Force vs. Pedregon moves the meter

CONCORD, N.C. -- Earplugs are firmly embedded, rubber is burning and smoke is filling the air at the zMAX Dragway for Friday's qualifying in the first round of the NHRA's Full Throttle Drag Racing Series world championships. The mood is festive as fans and even a few celebrities crowd this palatial facility to get a glimpse of their favorite stars.

Only one thing is missing:

The proposed grudge match between John Force and Tony Pedregon.

Before we go any further, I don't pretend to be an expert on the NHRA. There was more comfort covering my first rhythmic gymnastics event 30 years ago than this, my virgin voyage into drag racing.

But I am a quick learner and have good eye for what sells.

And the confrontation between Force and Pedregon on Labor Day in Indianapolis was a monster sell for what is advertised as the second most popular form of motorsports behind NASCAR.

Thirty years from now we might call it as instrumental to bringing the national spotlight to drag racing as the fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers was to NASCAR after the 1979 Daytona 500.

CBS, televising a race live from start to finish for the first time, gave as much air time to Yarborough taking on Donnie and Bobby Allison as it did to Richard Petty winning the race. It caught the imagination of the entire East Coast, which was held captive to the boob tube because of a snowstorm.

The NHRA's big moment, captured by ESPN, got nearly two and a half minutes of air time on "SportsCenter" -- or about a minute longer than a typical NASCAR event.

Those who didn't see it live couldn't help catching the countless replays of Force and Pedregon going after each other physically and verbally after Pedregon accused his rival of throwing a semifinal heat so Robert Hight, Force's teammate and son-in-law, could advance to this weekend's Countdown to a Championship.

They couldn't help hearing Pedregon, whose brother Cruz was knocked out of the playoffs by the incident, scream "Force cheats!" and "manipulates the outcome of races!"

It brought back memories of the Daytona donnybrook that began after Yarborough accused Donnie of wrecking him on the final lap. Remember some of the great lines that came from that? "Cale kept punchin' my first with his nose," Bobby recalled.

That sold.

The Force-Pedregon bout would have sold, too, and possibly turned a memorable moment into a historic moment.

Lowe's Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith did his best to capitalize on it. He offered a $20,000 bounty to get the two winningest drivers in NHRA Funny Car history to compete in a grudge match on this humid Carolina night. Purely an exhibition race, you know.

There even was talk of making it a four-lane family affair -- they can do that here because unlike most drag strips they have four lanes -- with John and daughter Ashley Force Hood taking on Tony and Cruz Pedregon.

It would have been the highlight of a weekend that is sure to have plenty of highlights. The NHRA, despite what Force says, had given a partial blessing to making it happen. Tony was open to it. ESPN was ready to televise it.

Force, whose mouth generates more RPMs than his cars, wasn't interested. He went so far as to apologize to school kids who might have seen the incident, saying "I'm supposed to be a role model." He also called it school-yard behavior.

No, it's entertainment, no different than NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens whipping a Sharpie out of his sock and signing a football for his business agent after a touchdown on "Monday Night Football" in 2002.

The NHRA needed to ride this wave of interest, get the most bang for its buck. As Smith said, "This is high drama on drag racing's biggest stage."

Force didn't see it that way, saying his focus was on winning the Countdown with one of his four teams. Perhaps he was just embarrassed that the incident stole some of the thunder from his daughter's victory. Perhaps, as he said, his medication had expired.

He tried to blame the NHRA, saying the governing body wanted no part of it. Graham Light, the vice president of competition, said it would have been difficult with all the rules against testing and giving two teams an unfair advantage. He said NASCAR wouldn't stage a grudge match between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon -- he should have said Kyle Busch -- during an event weekend.

But Light never said it couldn't happen, and those who dealt with the offer insist it could have had Force been willing.

"It could be a missed opportunity," Force said.

Then he went off on an aside, and not the kind you read about in Shakespeare. He brought up tennis star Serena Williams threatening a line judge last week at the U.S. Open, reminding us she was "going to shove a tennis ball where the sun don't shine."

He brought up South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson calling President Obama a "liar" during an open session speech. He brought up Kanye West stealing Taylor Swift's moment during the MTV Video Music Awards.

I'm supposed to be a role model.

-- John Force

"I'm like, 'What's wrong with these people? Has the country gone mad?' " Force said. "My wife said, 'You're lucky they didn't put you in that same batch.' "

Then the same man who talked about being a role model went off on a tangent about the time his wife kicked him out of the house. "And I got as much sex over there as I got at home -- none," he said.

Turning and seeing his daughter a few feet away, he smiled and said, "Hi, Ashley."

I'll stick with the premise that Force just didn't want to get involved with the grudge match.

At least Pedregon, much more reserved than Force, understood. He considered it a compliment that Smith took the time to make the offer and put out a press release.

"The Smiths get it," he said, lumping Marcus in with his father, Bruton. "It once again proved they understand the entertainment side of the business. It's something people would love to see."

Pedregon, a big-time boxing fan, reminded us that people didn't watch Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier just because of what they did in the ring. They were just as entertained by what went on the outside in press conferences and public appearances.

He reminded us that drama and rivalries are what make fans spend hard-earned money to go to sporting events or plan entire days around watching them on television.

He can do this because beyond being a drag racer, he's a fan. Pedregon wants to see the sport reach heights never reached before, and if a grudge match would help the cause he was all for it.

And he has a lot more to lose than Force, coming in as the top seed.

"It might spike the ratings," Pedregon said. "I got a lot of air time for that [on Monday]."

Such moments don't come around every weekend. They don't come around every year.

The last time anything close to this happened was in 2002, when Doug Herbert and Clay Millican had a first-round meltdown.

After completing prerace burnouts and moving toward the start line, both refused to stage their cars. After the cars were shut down for safety reasons, the drivers climbed out and got into a shouting and shoving match.

Herbert, who at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds dwarfed the 5-8, 145-pound Millican, earned the nickname "Dougzilla" out of the confrontation.

Before that you have to go back to 1996, when Force and Al Hofmann got into it in the Funny Car final round in Pomona, Calif., to find as much drama.

Hofmann won the race after Force lost traction at midtrack. In the postrace interview, Hofmann said Force and his multicar team must be worried about losing to a single-car team.

Force overheard the comments and the two got into a heated verbal exchange.

But neither of those incidents, according to those who follow the sport, were close to the drama between Force and Pedregon. And neither received close to the media attention.

Sadly, the NHRA won't be able to take full advantage of it because Force didn't take Smith up on his grudge match.

The best we can hope for now is that the two will meet sometime this weekend in a qualifier.

"It could happen several times," said Pedregon, ranked No. 1 in Funny Cars. "If it does, the fans will be on the edge of their seats. So Marcus, have that check ready. I'm sure we're going to ask for it if that happens."

Perhaps, but Smith won't be obliged to pay.

So it's still a missed opportunity.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.