas Ford.
“I’m really looking forward to the new season,” said the spokeswoman for Ford’s Driving Skills for Life initiative. “Hopefully, we can just pick up where we left off. We finished in the fifth spot, and I really couldn’t have asked for a better first year. I still plan to focus on the basics of driving, but, at the same time, I’m looking forward to pushing myself, learning new things, and improving my driving skills.
“Having my sister Brittany out there racing in the Top Fuel category for the first time is just going to make the 2013 season that much more exciting. I know she is really pumped up and ready to race. I can’t wait to kick off the season at Pomona.”
John also is excited, especially about his return to Castrol GTX colors after several years promoting other Castrol brands, including Castrol GTX High Mileage, Castrol Edge, Castrol Syntec, Castrol Start Up, and others.
“We started with the Castrol GTX brand, and after 26 years, they’re still with us,” said the 63-year-old racing icon. “I’ve still got some racing in me, and this year is special because I have Robert and two of my girls racing with me. When you’re a dad, you want your kids to be involved in the things you do, and to have all four of my girls working in the business is really something that’s hard to believe.
“Ashley’s running John Force Entertainment, and Adria, my oldest, who’s married to Robert, has always handled the financials as CFO of John Force Racing Inc.”