For 20 years, John Force has taken over the media center at NHRA events like a standup comedian with an open mic.
He had to make the crowd laugh. But not this time.
Over that span, Force has won the Funny Car pole for 131 NHRA national events, celebrated a record 122 titles and 14 championships.
His appearance drew curtain calls. But not this time.
On Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Force was as boisterous and optimistic as ever but more philosophical after failing to qualify for today’s championship elimination rounds of the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals.
It marks the first time since the end of the 1987 season that Force did not advance to the Sunday show. His record run of qualifying for 395 consecutive events ended when he missed making the 16-car field by 0.015 seconds.
“I’m good. I’ve still got two cars in the show and there’s still a Force out there,” he said of 24-year-old daughter Ashley Force, who qualified third for her best start as a rookie.
“We just didn’t get the job done. It’s that simple. I’ve got no complaints.
“I thought the streak was over when we didn’t go to Houston.”
Force, daughter Ashley and teammate Robert Hight, who qualified second, sat out the Houston event two weeks ago following the March 23 death of teammate Eric Medlen.
Medlen suffered fatal brain injuries in a testing accident March 19 in Gainesville, Fla.
Emotions were full throttle during the fourth and final qualifying session.
It started with Jim Head knocking Force from the top 16. By the time Force got his turn at the quarter-mile, he was 19th.
The 57-year-old from Yorba Linda, Calif., was slowed when his engine began to fail a few hundred feet from the finish line, but he was able to move to 15th before falling back on the bubble.
Jack Beckman went to the line as the last driver with a chance to stop the streak.
Force rode his mini-bike to half-track to watch.
“I was just looking for a flicker in the pipes,” he said of watching Beckman’s exhaust headers for a sign of pending engine problems.
Beckman was just quick enough to stop one of the most impressive records in motor sports and get in the show himself.
“There were a couple of boos,” said Beckman, who drives for Don Schumacher Racing. “One of the guys who booed me, I looked back and kind of held my hands up, then he gave me a thumbs-up.
“The people love John. He’s an icon in drag racing. He’s maybe the greatest that’s ever been. And it’s like watching Babe Ruth strike out. Nobody wants to see that.”
Before Beckman headed for the pits, Force rode back toward the starting line as most in the estimated crowd of 20,000 stood to applaud.
He waved back but was more focused on the next pair of Funny Cars, which included his daughter, who turned in a career-best 4.740-second run at 321.27 mph.
“This is a steppingstone,” John Force said of the day’s events. “We’ve climbed over mountains the last couple weeks.
“My whole team has been beat up. We’re gonna go back tonight and rally ’em, not just in this situation, but with what’s been going on the last three weeks.”Auto Racing in Las VegasMore information