Even at 65, he’s still NHRA drag racing’s driving Force

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First of two parts

John Force has spent the last 30 years carrying the torch for the National Hot Rod Association.

And even at an age (65) when most people are thinking of retirement, that word is not in Force’s vocabulary – let alone in his plans anytime soon.

“The racetrack is where I vacation,” Force said in a recent exclusive interview with MotorSportsTalk. “Some guy joked to me that I should go to the Bahamas, sit out there, look out at the water and drink a glass of wine.

“I laughed. I told him if I want that view, I go home, fill my bathtub, sit next to it, have a glass of wine and watch the water.

“It’s all a matter of who you are in life. I don’t want to die out here, even though I’ve joked about it. But I sure don’t want to grow old in a rocking chair.”

At the same time, though, the record 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion is slowly preparing to pass that torch he’s carried to his daughters, Top Fuel driver Brittany and fellow Funny Car driver Courtney, his son-in-law Robert Hight (president of John Force Racing) and potentially to his grandkids one day.

But make no mistake about it, Force is still in it to win it. Entering this weekend’s NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa., the patriarch of the Force family and racing empire was atop the Funny Car points standings with three races to go, his sites laser focused on winning that 17th championship this season.

“I’m chasing it seven days a week, both on the racetrack and in the boardroom,” Force said. “It’s all about growing and building.”

What’s Force’s secret of longevity? It could be because he seems to be BFFs with Father Time. That’s allowed him to continue racing – and as competitive as he’s ever been – at a time when most of the fellow peers he broke into the drag racing world back in the late 1970s have long ago hung up their firesuits.

Not Force, though. He’s a man who seems to carry the weight not only of the 115 employees in his racing organization, but also the future success of the NHRA as a whole on his broad shoulders.

He knows that the NHRA – much like NASCAR and IndyCar – has struggled in recent years with both at-track attendance and TV ratings.

No one tells him to do it, but Force has taken it upon himself to do whatever he can to attract the next generation of fans and drivers for a sport that he loves.

“Somebody once asked me, why am I always laughing, being friendly with everybody?” Force said. “You know what makes the best driver, what the real key is? It’s being happy. When you’re happy, you’re at your best.”

 

IS 65 TOO OLD TO STILL RACE?

While some might consider Force too old to be racing, he’s actually young compared to others who are still competing behind the wheel.

For example, Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines of Chicago still drives a Top Fuel dragster part-time at the age of 82 (he turns 83 on Nov. 11).

Yes, you read that right, 82 years old — and still driving at 300-plus mph.

Karamesines – who may be old in age but arguably looks 30 years younger with a full head of hair, a Clark Gable-like mustache and reaction times at the start-finish line comparable to someone 50 years his junior – has oftentimes said drag racing helps keep him young of body, mind and spirit.

MORE: Drag racer Chris Karamesines, 82, and others prove age is just a number

And then there’s “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who became the most successful and innovative driver of his day in the Top Fuel ranks from the 1960s and into the 1990s, helping to take turn the sport and NHRA into the big-time national entities they are today.

Garlits, who keeps himself busy running the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., quit competitive racing in both the NHRA and International Hot Rod Association nearly two decades ago.

But just because Garlits is also 82, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still feel the need for speed like Karamesines. Garlits has been keeping busy pioneering electric-powered dragsters.

Not surprisingly, he holds the current speed record for an electric dragster (184.01 mph in 7.26 seconds), with hopes of soon breaking the 200-mile barrier with an upgraded version he’s working on.

MORE: Big Daddy Don Garlits, 82, comes out of retirement to set another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

 

MEMORIES OF 2007 CRASH STILL DRIVES FORCE

Heading into this weekend’s race at Maple Grove, Force has 141 race victories and 16 Funny Car championships.

But had it not been for some quick thinking and even quicker medical treatment, Force will be the first to acknowledge he might not be here today.

Force loves to joke about how many times he’s wrecked, been upside down and on fire in his career. But when talk turns to the worst wreck of his life, the amiable and non-stop talking Force takes pause to reflect and remember.

On Sept. 23, 2007, while competing against fellow drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein at Texas Motorplex, south of Dallas, Force’s career – and nearly his life – appeared over.

Force lost control of his Ford Mustang after an explosion near the finish line, causing him to veer hard and into Bernstein’s car. While Bernstein was uninjured, Force suffered severe injuries including a broken left ankle and wrist, and severe abrasions to his right knee and calf.

“It about ruined my physically,” Force said. “They told me to forget about driving (again).”

