Realistically, David Grubnic doesn’t care if he’s the first NHRA crew chief to break the 340-mph barrier with a dragster.
Nonetheless, it’s a question he’s asked frequently, as Grubnic jointly owns the 11 fastest speeds in Top Fuel history with driver Brittany Force.
The duo also reset the national speed record last season, moving the needle ever closer to 340 with their 338.94 mph run at In-N-Out Burger Dragstrip in Pomona, Calif., last November.
But Grubnic has his eye on a different prize, and it’s been that way since the beginning.
“I want to win the championship. Congratulations to whoever runs the first 340, but the championship carries more weight,” he said.
Perhaps the Australian’s straightforward mentality is best demonstrated by the chain of events that occurred after he and Force won their first NHRA title together last year.
Compared to most championship scenarios, it was a bit of an awkward situation for Force, who stood alone at the end of the California drag strip and watched as championship rival Justin Ashley lost in the first round.
Ashley’s defeat guaranteed Force the title, but with her team back in the pits, she had to wait nearly 45 minutes to celebrate with them. In the meantime, Grubnic was notified of their success by text.
“She (Force) came up, she was so excited and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we won the championship,” Grubnic recalled.
The two shared a hug over the news, then the crew chief was already back to work.
“I said, ‘All right, are you done yet?’” Grubnic said, chuckling. “I wanted to win the race as well. We were still in it — it would’ve sort of put an exclamation mark to the fact that yes, we won this championship and we wanted to prove that we could do it.”
He shook his head, shoulders rolling with laughter. “The poor kid.”
Grubnic and Force weren’t necessarily a match made in heaven when they were first paired together in 2019. However, the potential was there, and they both recognized it from the get-go.
“Her pedigree, her background, her desire to win and succeed — these were all prominent when I first came over here,” Grubnic said. “She had all the traits, everything we needed to execute.”
Force had previously won the 2017 Top Fuel title with crew chiefs Alan Johnson and Brian Husen. But the solid ground she once knew was shifting beneath her feet when Grubnic came on board.
“You know, 2019 was a pivotal moment for me as a driver. My team that I’d been with and won a championship with had gone away. I brought in a new sponsor, a whole new team, so it was just kind of upside-down and everything was changing,” Force explained.
She remembers how unsettled she felt when she walked into her pit area at Arizona’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park for the first test of the 2019 season.
Grubnic was the only member of her crew she knew.
“To instantly feel so comfortable with him, safe with him as my crew chief tuner, that was a big moment for me. It goes back to that whole idea of putting your trust in somebody who’s putting you in a rocket and sending you down the race track,” Force said.
Grubnic’s history as a Top Fuel driver was a key factor in their bond.
Prior to becoming a tuner in 2015, the Brisbane, Australia, native enjoyed a moderately successful drag racing career. In 2005, he became the first non-American born racer to win an NHRA Top Fuel race.
He drove for Kalitta Motorsports from 2004 to 2014, tallying three national event victories.
Though his win record wasn’t much to write home about, Grubnic’s time in the driver’s seat paid dividends down the road in two ways.
One, it was while he was driving for Connie Kalitta that he originally got a peek at the analysis work involved in tuning a Top Fuel dragster. He never had the “keys to the car,” per say, but he became familiar with the methods and procedures.
Two, his firsthand familiarity with the pain and pressure a driver faces provided perspective, making him an invaluable friend to Force.
“The fact that I can have conversations with him and he understands — he really understands the full weight of the pressure a driver feels going out Sunday, chasing down a win and a championship when your sponsor is standing on the starting line,” Force said. “He understands the pressure a driver carries, and it’s not easy.”
From Grubnic’s perspective, his know-how as a driver has simply created a shortcut when it comes to their communication.
“She doesn’t have to try and explain what’s happening, because I can sort of sit there and say, ‘No, I get it,’” Grubnic said.
Grubnic has become accustomed to a new level of accountability over the last eight years that often outweighs the stress he once experienced as a driver. Upon stepping into the crew chief role in 2015, Grubnic had a few revelations.
“I never had the sole responsibility of the performance — and actually, not just the performance, but making sure it doesn’t blow up every run,” Grubnic said. “Everyone wants to be a crew chief until they become one. I had to adapt to that in the first few years.”
Arguably, it didn’t take him long to adapt, especially once joining John Force Racing.
Grubnic and Force earned two wins in their first season together, also setting the Top Fuel elapsed time record (3.623 seconds) and national speed record (338.17 mph). Though it wasn’t a championship, Grubnic found satisfaction in their speed.
“It’s gratification for all the hard work. Those elapsed time slips, they’re not free. There’s a lot of work and effort that goes into producing that,” he said. “But you get to the point where you don’t want to be the one-hit wonder where you go out there, set all these records and have these glory runs, so to speak, but what’s your win record? How many championships?”
Their next win didn’t come until late in 2021 at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, Kan. — but for Force, it was worth the wait.
That August weekend, she doubled up with her father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, with the two becoming the first father-child duo to appear in the NHRA winners’ circle on the same day.
Grubnic’s wise tuning also allowed Force to pick up eight consecutive No. 1 qualifier awards in her Monster Energy dragster, setting another Top Fuel record.
But that fear of being a one-hit-wonder never disappeared from Grubnic’s horizon until the following year, when the duo blasted to five wins, recorded 10 No. 1 qualifiers, set 16 track records, reset the national speed record and topped it off with a championship.
“In 2021, Brittany went through a couple hole-shot losses in the championship and I could see the pain that she went through with all of that,” Grubnic recalled. “So it was very gratifying for that to come through for her (in 2022), for myself, for the crew and for everybody.”
Though a victory is still a victory, regardless of whether you’re a driver, crew member or tuner, Grubnic admits being a crew chief has given him a slightly different perspective.
“It’s more of a relief, because that’s why we come to the races,” he said. “The pain of losing is greater than the joy of winning, let me put it that way.”
It was that mentality that caused Grubnic and Force to shoot for the stars this year, as they implemented a few drastic changes.
“We probably could’ve had another year of the performance that we had. I’m not gonna say it was an advantage, but eventually, the other teams would’ve caught up,” Grubnic said. “And you don’t want to wait until the other teams have caught up to try and develop a new program. You want to try and say one step ahead.”
Following season’s end in November, the team will evaluate whether it was the right call. But compared to their championship season of a year ago, the last few months have been lackluster.
They’ve set a few blistering track records, but they’ve only had one runner-up performance and zero wins in 18 races.
“There’s certainly merit to what we’re doing. The question is, how quickly can we get there?” Grubnic said. “I believe we have enough pieces of the puzzle to execute. We just gotta prove it and do it.”
Force hasn’t lost faith either — in herself or in Grubnic.
Since 2019, she’s trusted him to push the performance limits on her dragster and he’s earned her respect.
“Every Sunday, the team meets, we talk about the weekend, where our strengths were, what our weaknesses were, why we lost, why we didn’t lose, why we won — whatever the case is, we sit down and we discuss it all as a team,” Force said. “He always asks our opinion.”
Why does he do it that way?
“I like to get opinions, because a lot of times in this business, 99 percent of the teams have 90 percent of the puzzle or 95 percent of the puzzle, right?” Grubnic explained. “It’s the last five percent. It’s paying attention to the tiny details that separates the top five.”
This story appeared in the Nov 8, 2023, edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.