Only a three-time champion in the fall of 1993, John Force has gone on to accomplish more than he possibly ever could have dreamt in the 24 years that have followed, but on one historic weekend at the Heartland Park Topeka in Kansas that season, he suffered arguably the two most painful defeats of his driving career in a span of less than 48 hours.
Force and crew chief Austin Coil were, at the time and for the foreseeable future, the creme de la creme of the Funny Car category, having just sewn up their third title in four years the weekend prior in Reading, Pennsylvania. With significant resources and talent at their disposal, they were also, for the most part, the performance standardbearers in the class, and with both the 4-second and 300 mph barriers still at-large, a betting man would have been comfortable placing his money on the Castrol GTX Oldsmobile.
Opened just four years previously, the Heartland Park strip in the town of Topeka offered one of the finest racing surfaces on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series trail, and coupled with superb fall air conditions, the Funny Car contingent rolled into the Sears Craftsman Nationals knowing that a date with history was probable. So confident, however, was Force of his chances of being the first to break the magical elapsed time barrier, that he matched a $12,500 bounty for the first 4-second pass from Castrol, making for a $25,000 prize for the first man to cross the threshold.
At the time, the NHRA didn’t pair its professional categories in qualifying based on points or qualifying order, instead running on a first-come, first-served basis. Force, knowing that there could only be one “first”, lined up in the second pair of cars under the tower in Friday’s second session of qualifying, but a gut-wrenching brake problem forced him to shut the car off without making a run. Minutes later, with Force only able to stand and watch, the late Chuck Etchells blasted his Kendall GT-1-backed Dodge Daytona to a 4.987-second run, forever etching his name into the history books and stealing away what seemed like a sure 25-grand.
But the 300 mph barrier was still at stake, and Force, stumbling after the blow delivered by Etchells on Friday, knew his team had to double down to get the 300 mph timeslip; afterall, he wouldn’t be the most dominant Funny Car driver in the modern era if he didn’t collect at least one of the two historic prizes. Force and Coil knew it was their only shot at redemption, and with points no longer relevant and history their only motivator, pulled out all the stops with their combination heading into raceday. But as we all now know, it too wasn’t meant to be, as Oregon-based racer Jim Epler, racing opposite of “Flash” Gordon Mineo, recorded a stunning 300.40 mph pass in his Rug Doctor Oldsmobile, denying “the champ” of either of the historic accolades and cementing himself on drag racing highlight reels for the rest of time.
While John Force may disagree, the NHRA’s visit to Topeka in 1993 may well serve as the greatest Funny Car drag race of all-time, playing host to both ends of what are almost assuredly to be the two final great milestones in nitro racing history, all in one weekend — a feat that took the Top Fuel class the better part of four years and Pro Stock three years.