In a sense, the nearly three weeks he spent recovering in the hospital, as well as nearly six months of intense and painful rehabilitation ultimately became one of the best things that ever happened to Force.

He began to realize the preciousness of life, how his own life almost came to an end in mere seconds, and gave him pause to remember and reset his priorities in life.

“My three priorities are, one, I don’t talk religion, but God’s the lead priority,” Force said. “Second is my family and third my racecar with the fans.”

With daughter Ashley due to be married in mid-December of 2008, Force pushed himself physically like he’s never had.

Again, it was about priorities – and getting them right.

“My priority was to walk my daughter Ashley down the aisle, as well as my other daughters without a cane,” he said. “If I were to walk them with a cane or crutch, they’d be just as proud, but I wanted to prove to myself that if you’re as good as everybody says you are, then quit whining. You don’t know the hours of crying, the pain, how I said I can’t do this (rehab after the wreck).”

For a guy who drips testosterone and machismo, Force wasn’t given much of a chance to feel sorry for himself.

Applying a tough love approach, his wife of more than 30 years, Laurie, saw to that.

Recalled John Force, “My wife said to me, ‘You said you can overcome anything. You told your kids that. And you’re going to fall down here when it really got tough? Get to work, or you’re not the man I married.'”

Laurie Force knew that would light a fire of inspiration and motivation under her man, and it did.

John’s wreck was made all the more hard to deal with because it came six months to the day following the death of young Funny Car driver Eric Medlen, who raced for and whose father worked as a crew chief for Force. Eric Medlen was killed while testing at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway on March 23, 2007.

Force had big plans for Medlen, looking upon him as the son he never had, and took his death very hard. But from Medlen’s tragedy came significant good: Force would help create a charitable foundation known as the Eric Medlen Project, as well as led the initiative to design and develop a new and safer Funny Car chassis, which is now known as the Eric Medlen Chassis.

Not only did Laurie Force do her husband a favor with her tough love approach, John’s doctors also did likewise when they told him he potentially would never drive again. If there’s one thing John Force hates, it’s when someone tells him he can’t do something.

Four months after his near-fatal wreck, Force was back behind the wheel of his beloved Funny Car during a preseason test at Phoenix International Raceway.

Force fought back from his injuries to not only return to racing, but to also go on to win his 15th Funny Car championship in 2010 and No. 16 last season.

Part 2, “What Does The Future Hold For John Force?”, will appear Saturday here on MotorSportsTalk.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar Preseason, Day 1: Simon Pagenaud on why he likes teasing Josef Newgarden

Newgarden Pagenaud feud
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — A roundup of nuggets from the opening day of preseason IndyCar Content Days for media that lead into two days of preseason testing Thursday and Friday at The Thermal Club, starting with a playful “feud” between former teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud:

After making a point to needle Newgarden during the Rolex 24 at Daytona (when he was warned for being deemed to have caused a spin by the car driven by Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Pagenaud laughed about why he likes poking at his ex-teammate at Team Penske.

“I just love to press the button with Josef,” Pagenaud said. “I just love it. I’m being very open about it. I think he knows it, too. It’s funny to see him unsettled a little bit. I like when he gets aggressive. I don’t know why. It’s funny.”

They scrapped a few times as Penske teammates. Pagenaud notably was hot after a 2017 incident at Gateway during Newgarden’s first season with the team, but he later backtracked and blamed it on his French blood.

Pagenaud says all is good between now – though he also admits with a devilish grin that he’s taking advantage of the freedom from leaving Penske last year.

“Absolutely, yeah. I couldn’t do that before,” he said with a laugh about teasing Newgarden. “I would get in trouble.

“Yeah, I can be myself. I can say what I want to say. Nobody is upset about it. I love Josef. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy.

“Do I love the driver? Not always, but I enjoy pressing the button with him because he seems like such a confident person. Yeah, I like to just go press it a little bit.”

When he was informed of the sardonic comments (Pagenaud asked reporters to make sure they relayed that he enjoyed passing Newgarden in the race) after his first stint at Daytona last weekend, Newgarden took a shot back.

“He doesn’t get many opportunities these days, so I’m sure he enjoyed that,” Newgarden said. “Take them when you can get them. There’s so much happening I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened when I was out there. Hey, he’s a big note-keeper, that guy.”

Pagenaud, who is winless since 2020, conceded that point Tuesday at IndyCar’s media session.

“I will do better this year,” he said. “But I got to build my team up, put myself in that situation. We were not there yet. I hope we can be there this year.

