Legendary drag racer John Force has never lived in Topeka, but Force has been a fixture at Heartland Park Topeka since the track opened in 1989 and has been a semi-regular visitor to the winner’s circle at HPT, posting a track-best nine national-event wins.
The 16-time world Funny Car champion, who turned 65 earlier this month, will be back at Heartland Park this weekend, leading Team Force in the NHRA Kansas Nationals.
Force said last week in a phone interview that he’s anxious to get back to Topeka.
“I raced in the early days over at the Kansas City Raceway in Independence, Mo.,” Force said. “Then when they built this new super track, it was awesome to come in here.
“The hotels, the restaurants, everybody in town, they want you there. It’s fun to go back there and then when you can race at a race track that’s a high-end track with great stands and facilities and plenty of parking, I love it.”
The fact that Force, who won his 16th championship last season, has had unparalleled success at HPT is icing on the cake.
“To win nine races, I can’t complain,” he said.
Force, who has 139 national-event wins, won at Heartland Park for the first time in 1993 and added wins in ’94, ’96, ’97, ’99, ’00, ’05 and ’08. He won both races at HPT in ’96.
His most recent Topeka win in 2008 was also one of his most emotional wins, with Force winning for the first time after suffering serious injuries in a horrific crash at Dallas in 2007.
Force, currently second in Funny Car points to his son-in-law, Robert Hight, will be aiming to make more memories this week.
“Tell Topeka we love them and we need them in the stands,” Force said. “We need to pack Topeka. We’ve got to grow NHRA and we’ve got to grow that race track.
“It’s a family deal and come on out and we’ll give you a show, the greatest show on earth.”
The Kansas Nationals gets under way at 8 a.m. Friday with Sportsman qualifying. Mello Yello Drag Racing Series pro qualifying sessions in Pro Stock, Funny Car and Top Fuel are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. and 7 o’clock Friday.
Sportsman eliminations will start at 8 a.m. Saturday with pro qualifying sessions set for 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Sportsman eliminations will continue at 9 a.m. Sunday, with Mello Yello Series eliminations getting under way at 11 a.m.
For several seasons Topekan Ron Kohn was happy working behind the scenes in Heartland Park Topeka’s Saturday Showdown dirt track series, helping prepare his son Randy’s Pure Stock car.
But after getting a taste of driving — and winning — it may be hard to get the 53-year-old Kohn out of the 07 any time in the near future.
Now in his third season competing in the Pure Stock class, Kohn visited victory lane for the first time in his most recent HPT start, a win he’s still trying to come to grip with.
“It was my first feature win and I really didn’t expect to (win),” Kohn said. “I just wanted to try to stay up there close to those guys, but it worked out just right.
“I kept thinking other cars would come around me and they didn’t. I was like, “I can’t believe this.’ It was kind of surreal I guess you could say.”
Ron Kohn hadn’t even planned on racing until Randy decided to switch race cars a few years back.
“I’ve been involved in it with my son for five or six seasons,” Kohn said. “He’s the one that started it and I was helping him out. This is his older car after he got a newer one built.
“I never thought much about (driving) until he said he was getting a different car. He said, “Do you want to drive the other car,’ and I thought, “No, no, I don’t want to do that,’ and then I started thinking, “You know, you always wanted to do something like that, so why not?’ I started working on the older car and trying to learn what to do and what not to do.”
Kohn admitted that it’s taken time to get used to driving, but he’s happy with the way things have worked out.
“I really didn’t know quite what to expect going into this and there’s ups and downs, of course,” Kohn said. “Right now we’re enjoying the ups.
“I never really expected to be up close, let alone win one. Of course it’s always fun when you’re up front and you win one.”
The 2014 season has been kind to both Kohns thus far, with Randy leading the points and Ron ranking second. Now the goal for Ron is to continue to be a factor in the Pure Stock class.
“As long as I keep things together and the car’s going we’re going to try to do the best we can and stay up front,” he said.
The most dominant Modified racer in Heartland Park Topeka dirt track history is making a bold prediction about the 2014 season, but not the type of prediction you might expect from a driver who has won three straight Modified titles and holds the HPT record for single-season Modified wins.
