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The 2009 U.S. Nationals

The drag racing buzz this morning (Sept. 8) in the papers and on TV about the U.S. Nationals (if either in your area bother to cover the Nationals at all) should be about Ashley Force Hood joining Shirley Muldowney as one of only two women to win the Nationals in a nitro burning Top Fueler or Funny Car, or Tony Schumacher joining Don Garlits as the only two pro drivers to win the U.S. Nationals eight times, or the fact that Warren and Kurt Johnson didn’t make the Pro Stock field. Or even the start of NHRA’s second season.

But none of the above newsworthy items are being discussed. What is being talked about by the fans and featured on ESPN’s Sports Center is whether John Force cheated and took a dive to ensure teammate Robert Hight was among the top 10 in Funny Car points, bumping out Cruz Pedregon and enraging his brother Tony Pedregon in the process.

Here’s my take on this issue – and I know it will surprise and disappoint some of you, but I really don’t care if John Force took a dive or didn’t.

You should remember that NHRA pro racers have a long history of “diving”. The two prime examples I can give you are Larry Minor at the Mile High Nationals one year when his cars were backed by McDonald’s and a few years ago when Kurt Johnson tanked against his dad at the U.S. Nationals and then held up a sign to the return road crowd that said “ At least I still have a job.” 

Secondly in every other major motorsports other than the NHRA, “team orders” are a just a part of racing. In that all-American race series, NASCAR, team orders are often in play. Whether it is a team car “blocking” for a teammate or a team car allowing another team car to take the lead for a lap to get those all important five extra points for leading a race.
But in drag racing, after years of looking the other way when team orders were issued and carried out, the NHRA succumbed to pressure from their fans and some mainstream media and wrote a rule making “team orders” illegal.

Great idea …  except the rule is completely unenforceable and is patently disregarded.

What the NHRA brass -- most of whom never have owned or raced a drag car -- did was try to legislate morality, and history had shown over and over that can’t be done.  Smarter people than the suits at NHRA have tried and failed to do that.

NHRA drag racing is a corporation dedicated to making money and keeping their major sponsors happy. The same could be said of the premier racers who compete in that series. They are for the most part corporately funded and their survival as professional
racers depends on them getting and retaining those sponsors.

Never has that been better demonstrated than by the actions of John Force and Tony and Cruz Pedregon at this year’s U.S. Nationals. Force felt he had to get all four of his cars in the NHRA Countdown to 1 points chase and so did the Pedregons, especially in light of the fact that Tony has no major sponsor and Cruz is rumored to be losing his Advance Auto deal.  

No one can prove or disprove that John Force took a dive. The public and his fans will just have to make that call.  No amount of the NHRA tech guys looking at data from the suspect run could offer proof that John intentionally left late, drove the car out of the groove, or anything else. There are simply too many things that could go wrong in the cockpit, in the drive train or in the driver’s head for the NHRA to look at the data on a computer screen and declare that a driver took a dive. All that NHRA did in this case was to posture for the TV audience. I don't think a re-run or disqualification was ever considered.

Team owner John Force accomplished what he felt he needed to at the U.S. Nationals. At what cost to his pristine reputation and popularity remains to be seen. If NHRA didn’t have an unenforceable rule about “cheating” I feel this embarrassing scene would have never happened. The fact that fan golden boy John Force was roundly booed by some fans on the return road Monday isn’t a good sign for him, his sponsors, or the sport. 

Give the ESPN crew an ‘A’ for their coverage of the drama between Team Force and Team Pedregon. It was done in a very professional manner. What home viewers saw on TV Monday between Force and the Pedregon brothers was more theater than racing and I must say I found it a refreshing change of pace for the broadcast which up to then was another JFR opus.

The NHRA has shown deference over the years to its stars and more recently many NHRA teams and owners felt they changed the “test session” rule to accommodate John Force Racing. Monday the Pedregon brothers had enough and aired their views and predictions on national TV.  Unfortunately for JFR the Pedregons’ predictions were right on and John Force's good guy, squeaky clean, image took a beating. When queried by the ESPN reporter regarding the issue, John's answer to those questions about team orders was something close to "They're my teams and I'll do what I want with them..."