“But certainly not being teammates, you race differently. Now, the driver that he is, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He’s tremendous. I mean, he’s one of the best at what he does. So beating him is even a better reward. But I like my résumé better than his.”

For the record, Newgarden has one more IndyCar championship than Pagenaud but is empty in the Indy 500 win column compared to the 2019 winner at the Brickyard.

During his Rolex 24 availability, Pagenaud also took playful aim at the “Bus Bros,” the branded social and digital content that Newgarden and teammate and buddy Scott McLaughlin have been producing for nearly a year.

“Apparently they hang out together all the time,” Pagenaud cracked. “They’re ‘Bus Bros.’ Do you guys know what this is, the ‘Bus Bros’ thing? Have you watched it? I should start watching it.”

Newgarden and McLaughlin are scheduled to appear together on the second day of the preseason media event at the Palm Springs Convention Center, so stay tuned for the next round of snark.


Pagenaud is among many drivers enthused to get acclimated to The Thermal Club, which is a $275 million motorsports country club of sorts.

But for the Frenchman, Thermal represents more than just a chance to tune up for the 2023 season. Pagenaud, who made his first visit to the desert track three years ago after winning the Indy 500, is thinking about his long-term future.

“It’s actually something I’m really interested in for my future but in another life,” he said. “I love the concept. Actually before my IndyCar career, I was on a project like that myself in France. I was going to build something similar. I had the backing, I had everything going on, but my career took off. I had to give up on the project.

“But it is something I’ve always been interested in. My dad used to run my home racetrack. I had access to it, so I could see how that was going.

“I always had a passion for it because it’s a way to allow the fans to get closer to the car, allow the sport to be more known to the general public. There’s so many things that you can do with a racetrack, not only for races, but so many people that can come to bicycle races, you can have runners do a marathon. It doesn’t have to be just racing. It can be events. I’m into that. I’ve always been. Certainly when it’s time to stop driving, it will be something that I’m interested in, yes. That’s maybe 20 years from now.”


Felix Rosenqvist returns for his third consecutive season at McLaren, the longest stint with one team for the Swede since 2014 in F3.

But he finds himself somewhat in a similar position to last season when his return was uncertain for months during the Alex Palou-Chip Ganassi Racing saga. Palou is back with Ganassi but still expected to join the team in 2024, and with Rossi and O’Ward on long-term deals, Rosenqvist would be unable to stay unless the team added a fourth car.

He is taking it all in stride with the same grace in which he managed last season’s uncertainty.

“I think I handled it probably as good as I could,” Rosenqvist said of last year. “That’s probably a reason why I’m here this year. I think it’s a massive opportunity for me to be back for a third year. I feel like I have all the tools I need to perform, feeling very good with everyone at the car. As I said, there’s so many things happening last year on and off the track. I think as a team, we just really learned a lot from that that we can bring into this season.

“I think we’ll be tough this year. We have a lot of things in the bag to try early this season. A couple of things here at Thermal we want to try. Going into the season, we have pinpointed some areas where we feel we were lacking a little bit, like the short ovals, for example. I feel like we’ve done the best we can to attack all those areas and bring the best possible package we can.”

Rosenqvist is winless since his breakthrough victory over O’Ward at Road America in 2020. Ending that skid certainly would improve his prospects, but he isn’t worried.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “That’s a long time until next year. I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m in a good spot. I’m in a well-performing team. I feel well with everyone around me. I feel like I have a good support from the team. I don’t really think too much about that stuff. I just try to do what I can do, which is go fast forward and try to win races.”


After being frozen out of remote access to team data last year, Palou said his working relationship at Ganassi is “back to 100% like it was before from both sides.” The 2021 series champion said he had full privileges restored after he closed the season by winning the finale at Laguna Seca Raceway and then settled on staying with Ganassi a day later.

He is allowed to continue his F1 testing with McLaren, too, though IndyCar will be the priority in-season.

“It was a tough year,” said Palou, whose contract dispute lasted for two months. “Could have been a lot worse, for sure, than what we had but also could have been a little bit better if we didn’t have anything around in our minds. It’s a part of racing.

“I’m just happy that now we know that even with things in our minds, we were able to be successful. Hopefully, we can be back to 2021 things during this season. Yeah, obviously there’s always some moments (in 2022) where you’re like, ‘Oh, no, my God, this is not going the direction I wanted.’ But there was things that were out of my control, obviously. Some things that I could control, as well. But at the end of the day I had all the information from my side, from other sides. I knew that everything could be settled, and it did.”