Even though he has won back-to-back features and sits sixth in points despite missing one of the first four race nights, Darron Fuqua said that winning a fourth straight track championship is not a possibility in ’14.
“That’s not going to happen this year, I can guarantee you,” Fuqua said. “We’re going to miss too many weeks and it’s not a thought in my mind to even try and win the points or race for points.”
The Mayetta racer still plans to race at Heartland Park most Saturday nights, but he also wants to test his skills at other area tracks and in other series.
“I’m going to race here whenever we’re not racing somewhere else,” Fuqua said. “It’s just too close and it makes sense financially to race here on Saturday’s, but we might go to (Central Missouri Speedway) every once in a while — it pays $1,000 to win there — and if the (United States Modified Touring Series) is close we’ll try to run with those guys.”
Actually, this year’s game plan isn’t much different than Fuqua has had over the past few seasons.
“I never have really raced for points, I just race to try to win and usually at the end of the year (a high points finish) just comes out that way,” he said. “I’m just consistent I guess and usually I’m up front if I don’t win, so it usually works out that way.
Fuqua especially enjoys racing when he gets on a roll. That was the case in 2011 when he won 11 times at HPT to break NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Clint Bowyer’s record for single-season feature wins.
“I like to try and see how many you can win in a row, especially if you get hot and you get three or four or five in a row,” said Fuqua, who also won two track titles at Thunderhill Speedway in Mayetta. “That’s always our goal, to try to win.”
Tyler Wudarczyk has established himself as one of the Midwest region’s top drag racers, starring at Heartland Park Topeka as well on the NHRA Division V circuit.
But last Saturday the local racer took his first step towards branching out into dirt track stock car racing.
After racing two cars in Heartland Park’s ET Bracket Racing Series and posting a victory and a quarterfinal finish, Wudarczyk hustled over to HPT’s dirt track, climbed in a dirt car for the first time and finished ninth in the Pure Stock feature of the Saturday Showdown Series after starting 13th.
“It was quite the experience,” Wudarczyk said. “It was definitely a heck of a lot of fun.”
Wudarczyk and drag racing buddies Troy Ross and Landon Stallbaumer, Wudarczyk’s brother-in-law, made the decision last fall to purchase a dirt car and put one of the three in the car to race in the Saturday Showdown Series when their drag racing schedule allowed.
Ross competed in a race last fall and last Saturday was Wudarczyk’s turn.
“Landon and I were the only two that hadn’t drove it yet out of the three of us so we flipped a quarter after we were done drag racing on Saturday and I wound up winning the flip so I hustled over there and raced,” Wudarczyk said.
Wudarczyk is the first to admit that he’s not an accomplished dirt track racer, at this point anyway, but the sport does intrigue him.
“I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m so competitive I want to know how to do it,” he said. “I wish there was a way to practice, but there’s only one way to practice and that’s just to keep on going.”
While drag racing will remain Wudarczyk’s main focus, he wouldn’t mind continuing to make at least semi-regular appearances in the dirt track series.
“Last Saturday night was the first time I ever drove and I had no idea what I was doing but, man, it was a heck of a good time,” he said. “Definitely at some point I wouldn’t mind trying to get a little more serious into it. I would definitely entertain that idea if I could ever get more seat time in the dirt car and get good at it.
“I’ve had a decent amount of success drag racing and I understand how hard it is to get to that point and how much work you have to put in and how much time you have to dedicate to it. I would definitely want to do the same thing with the dirt car.”
And regardless of what happens from here on out, last Saturday is a day Wudarczyk will remember fondly.
“Saturday was pretty good for me,” he said. “I drove both cars at the drag strip and won and got to the quarterfinals and then I (went) over to the dirt track and got into something I’d never done before and wound up not killing myself and not wrecking the car, so that was good.”
The Heartland Park Topeka job fair for new and rehire employees, will be on Saturday March 1st from 10am – 2pm.
If you are unable to attend, stop by the main offices M – F 9am – 4pm to fill out your returning paperwork or application for new employment.