JOLIET, Illinois – It seems virtually everywhere he goes, everyone he talks to and everything he sees and hears — even in his dreams and nightmares — legendary NHRA driver John Force can’t get away from the number 150.
There’s a good reason for that. The winningest driver in NHRA history has been trying for more than two years to become the first driver to ever win 150 races. After winning four races in 2016, he won just one race apiece in 2017 (No. 148) and 2018 (No. 149). And even though he keeps trying, Force still hasn’t been able to hit that one-five-zero mark.
But Force, who turned 70 on May 4, is hoping to finally earn that elusive victory in this weekend’s Route 66 Nationals at one of his favorite and more successful tracks on the NHRA national event circuit, Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois.
He has plenty of motivation:
* He’s a three-time winner at the suburban Chicago track. His last win at Route 66 was in 2006. He’s also made a total of six final round appearances, most recently in 2013. He also has been No. 1 qualifier five times in the Windy City.
* He made history at Route 66 in 2000. Just a couple of years after the track opened as the first “stadium” of drag racing, Force won his 86th career race there, overtaking the late Bob Glidden to become the all-time winningest driver in NHRA history.
* Old World Industries, parent company of Peak Coolant and Motor Oil, the primary sponsor on Force’s Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car, is headquartered in suburban Chicago and Force will be hosting several hundred guests from the company over the weekend. Force recently signed a three-year contract extension with the company, meaning he’ll be racing until at least he’s 73 years old.
“I’m going to be racing for awhile,” Force told NBC Sports. “I’m excited about coming back to Chicago. I won a lot of races there, won my 86th there and set a record. Now I’m trying to set 150. I struggled last year with the car, we got into trouble, couldn’t get out of it, came around and finished in the top 10. This year was a new start with a new team and we’re doing good. We’re not getting the wins but it’s going to happen.
“The old days where I’d go out and win 12, 13 races out of 24 in a season, them days are gone. The competition is too tough. My own driver (son-in-law and John Force Racing president) Robert Hight has taken me out three times (in semifinal matches) this year and once in the final at Charlotte. These guys are tough, so it ain’t going to be like the old days. You can’t sleep, you have to stay focused.”
Force’s most recent championship – a record-setting 16th – came in 2013. And while he continues to chase his 17th crown, the king of the quartermile is confident it’s just a matter of time, perhaps in this case a matter of mere days this weekend, until he finally captures No. 150.
“It’s no more of a struggle than to get (win number) 148 or 149,” Force said. “I’m driving Courtney’s race car (daughter Courtney Force stepped away from racing before this season began), brought over my son-in-law Danny Hood (daughter Ashley Force’s husband) and Brian Corradi (as co-crew chiefs). It’s a good race car. We were No. 1 qualifier at Richmond but couldn’t get the win there, but it’s starting to show promise and we’ll see where it goes.”
Even though he’s older than every one of his competitors, and is also doing battle with several drivers that are a third of his age, Force says his love for the sport and the competition keeps him young. But he humorously admits he’s had to make at least a few adjustments to keep up with Father Time.
Like wearing glasses nearly full-time for the first time in his life.
“I don’t want to say I look like a nerd because that’s not politically correct,” he said with a laugh, and continuing with a chuckle by adding, “I’m going to look a little strange when I come in wearing glasses, but I’m strange looking anyways, so it don’t matter.”
When – not if – Force captures that 150th win, what will be his next goal? Can he reach 175 wins or maybe even 200, even though he’d likely be closing in on 90 years old by then?
“I set a goal years ago that I was going to catch (Richard) Petty’s 200 wins, and now Kyle Busch has caught him,” Force said. “But I still set goals. I’ve been chasing guys like (Don) Prudhomme, (Big Daddy Don) Garlits and (Kenny) Bernstein my whole life. It ain’t about them, it’s about goal-setting that makes you strive to get there.
“I don’t even tell people my age anymore. I feel like I’m going on 100. I came over here when race cars had wooden wheels, but I love what I do.”
I don’t even tell people my age anymore. I feel like I’m going on 100. I came over here when race cars had wooden wheels, but I love what I do.
Force struggled to a ninth-place finish in last year’s standings. To say the least, it was an explosive season but for all the wrong reasons, most notably experiencing four motor explosions – two of which put him into the hospital for at least a few hours of observation and examination.
Through the first eight races of the 24-race 2019 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, the start for Force this season has been much better. That’s why he’s so optimistic that No. 150 is right around the corner. Then, once he gets that monkey off his back, it’ll be on to No. 151.
“Is 150 a monkey on your back? Yeah, but I don’t let that stuff bother me,” Force said. “I don’t think about it. I’ll get it sooner or later, unless I have a heart attack – and that could happen, I just hope it don’t happen on the racetrack.
“I just had a complete physical and my health is good, heart checks out, I can do treadmills. For my age, they’re amazed. They say just keep doing what you’re doing.
“We got snake-bit last year. Our engine program, it wasn’t the tuner’s fault, it was some things they had changed and it snake-bit us and we couldn’t stop it. We looked so many places and created things in the motor to make it stronger, and it made things worse.
“All of a sudden, just everything went wrong. This year, I made some changes. We’re back on track, we’re going to go down this road, we have some new sponsors. Everything is changing, but change is good. We just have to figure out how to win – and we’re going to.
“Bottom line, we keep putting ourselves in a position to win. I’m getting more confident every week. I’m using every trick I’ve got to run with these kids but it’s gonna happen.”
NOTES: Qualifying begins with two rounds Friday night (6:15 and 8:45 p.m. CT). The final two rounds of qualifying are Saturday (3:30 and 6 p.m. CT). Eliminations begin Sunday at 11 a.m. CT.