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June 22. 2013 8:17PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: He's still a Force in drag racing

Funny Car driver John Force signs autographs during the NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway in Epping on Friday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

EPPING -- Courtney Force had her Father's Day present all picked out.

Her dad, John - a bundle of energy and enthusiasm and the patriarch of drag racing's First Family and the National Hot Rod Racing Association - had other ideas.

"I was really hoping to give him a present of the day off for Father's Day," Courtney said with a big smile at New England Dragway on Friday afternoon. "But it didn't go the way I hoped."

Courtney, who celebrated her 25th birthday on Thursday in Manchester by getting a rare chance to relax around the hotel pool and then dinner with the family at Hooked Seafood Restaurant, lined up against her father in the first round of the Funny Car finals last Sunday morning in Bristol, Tenn.

John barely beat Courtney to the finish line and advanced through the elimination rounds to win his first Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event of the season later in the day. It was also his first win since the first race of the 2012 season.

"That win last week was big," Force said.

Force is on a bit of a roll now.

His Friday night qualifying run of 4.051 seconds - he was clocked at 313.44 miles an hour - stood up through two more rounds of qualifying on Saturday and he's the top seed going into elimination rounds today.

He's matched up against No. 16 seed Dave Richards, who is competing in his first NHRA Funny Car event, in the first round.

Force declined to agree that with his confidence and the way crew chief Mike Neff is setting up his cars that he's maybe the most dangerous driver here.

"As soon as you make a statement like that, you get beat up," Force said. "I'm going to stay John Force and be respectful and humble. There are a bunch of tough kids out there. We've just got a handle on it right now."

Even his wife, Laurie, was pulling for him last week, he said.

"Mom was rooting for me," Force said. "My Father's Day card said, 'Don't tell Courtney, but I'm rooting for you today.'?"

Force turned 64 last month and has no intention of slowing down just yet.

How long will he go?

"As long as I can," Force said. "I love it. I'm good for five more years. I want to drive with my kids."

He and Courtney both race Funny Cars along with Robert Hight, who is married to his oldest daughter, Adria. Brittany, 27 next month, competes in Top Fuel.Another daughter, Ashley Force Hood, gave birth to her second child last month and is taking time off from racing. Her husband, Dan Hood, is one of the crew chiefs for Courtney."Ashley will come back driving," John said.

"We're a really close-knit family," Courtney said. "We've always been that way. Racing is really what brought us together because growing up we didn't see my Dad that much. Now we get together all the time."

John Force, who competed in match races here a couple of decades ago, raved about the massive crowds in the pits and lined up alongside the drag racing lanes at the dragway and marveled at the support he received everywhere he went. He saw faces he recognized from years ago.

He signed autograph after autograph for the fans jammed outside his pit area. He waved from his motor scooter as he drove Brittany out along the dragstrip and they scouted things out.

Force won 10 straight series championships from 1993-2002 and grabbed his 15th title in 2010. But in 2009 he finished ninth in the points, the same place he ended up in 2011 and 2012.

This year he brought Neff, who has bounced between driving and working as a crew chief, back as his crew chief to try and turn his fortunes around.

The win last week at Tennessee moved him up a spot and back to ninth in the points. He came into this weekend two points behind Del Worsham in eighth and five behind Courtney in seventh.

"I promised Mike he could drive and I put him back in the car and with the new team I struggled," Force said. "You go through that. Struggle is part of it. That's where I came from."

They all run into it.

"Brittany's trying to get in the top 10 (she's 12th in Top Fuel going into this weekend) and she says, 'Dad, I'm really nervous.' Don't. Enjoy it. It's what you do. It's a job and it's a great job. We're P.T. Barnum. We roll in and set up the circus."

The circus, led by ringmaster John Force, made it to New England.

"This market is huge," Force said. "They come out of Canada and upper New York and all that. Loudon is huge up here for NASCAR and NHRA's wanted back in this market and it's taken years."

Now it's here and played to packed crowds.

On Thursday, a fan wearing a John Force t-shirt and getting an autograph from Morgan Lucas, a Top Fuel driver, tried to apologize.

Lucas was having none of it.

"John Force is still my favorite," the fan said sheepishly.

Not to worry, Lucas said: "He's mine, too."

A few minutes later, Lucas elaborated: "I am a big fan. He's the Dale Earnhardt of drag racing and he built the sport into what it is. He's got a great personality and he appeals to the young and old and now he's got his daughters in it. He's got great marketing ideas. It's a multitude of things."

- - - - - - -
Courtney Force qualified third and faces Alexis DeJoria in her first-round match today. ... Doug Kalitta qualified first in Top Fuel in a time of 3.795 and posted a top speed of 323.97. ... A pre-race ceremony kicks things off at 10 a.m. today and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. On twitter @allenlessels

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