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John Force Racing Ready to Wrestle ‘Gators’ in 24 NHRA Opener

After a challenging season in 2023, the only time John Force Racing’s drivers will be looking in their rearview mirror this year in the Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series is when their cars are backing up in the staging lanes following a smoky burnout.

While the team has temporarily downsized to only three cars and drivers to start the 2024 season, optimism and high expectations for success have always been a staple at JFR and every driver feels this will be a strong bounce back year both individually and collectively as a team.

Things kick off this weekend at the 55th Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Florida. In addition to “the Gators” being one of the premier events on the NHRA schedule, there also will be a race-within-a-race as the third annual Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Callout race takes place Saturday.

Gainesville has been a most welcoming place for team patriarch John Force, who has won there eight times and finished runner-up five other times. His most recent win at the Gatornationals came in 2017, where he also was No. 1 qualifier for the seventh time in his career there.

“I’ve raced in Gainesville for years. It was always the snowbirds. Everybody came out of Canada and the north, Boston and places,” said Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history with 16 Funny Car championships and 155 national event wins. “This great race has great air, which allows the cars to run fast.

“We’ve got fast Chevrolets and Peak is still supporting me, as well as Cornwell Tools, Monster Energy (and several other sponsors). It’s a really exciting time for me personally. My daughter Brittany will be out there. And we’ve got some new players. Off-Road Campers has come on board with us. We have a new series sponsor with Mission. I’m excited about that because we’re already doing the work out in the field, pre-promoting the races. Already been in Phoenix, in Vegas at the NASCAR race, but promoting NHRA. So it’s going to be a good season. Ready to race in Gainesville, cool air. And let’s see where it goes.”

Force finished seventh in the Funny Car standings in 2023, scoring two runner-up finishes and one No. 1 qualifying effort. With his last win being the 4-wide event at Charlotte in 2022, the driver of the PEAK Antifreeze & Coolant Chevrolet Camaro SS is ready to not only get back to winning form, but also to ride that Chevy power to a potential record-setting 17th Funny Car championship.

“Chevrolet builds great race cars,” Force said. “We’re very excited. We’re under contract for years into the future with the Camaro, even though the Camaro is going to change.

“We’re excited to get out here. These cars will run 338 (mph). They’ll run 340. We’re tapping at that door. So Chevrolet’s been real good to us. But it’s time to get out here. And they’ve got big pushes with the electric car. But we’ve got big pushes with the muscle cars. So Camaro Super Sport, love it, love to drive it. Drive them on the street. And all their trucks, I love them.”

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After a challenging season in 2023, the only time John Force Racing’s drivers will be looking in their rearview mirror this year in the Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series is when their cars are backing up in the staging lanes following a smoky burnout.

While the team has temporarily downsized to only three cars and drivers to start the 2024 season, optimism and high expectations for success have always been a staple at JFR and every driver feels this will be a strong bounce back year both individually and collectively as a team.

Things kick off this weekend at the 55th Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Florida. In addition to “the Gators” being one of the premier events on the NHRA schedule, there also will be a race-within-a-race as the third annual Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Callout race takes place Saturday.

Gainesville has been a most welcoming place for team patriarch John Force, who has won there eight times and finished runner-up five other times. His most recent win at the Gatornationals came in 2017, where he also was No. 1 qualifier for the seventh time in his career there.

“I’ve raced in Gainesville for years. It was always the snowbirds. Everybody came out of Canada and the north, Boston and places,” said Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history with 16 Funny Car championships and 155 national event wins. “This great race has great air, which allows the cars to run fast.

“We’ve got fast Chevrolets and Peak is still supporting me, as well as Cornwell Tools, Monster Energy (and several other sponsors). It’s a really exciting time for me personally. My daughter Brittany will be out there. And we’ve got some new players. Off-Road Campers has come on board with us. We have a new series sponsor with Mission. I’m excited about that because we’re already doing the work out in the field, pre-promoting the races. Already been in Phoenix, in Vegas at the NASCAR race, but promoting NHRA. So it’s going to be a good season. Ready to race in Gainesville, cool air. And let’s see where it goes.”

Force finished seventh in the Funny Car standings in 2023, scoring two runner-up finishes and one No. 1 qualifying effort. With his last win being the 4-wide event at Charlotte in 2022, the driver of the PEAK Antifreeze & Coolant Chevrolet Camaro SS is ready to not only get back to winning form, but also to ride that Chevy power to a potential record-setting 17th Funny Car championship.

“Chevrolet builds great race cars,” Force said. “We’re very excited. We’re under contract for years into the future with the Camaro, even though the Camaro is going to change.

“We’re excited to get out here. These cars will run 338 (mph). They’ll run 340. We’re tapping at that door. So Chevrolet’s been real good to us. But it’s time to get out here. And they’ve got big pushes with the electric car. But we’ve got big pushes with the muscle cars. So Camaro Super Sport, love it, love to drive it. Drive them on the street. And all their trucks, I love them.”

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Force has finished in the top 10 in the NHRA final season standings for an unprecedented 38 consecutive seasons (not including 2020, when the organization went on COVID-19 related hiatus). In addition, since earning his first Funny Car victory in 1987 (Montreal), Force has earned at least one win in each subsequent season, with the exception of three winless campaigns. In addition, Force has won more races, appeared in more finals, been the No. 1 qualifier more often and has won more racing rounds than anyone in NHRA history.