Pato O’Ward unplugged from the racing world for six weeks during the offseason, ensuring he was fully recharged when the new year arrived.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to do it in the past few years,” said O’Ward, who tested an F1 car in 2021 and then went right into preparing and racing (then winning) the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona. “I said, ‘I want at least six weeks. Don’t talk to me, don’t text me, I don’t want to hear anything.’ It’s healing. It’s very healing.

“As much as you love what you do, you need to find a balance of just doing something else. I always tell people, there’s a huge difference between relaxing and recharging. How I recharge is doing things I don’t normally do during the year. Just being at the beach to me is my favorite thing to do after driving race cars. I made sure that I had that kind of time to just enjoy my loved ones. After I was finished with that, I was like, ‘OK, race cars now.’ ”


Marcus Ericsson is planning on a long future with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the 2022 Indy 500 winner seems well-positioned to become the team’s anchor driver if he can maintain last season’s consistency.

Jimmie Johnson has been replaced by the Marcus Armstrong-Takuma Sato combination, and Alex Palou is leaving after this year.

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, 42, is Ganassi’s unquestioned dean until his retirement, but Ericsson clearly is interested in the mantle after that.

“I’m feeling very much at home in the team,” said Ericsson, the Formula One who is entering his fourth season with CGR. “I’m super happy about that. I wish to stay for a very long time, as well. There is some uncertainty with other places maybe in the future, but Dixon seems to be just getting better and better. He might be here for another 10 years or so, who knows.

“But that’s great. Me and Scott, we work really well together. I can still learn a lot from him. I want to be here for a long time and win races and championships together.”

The Swede had a droll response when asked if no longer being the only Marcus will get confusing in Ganassi debriefs. “Yeah, it is; I’m angry,” Ericsson deadpanned. “I think we’re OK. He seems like a good kid. He has a good name.”


Following in the footsteps of Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard from F2 to IndyCar, Armstrong is OK with deferring his F1 dreams to run road and street courses as a rookie in 2023. The New Zealander grew up as an IndyCar fan rooting for Dixon, his boyhood idol and fellow countryman.

“I’ve been watching him on TV since I was a kid,” Armstrong, 22, said. “It’s cool because IndyCar is massive where I’m from because of him. I’ve always been so attracted to this championship. Of course, I spent my entire life chasing F1. You can never say ‘never.’ If I’m honest with you, I’m happy where I am now. It’s a dream come true.”

Armstrong hopes to move to full time in 2024 and believes being aligned with a powerhouse such as Ganassi will give him an opportunity to post strong results immediately (just as Ilott and Lundgaard had flashes as rookies last year).

“I’ve been genuinely impressed by the organization, just the strategic point of view that Chip Ganassi Racing has, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said. “I can understand why they’ve had so much success. I think fundamentally I need to get on it straightaway. I have all the information in the world, really. I just need to hit the ground running, do well immediately.”


In among the wildest stories of the offseason, rookie Sting Ray Robb revealed he landed his ride at Dale Coyne Racing because he ran into Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist at PitFit Training, a physical fitness and performance center used by many drivers in Indianapolis.

Lundqvist was the presumptive favorite for the DCR No. 51 Dallara-Honda, which was the last open seat heading into the 2022 season. Because of his Indy Lights title (since rebranded as “IndyNXT”) with HMD Motorsports, Lundqvist had a six-figure sponsorship to bring to an IndyCar team, and DCR is partnered with HMD.

“There was a few teams that we were talking to, and Dale’s team was not the one that was at the top of the list because we thought they already had a driver,” Robb said. “Obviously with Linus winning the championship, we assumed with the HMD association there that there would be a straight shoe-in for him.

“But I actually was at PitFit Training one day with Linus and discovered that was not the case. That created an opportunity for us that allowed me to call up my manager, Pieter Rossi, and get him on the phone, and he immediately called Dale and said, ‘Hey, we’re available.’ I think there was a mutual understanding of what availability was for either one of us. That’s when conversations began. Then we had a really good test in 2023 right at the beginning of January, and I think that was kind of the one that set the tone that allowed me to get in the seat.

“I think there’s been some opportunities that were miraculously created that we couldn’t have done on our own.”

Robb, who finished second in last year’s Indy Lights standings, hasn’t talked to Lundqvist since their PitFit meeting.

“Linus does deserve a seat” in IndyCar, Robb said. “His on-track performance was incredible. But it takes more than just a driver to get into IndyCar. You’ve got to have a village around you that supports you, and so I think that that is where my group made a difference. It wasn’t just in my performance, but it was the people around me.

“I feel bad for Linus because as a driver I can feel that way towards him because I could be in that seat if I didn’t have those same people around me. So there you go.”