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Published: 5/30/2023

One Team. One Goal. How to Win a Top Fuel Championship.

Author: DAN HODGDON

Photos: THE BLOCK

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Winning a championship at John Force Racing comes with its perks. Among them is the driver getting to design the No. 1 that adorns the car for the duration of the following season. For 2022 Top Fuel champ Brittany Force, the look was an easy choice.

 

"I wanted it to revolve around every single member of the team," Force says. "I actually have a picture on my phone from probably 10 years ago, it was a cell phone case and it just had numbers and letters all upside down and backwards and it didn't really make any sense. But I took a picture of it because I thought that might be cool for a helmet or something. So I hung on to it; I've had it forever. I pulled that up and when I saw that I knew instantly I wanted it to be with my guys' last names on it."

The No. 1 on Brittany Force's John Force Racing Top Fuel dragster features the names of every member of her team.

 

The number adorns the wing of Force's Chevrolet Top Fuel dragster, which she steered to the 2022 Top Fuel title in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. The championship – the second of her career – came on the strength of a career-high five victories and 10 No. 1 qualifying efforts. 

The group that works on the car is a close-knit collection of individuals who share a common goal, but who also are genuine friends off the track. A quick look at any of the team members' Instagram accounts reveals them celebrating birthdays together, exploring the local areas as they crisscross the country, and generally just hanging out.

"We're very lucky that we choose to hang out with each other outside of the racetrack," says Force, a native of Yorba Linda, California. "We all get along and we like hanging out together. In the world of NHRA drag racing you're in and out of an airport every other weekend, you're in a different hotel every other weekend, you live out of a suitcase. You leave your family behind, you leave your friends behind to go have this lifestyle so these guys are the ones I'm closest to. They're my racing family and they're my friends."

 

Crew chief David Grubnic (right) is interviewed by Brunno Massel of NHRA on FOX.

The team is led by crew chief David Grubnic, a former Top Fuel driver himself who hails from Brisbane, Australia. Force explains that she and Grubnic can relate on a level rarely seen between driver and crew chief. Grubnic understands the pressures a driver faces on and off the track, and the two can speak the same language.

Grubnic is also known for tuning decisions that are responsible for track and national records, but the idea isn't to create eye-popping numbers. Rather, his approach is much more pragmatic.

He breaks it down in terms of problem-solving. The team's goal each year is to win a championship, and the best way to do that is to win races. And the best way to win races is to qualify well.

"We have a standing goal to qualify in the top five," Grubnic explains. "We should be in the top five based on where we are and what our sponsors expect of us and what our owner expects of us. But if we can qualify one or two then we're obviously meeting our objective and surpassing it a little bit."

Force's team pushes her 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster to the starting line.

Not only is Grubnic responsible for tuning decisions in his role as crew chief, he also acts as a coach, teacher and sometimes therapist for the group.

"The most important piece of this whole puzzle is our people and that pretty much is in anything, whether it be in the corporate world or in racing," he says. "You've got to surround yourself with quality people and if you don't have that you won't succeed."

His initial objective each week is to ensure everyone is in the proper headspace.

"The first thing I do when I come to an event is feel the pulse of the crew," he says. "If there's any sort of tension or anything I get everybody together and I'll poke them until I get it out of them. It's imperative that we have a positive attitude. It's imperative that everybody wants to jump off a cliff for each other. That's what I work at very hard, just as much as I work on getting that car to run. It is imperative that we have that as a group."

Force gets ready for a run in the staging lanes.

Grubnic has headed up the team since the 2019 season, with several of his crew members following him from across the NHRA pits from a competing Top Fuel operation. The majority of Force's old crew (with whom she won her first title in 2017) had likewise shifted to another team in the proverbial "silly season."

Force admits to feeling more than a twinge of uncertainty as she met the new group that would prepare her nitromethane-powered rocketship to travel 1,000 feet at speeds greater than 330 mph -- in less than four seconds.

She soon learned, however, the work ethic and commitment her new team brought to the JFR outfit.

