Second of two parts
When most sports fans hear the acronym “NHRA”, it’s a good bet that the majority almost immediately think of John Force.
The 65-year-old Southern California native is that synonymous and identifiable with the overall National Hot Rod Association organization. To many, Force IS the NHRA, and the NHRA is Force — much like the late Dale Earnhardt was with NASCAR.
Even though in the whole big scheme of things, he’s just one driver, other than NHRA founder the late Wally Parks, no one has done more for the straightline sport than Force.
Like other professional sports leagues that have weathered tough economic times, the NHRA has admittedly struggled in recent years with at-track attendance and TV ratings.
But whenever someone suggests Force, the record 16-time Funny Car champ, should assume a significant leadership role within the NHRA’s corporate office, Force makes it clear he’s a Funny Car pilot, not a desk jockey.
“I want to build the sport because I just never grow tired of it,” he said. “Do I want to run a racing series? No, I leave that to other people. (NHRA president) Tom Compton and I have talked about the racing. I tell him what I think and he listens to me. Do you think he wants this to fail?”
While he told MotorSportsTalk that he has no plans to retire for at least five more years, there’s no denying that daughters Brittany and Courtney are at the center of Force’s eventual succession plan. He’s groomed them well both behind the wheel and in front of the cameras.
Before almost every round that the two sisters race, their father is out at the starting line to watch and offer his support.
“Do a good job, Courtney. You too, Brit. Now make some points out there,” dad often says to his offspring.
A third daughter, Ashley, was the first member of the family to follow in her father’s footsteps and achieved success as a racer before stepping out of her Funny Car to begin raising a family.
“I’m still here because my kids are here,” John Force said. “I missed so much of them growing up because I had to work. But now they’re here, my grandkids are with me. This is where I want to be.
“If I’m here, I have a purpose. One day, I’ll get a rocking chair out here when I need it, but right now I can drive that race car and I can leave with the best. I really love what I do.”
As president of John Force Racing, son-in-law Robert Hight, who is married to Force’s oldest daughter Adria, who is not a racer, is also a key element in where JFR goes in the future – even if it means the JF part of it eventually steps aside or stops racing just so his offspring can.
It’s clear from his actions and words how much family means to Force as he slowly begins transition into the next phase of his career.
“I want to hold my grandchildren, play ball with them and drive that race car,” Force said. “Those are my goals.”
He even has a play area in his massive race hauler for the grandkids.
SPONSORSHIP, MANUFACTURER FOR 2015 REMAINS UNCERTAIN
And while the elder Force isn’t planning on getting out of the race car for quite some time, that decision may not necessarily and totally be his to make.
Force and JFR are in the midst of perhaps the biggest challenge the company and its founder have ever faced. Long-time sponsors Castrol and Ford are ending their financial backing of John Force at season’s end, choosing to take their sponsorship dollars in another direction after more than two decades of association with Force and his race teams.
“I’ve got a job cut out for me,” Force acknowledged. “(I’ll be losing) half my income (at season’s end). I had a huge income, had it real good. But there’s no guarantee in life.”
In a sense, Force is back to hustling for business deals and income just as he did when he first began his racing career in the early 1970s. He’s doing it for the survival of his team.
As part of that hustling, Force talks about building the JFR brand globally, including racing overseas in places like Qatar, Dubai, Australia and London. He’s also looking to grow drag racing in Canada.
“We’re trying to find the best partners,” Force said. “The world’s changed, the economy. Basically like NASCAR, you have to put two sponsors on a car. I’ve never done that before.
“I’ll be moving on from Ford. They’re great people, no complaints, but they’ve got another direction for the next three, four, five years and I appreciate all that they did for me.”
What manufacturer Force will campaign next season is uncertain. While an affiliation with Dodge makes sense because of its new Hellcat Challenger and Charger – both with 707 horsepower, the most powerful of any of today’s muscle cars – recent rumors seem to indicate Force may be heading to Chevrolet.
Also of late, Castrol has reportedly been in discussions with Force to possibly return next season, albeit most likely in a reduced role as perhaps an associate sponsor.
BUILDING THE JFR BRAND, DIVERSIFICATION INTO OTHER AREAS
Force has other development plans in the works to not only keep the JFR brand viable, but to also expand its footprint both in and out of racing. Included in that is a new TV series – similar to “Driving Force” that ran several years ago – which is set to debut in early 2015.
Another thing Force is overseeing is perhaps the biggest project he’s ever been involved in, to build an all-encompassing business, entertainment and residential community.
While he won’t reveal its location just yet, think “ForceWorld” or “Forceville” and you’ve got the basic idea.
“I’m going to put a town around it,” Force said. “I’m going to build restaurants that go year-round, hotels that go-year round, not just when there’s a race. I’m going to have a place where people can golf.”
Even though he’s a multi-millionaire, Force has never forgotten the humble beginnings he came from. It’s not only a reminder, but also a motivator.
That’s why at a time when most people are retiring, Force is going faster and quicker than he ever has.
“I ain’t going back to that trailer house,” Force says of where he grew up in Bell Gardens, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. “My dad said as long as you have children, as long as you have people that believe in you, the Force family works. They all work until they die to some degree.”
And Force will indeed continue to work because, as hard as it may seem for diehard fans of drag racing’s greatest driver ever to believe, one of the biggest motivating factors in his life today is:
“Am I afraid,” Force said haltingly. “Yeah, I’m afraid to fail.”
But like he’s done thousands of times in his life, Force quickly goes from somber to humorous, a tool that oftentimes helps him cope and smoothes over what he’s really feeling inside.
“You know what? God has given me a gift through mostly B.S., not driving talent,” he said with a laugh.”
But once again, his emotions quickly swung back to realism.
“I live out here and yes, I’m afraid not to have this life,” he said. “I’m not just afraid, I’m terrified.
“John Force can’t go out of business. Just because I don’t get the money (he used to) doesn’t make me quit. I have to stay.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski