John Force was not a drag racing icon in 1974.
More like a wannabe.
With no license or sponsor, Force used a tax refund check and money from his mother-in-law to buy a Vega Funny Car from an uncle. He then hustled a winter booking on an Australian circuit despite never having driven a Funny Car.
Once there, Force found the going rough.
Fortunately, he stumbled into Gary Densham, a fellow driver who saw great desire and potential in Force and decided to guide him along.
"I thought he was going to kill himself," Densham said. "He was the biggest clown I'd ever met. After things started going and everything that could go bad went bad for John, I said, "Boy, I hope this young guy ends up not killing himself in the first year,' because he's got so much drive and determination. It was pretty grim for a while."
Densham offered driving and mechanical tutelage, which Force desperately needed and gladly accepted. Eventually, Force's fortunes turned, and, in 1990, he claimed the first of 10 NHRA Funny Car championships.
"If it hadn't been for (Densham), I probably wouldn't have gotten out of (Australia) alive," Force said. "He took us under his wing and got us through it."
Twenty-seven years later, Force, who has 93 wins and is the most recognizable NHRA performer, returned the favor. This week, John Force Racing introduced a third Funny Car to its team of Ford Mustangs at Gatornationals, and Densham, Force's longtime friend, is the newest driver.
The choice to select the 30-year veteran was an easy one. "I owed him for Australia," Force said.
Some questioned Force for adding a third car when the two-car team, which included himself and Tony Pedregon, had combined to win 55 of 110 NHRA events since 1996. But Force, who put $1-million into the venture, believes he will make money in the long run.
"It's a huge expense," Force said. "But we're trying to grow the sport and that's a big factor. With ESPN's backing it's going to grow, and I want to be prepared for it."
At first glance, adding Densham appears risky. During his NHRA career, the 54-year-old has had limited success, and is 0-6 in finals appearances. Against Force he is 1-20, 0-1 in finals.
Densham's win against Force came in the semifinals of the 1999 Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. He then lost to Pedregon in the final.
Force is not deterred by Densham's results, which he said had more to do with Densham's lack of a big-time sponsor than a lack of skill.
"There isn't any driver (in the NHRA) that's as good as him," Force said. "The response to (adding Densham) has been good. Gary's always been very popular because he raced against the big guys for years without a big budget."
Force has more plans to expand.
The team has a Top Fuel car on order that should be in its possession within three weeks. The car could be ready by the end of the NHRA season, but more than likely will not be pushed into service until 2002.
For now, Force's main concern is 2001.
After the first of two qualifying days at Gatornationals, he led the field, with Pedregon eighth and Densham 13th. The impact of the three-car team will not be known until several races are held, but Force is optimistic it will succeed. Densham, meanwhile, is grateful for the opportunity, and thankful he decided to give a helping hand to the down-on-his-luck Force in 1974.
"To be able to be a part of a first-class operation like John's and being friends for 25 years obviously means a great deal to me, and I think it does to him, also," Densham said. "Our goal is to be 1-2-3 in the championship by the end of the year."
32ND ANNUAL GATORNATIONALS
WHAT: Second event of the NHRA season.
WHERE: Gainesville Raceway, 11211 N County Road 225, Gainesville.
WHEN: Today _ second-round qualifying, 11 a.m.;Sunday _ final eliminations, 11 a.m.
TICKETS: Today _ Spectator side: adult $45, junior $10, child free; pit side: adult $55, junior $22, child $12. Sunday _ Spectator side: adult $55, junior $20, child $10; pit side: adult $62, junior $24, child $14; Top Eliminator Club $275; four-day Spectator Event Pass $135.
TV: Today's qualifying, 3 p.m., ESPN (taped); Sunday finals, 5 p.m., ESPN2 (taped).
WEATHER: Partly cloudy today with a high of 66 and a 10 percent chance of rain.
INFORMATION: 1-800-884-6472, www.gainesvilleraceway.com or order tickets online at www.ticketmaster.com.