"Pretty quickly I got to know these guys really well and the way that they worked together under David Grubnic was something I'd never seen before," Force says.

The team genuinely enjoys each other's company both at the track and away from it.

Among the crew members who transitioned to John Force Racing with Grubnic was Justin Groat, a native of Merrifield, Minnesota, who is known as a "floater," meaning he handles a variety of duties. He has worked on Fuel cars since 2015 and has been with Grubnic throughout his career.

"The thing that I think makes our group really awesome is we talk about everything, there's no secrets," he says. "If you have a question you can go ask (Grubnic) and he'll go up there in the office and he'll show you on the RacePak. He'll show you pretty much whatever you want to see or whatever you want to know."

In fact, if things were to change down the road, Groat wouldn't want to work for anyone else.

 "I don't think I have seen another team that has that kind of camaraderie," he says.

The team's loyalty was proven as well when JFR opted to sit out the remainder of the 2020 season when NHRA returned to action that summer amidst the COVID-19 panic.

The next year, each crew member returned, despite many having opportunities to work elsewhere or come off the road and work more regular hours.

Grubnic (with orange ear plugs) has led the team to multiple records and event wins.

Narciso Bravo began working in NHRA as a volunteer 13 years ago and has been with JFR since the summer of 2015. He is a native of San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora, Mexico, and also grew up in Tucson, Arizona. 

Bravo is the team's clutch specialist, a position he worked for 10 years to achieve. He finally reached his goal for the 2020 season, but after the first two events of the year the team went dormant.

Now he's living out his dream, and the excitement of the sport is what keeps him looking forward to each race.

"It's like you get some new parts for your car and you can't wait to wake up the next day and put them on, that similar amount of excitement is working on this thing," he explains. "If I wasn't on this team, if I was going to watch one car out here it would probably be this one. It's just exciting. It's like, ‘What are they gonna do? How fast are they gonna go?'"

Bravo says the team members are like his brothers and, to a person, the team speaks of the importance of pulling in the same direction to achieve success in terms of race wins and championships.

"It's about the cause, not the applause," Bravo says.

It takes an entire time working in unison to send Force down the track.

That thought is reiterated by Matt Covault, a native of Anna, Ohio, who handles superchargers for the team. He is another longtime Grubnic crew member, having linked up with his operation during Covault's first year in the sport in 2015.

"If you've got everybody pulling in a different direction, the car doesn't move," he says. "If everyone's pulling on the same rope, you get where you're going."

Like many of his teammates, the team's ability to jell from driver to crew chief to crew members is what kept Covault loyal to JFR throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic. He also notes that the team is fiercely protective of Force, but also embraces her ability to pitch in and work alongside each of the crew. 

"When you have a group of people that work well together and you know everyone gets along and it meshes well you want to keep that going," he says. "I think that's what brought everybody back. That's definitely what brought me back."

Team patriarch John Force helps create a familial feel throughout all of John Force Racing.

 

One of the most unique perspectives on the gypsy life of drag racing belongs to Cody Wilkinson. He is from Syracuse, Utah, north of Salt Lake City. Like many, he packed up all his belongings to drive to the motorsports hotbed of Brownsburg, Indiana, solely to work in drag racing. He has been in the sport since 2012 when he started working in hospitality. He's been with JFR since 2020 and currently serves as a cylinder head specialist.

He worked elsewhere in the sport in 2020, but over the winter found himself needing to find any job to pay the bills in the months before JFR hit the road again.

"I had to drive a recycling trash truck for three months," he says. "In December and January in Indiana you realize in drag racing we have some bad days but there's definitely worse jobs out there."

The family atmosphere of John Force Racing sets the team apart for Wilkinson, as does the ultra-competitive vibe and success achieved by a group that genuinely enjoys working together.

"At the end of the day," he says, "you know that you have each other's back."

Keep watching The BLOCK for much more on Chevrolet Performance and all motorsports disciplines.

 

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