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.
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.
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.
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