Force’s daughter, Brittany, driver of the Monster Energy Chevrolet Top Fuel Dragster, also had a challenging season in 2023. The former two-time NHRA champion (2017 and 2022) finished seventh in the Top Fuel standings and scored four No. 1 qualifying berths, but also struggled to reach the winner’s circle, earning just one appearance in a final round.

“I always try to take away something, learn something from the tough years,” Brittany Force said. “Looking at (2023) compared to last season (a championship-winning season), I realized it is really easy to stay positive and motivated when you’re winning and you’re leading the points like we did all of (2022).

“We didn’t do that (in 2023), we struggled all season long. Yet, this Monster Energy team, we carried it start to finish, there was positivity in our pits, we were motivated, and we pushed all the way to the end.”

At the conclusion of last season, Force promised “we’ll come back stronger next year.”

Well, next year is now here and she’s ready to not only get back to racing, but also get back to winning.

“I’m excited to get this year rolling after a tough season,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of changes to our team and inside John Force Racing, and I think they’re all very positive.”

Gainesville is a special place for Force. She earned her first NHRA Funny Car win there in 2016. And this weekend, in addition to going for a race win, Force is also taking part in the Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout on Saturday.

“We want to start off strong, we want to qualify well, make use of every qualifying lap we make, and not only win this thing but (also) win the Pep Boys All-Star Callout,” Force said. “It’s an exciting way to open the season with two races in one. Top Fuel kicks it off, and it’s the third year of the Pep Boys Callout. The fans love it. Drivers get up there and call out other drivers, and it’s just this new, exciting race-within-a-race.”

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The Gatornationals have been a challenge for Force since her 2016 win, only going as far as the second round three times, including last year’s event.

As for the third driver in the JFR stable, Austin Prock is a seasoned veteran in Top Fuel, with three years under his belt, with a career-best finish of third in 2022.

But the third-generation racer comes into the Gatornationals as somewhat of a rookie once again, this time driving a Funny Car for the first time in NHRA competition.

Prock is starting this season filling in for three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Robert Hight, who is on a temporary leave of absence from racing for personal medical reasons. Prock is expected to drive the Cornwell Tools / AAA Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car for at least the first several races of the season.

Prock finished last season eighth in championship points, picking up John Force Racing’s only Top Fuel victory (Charlotte 4-wide), along with two No. 1 qualifying positions, and lowered his career-best elapsed time to 3.636 seconds.

Fast forward to 2024 and Prock kicked off his Funny Car career in spectacular fashion during last month’s Professional Racer’s Organization race in Bradenton, Florida, capturing the win.

“To say I’m excited to kick off the NHRA season in Gainesville would be an understatement,” Prock said. “Going into this 2024 season is a dream come true for the Prock family. Working together as a family has always been on the bucket list and it becomes a reality starting in Florida. I’m ready for the challenge of learning the characteristics of a Funny Car. Let’s get started!”

Prock’s father, Jimmy, has been Hight’s long-time crew chief and continues in that role with his son in the cockpit to start this season. In addition, Austin’s brother, Thomas, is his father’s assistant crew chief.

“This whole deal is a thrill, getting to race with my dad and my brother both up in the lounge making the calls and me in the seat,” Prock said last month to NHRA.com. “I mean, this is storybook stuff, the stuff you write up, and it’s actually happening in real life, so it’s really special.

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“We all know this car will run. This thing flew last year with Robert driving, so we’re just getting all the bugs worked out, and I gotta keep learning and try not to make any mistakes and give the race car a shot to do what it needs to do. It’s all a learning process.

“I really truly enjoy drag racing and loved running the Top Fuel car, but Funny Car is where I belong. I always dreamed of driving one like my grandpa, and I am having an absolute blast. I’m loving every second of it. I love the challenge of these cars. I love sitting behind the engine. I love the body dropping. And to top it off, I’m doing it with my family.”

Prock’s previous best showing in the Gatornationals – in a Top Fueler – was in last year’s event, when he reached the second round of eliminations. But his family has had a long history of success at the Gators. His grandfather, Tom Prock, was Funny Car runner-up in 1975, while Austin’s father, Jimmy, has won the race four times as Hight’s crew chief. Gainesville Raceway is also the track where Austin made his first pass in any type of Funny Car, back in 2008 at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School.

And as for Hight, he had the most success of any JFR driver in 2023, earning four wins and two runner-up finishes, plus qualifying No. 1 seven times, en route to finishing second in the Funny Car standings.

While he won’t be there in person, Hight will definitely be in Gainesville in spirit this weekend, having won the Gatornationals four times, with an additional runner-up.

Hight, who has three Funny Car championships (2009, 2017, 2019), 65 career wins, 102 final round appearances and has been the No. 1 qualifier 77 times, hopes to return to racing at some point in the near future.

The 2024 Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series season begins March 7-10 with the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Florida.

The Gatornationals will be televised this weekend on FS1, including a special feature on the Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. On Sunday, there will be live coverage of the Gatornationals final eliminations from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET, with continuing finals coverage at 9 p.m. ET.

This story was originally published on March 8, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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