I’ve known John Force for more than 30 years.
I’ve seen him laugh hysterically and blow his top in a fit of rage.
I’ve seen him glowingly congratulate fellow drivers for a job well done and cuss others when he felt they insulted him or did him wrong.
I’ve seen him in excruciating pain and on incredible highs of achievement.
But drag racing’s Superman, who has won an incomprehensible record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, isn’t supposed to cry.
Yet that’s what the sport’s legendary man of steel did Sunday after daughter Brittany Force clinched the 2017 NHRA Top Fuel championship.
Father John didn’t just tear up, he let the jets flow, bawling like a baby. But then, if you were a proud father like John is, wouldn’t you bawl after your little girl just went out and did something that only one other woman has done in drag racing history?
Brittany Force joins the legendary Shirley Muldowney as the only women to ever tame a Top Fuel dragster and win a NHRA championship. Shirley did it three times in her career, the last being in 1982.
It took 35 years before Brittany Force would join a very exclusive club that previously had just one member, Muldowney.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Robert Hight, president of John Force Racing and John’s son-in-law, went out and won his second career Funny Car championship.
John’s other racing daughter, Courtney Force, finished the 2017 season third in Funny Car, while John himself finished seventh in the same category at the age of 68.
To say JFR is standing tall and proud right now is an understatement. And given all the blood, sweat and tears John has put into his racing operation over the last three-plus decades, Force and the rest of JFR are to be congratulated for the rewards that have been reaped in 2017.
I remember talking to Force one day about 15 years ago on where his organization would go in the future. He was already past 50 years old at the time.
Given that he had no sons, I asked John how would his organization continue on and go forward once he stepped out of his Funny Car for the final time – not ever imagining that he’d still be strapped in it a decade and a half later.
Force looked at me in a non-plussed way and said something that kind of took me aback.
“I’m going to put my girls in the cars,” he said. “I’m going to make drag racers out of ‘em.”
But, he added with a caveat, “But they have to want to be drag racers first. I won’t force them. But if they want to do it, I’ll give them all the support and the best equipment there is. But I’m not just going to give it to them. They’re going to have to earn it first.”
In that same conversation, Force went on to reveal more about the plan he had in mind for Brittany and Courtney. Another daughter, Ashley, was getting ready to begin her own drag racing career in a few years, as well.
Force wasn’t going to push his girls, then in high school, into racing if they didn’t want to. But there also was an ulterior motive that Force quietly revealed to me about why he wanted his daughters in a dragster or flopper.
Sure, he wanted them to win and become successful, but the most important thing was to spend as much time together with them as possible.
“I missed so much time of their growing up,” Force said. “I missed lots of things they did at school. I missed lots of their activities. I should have been there, and I wasn’t. I was out on the road somewhere racing.”
Force has long been known as a man with a plan. It’s been that way since the first time he strapped into a race car in the early 1970s. Everything he’s done in his career has germinated from a plan, a need to look ahead, set a goal and then reach it.
It was the same way with his girls. Oldest daughter Adria, from Force’s first marriage, never quite had the racing bug herself, but she’s gone on to handle much of Force’s business operations along with husband Robert Hight over the last decade-plus.
And then there were the three daughters Force had with second wife Laurie: Ashley, Brittany and Courtney. “We named them ABC so John wouldn’t get confused,” Laurie told me once with a laugh.
To his credit, Force never moaned or lamented why God didn’t give him sons. To him, when it came to drag racing, there was no male or female, there was just one gender: a true drag racer.
And that’s what Ashley, Brittany and Courtney became. While Ashley’s career was shortened to start a family, Brittany and Courtney have gone on to become two of the most recognizable faces and names in the sport today.
“I wanted to make sure that John Force Racing goes on not only after I quit racing, but also after I’m gone,” Force told me a few years ago when Brittany and Courtney were just getting their respective racing careers going.
John Force is contractually bound to continue racing for at least another two more seasons, through 2019. At that point, he’ll be 70 years old. While he has repeatedly said over the years that he doesn’t know if he’ll ever retire, Father Time is definitely knocking on John’s door.
But if ever there was a time for John to walk away, it’ll be then. One daughter has won her first championship (and likely first of several to come), another daughter will likely follow her sister into becoming a champion in the next few years, and the company president just won his second championship.
They all learned how to race and to be winners from John. Like father, like daughter, Brittany has a razor-sharp stare when she’s at the starting line, ready to put a whoopin’ on the guy – or gal – in the other lane every time the green “go” light comes on. There’s no question she’s a Force, through and through.
Courtney is the same way. Each year, she’s continued to make progress towards becoming a consistent winner and eventual champ. Her time as a champion is coming, trust me.
Which brings me back to Force’s bawling after Brittany clinched the championship. Sure, he was overcome that she just brought the 19th championship to JFR – and it’s first in Top Fuel.
In all the time I’ve known John, I’ve only seen him cry hard one other time. It was during preseason testing in Phoenix in January 2008 – three months after he was almost killed in the worst crash of his life.
He cried about the pain he was still in 24/7, the pins and screws still in his ankle and leg, about getting back in the saddle of his Funny Car and hoping everything went right, about Eric Medlen who died nearly a year earlier in a practice crash.
Hell, I admit, I joined Force in shedding some tears of commiseration that day. But I understood why he was crying so very well. He was still in all kinds of pain physically, mentally and emotionally.
Sunday wasn’t crying about winning a championship for Force. In fact, his crying really didn’t have anything to do with drag racing.
It was all about his daughter making her greatest life achievement to date – and potentially the first of many championships to come – and John was joyously fortunate enough to be there to witness it.
That’s what a father’s love is all about. And while Sunday indeed was Brittany’s day, in a way, it was also Father’s Day for John. He fathered her, taught her how to race, taught her how to win races and was there to see her continue a family tradition.
Congratulations to them both.