It’s understandable to not want to get too far ahead of ourselves, given we’re just two races into the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
But given how this season has gone, it’s also not too early to think we may be on the verge of witnessing history in the making: the legendary John Force, a 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion, is knocking on the door of potentially earning a record 17th championship.
At the age of 70!
Well, to be precise, Force will be 70.5 years of age by the time the NHRA season concludes on Nov. 17 in Pomona, California at Auto Club Raceway. If he does win the championship, Force would become the oldest champion in NHRA history, if not all professional sports.
The previous oldest NHRA champ? John Force, at the age of 64, in 2013.
Force has done countless incredible things in his 50-plus years of hurtling his self-proclaimed “old hot rod” down quarter-mile, 1,000-foot and eighth-mile drag strips as both the greatest name ever in NHRA competition, but also during his earlier days of barnstorming from one end of the country to the other (as well as in Canada and even Australia).
He’s been on fire more times than he can count. He’s crashed so many times that if those wrecks were on the freeways near his Southern California home, the DMV would have yanked his driver’s license decades ago.
He’s enjoyed the highest of highs with his 151 wins (plus 104 runner-up finishes) and 16 championships, but he’s also faced the lowest of lows, including watching the tragic loss of one of his drivers, Eric Medlen, in a crash while testing his car in 2007, as well as Force’s own devastating crash in Texas later that same year that nearly killed him.
Still, Force has survived, endured and continued to prosper. He rebuilt his body and mind since that fateful day in October 2007, to the point where physically and mentally today he’s like a man in his 40s – with a daily workout regimen that puts many 20 to 30 year olds to shame – pretty much the prime for most professional drag racers.
Much like Richard Petty is the greatest driver in NASCAR history, Force is Petty’s equal when it comes to hurtling down the straight line.
Force IS the NHRA. There is no question or doubt about it.
Sure, others have been illustrious stars in their own right – many with equally illustrious nicknames – including “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Bob Glidden, Warren “The Professor” Johnson, Kenny “The Budweiser King” Bernstein, Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, Raymond Beadle, Terry Vance, Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines, Connie Kalitta, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Ronnie Sox, Gary Beck, Jim Dunn, Joe Amato, Dale Armstrong, Mickey Thompson, Lee Shepherd and so many more.
But there never has been, is, nor likely ever will be another John “Brute” Force. While no one will say it on the record, it’s pretty clear top executives that occupy NHRA’s corporate headquarters in Glendora, Calif., are literally shaking in their boots, dreading when the day finally arrives when John Harold Force, a poor kid who grew up in a ramshackle trailer in Bell Gardens, California, calls it quits.
And once Force leaves – if he leaves, that is – the future of the NHRA is cloudy, at best.
Sure, there are a number of young stars in the sport currently, including daughter Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, Richie Crampton, J.R. Todd, Erica Enders, Leah Pritchett, Austin Prock, Alex Laughlin, Hector Arana Jr., Matt Smith and Angie Smith. But none of them are John Force, the biggest draw the sport has ever seen – and likely ever will see.
But once Force performs the last burnout of his career – something that he’s nearly as famous for as much as for all his wins and championships – who knows what the future of the sport will hold.
Of course, Force’s countless number of diehard fans – as well as the afore-mentioned NHRA suits – hope Force doesn’t quit still for several more years to come.
Force himself has even said that when his time is up on Earth, he wants to go out in his “old hot rod.” But at the rate he’s going and the resurgence he has enjoyed this season, Force could potentially go on racing for another 20 or maybe even 30 years.
That’s not an exaggeration. He quickly points to Karamesines, who is still drag racing and going over 300 mph on a regular basis at the spry age of 87 (turns 88 next month).
Speaking of his resurgence, Force has two wins this season and heads into next week’s third race of the Countdown just 13 points behind Funny Car points leader – and also Force’s son-in-law and president of John Force Racing – Robert Hight. Force also has a lifetime contract to be sponsored by Peak Anti-Freeze and Lubricants and recently signed a multi-year extension to continue to be powered by Chevrolet.
It’s pretty clear Force isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Still, it wasn’t too long ago – 2017 and 2018, to be precise — that questions began to arise about Force’s ability to continue racing. There were numerous whispers that perhaps he found the one opponent he couldn’t beat: Father Time.
From 2013 through 2016, Force enjoyed his most recent championship (2013) and his last multi-win season (four wins in 2016). And during that same four-year span, he managed a combined 13 wins.
But the well nearly ran dry in 2017 and 2018. He managed to eek out just one win in each season. There were also several wrecks, including two that sent him to the hospital to be checked out, and nearly a half-dozen motor explosions.
He finished a disappointing seventh in the final standings in 2017 and ninth in 2018, the lowest recent finish he had experienced since also finishing ninth in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Although to be fair, after finishing ninth in both 2009 and 2012, Force roared right back in each of the following seasons to claim two more championships.
To get the ship righted, he tried different crew chiefs and a number of new team members, continually looking to find the right combination that would put him back on the path for more multiple return visits to the winner’s circle.
Because of all the disappointment he had endured, it’s likely there were a number of fans and observers who came into the 2019 NHRA season wondering if this potentially could be Force’s last. I mean, could anyone REALLY expect Force to keep winning at an age where he should have been drawing Social Security for the last eight years?
Then there was the sudden and abrupt departure of daughter Courtney Force from her own Funny Car – she says she’s on hiatus – just a few weeks before the current season began.
John Force not only had to dig deep, he had to go through the floor to find a way to give it one more shot to return to his glory days, even with increasingly growing odds against him because of his age. But somehow, some way, if anyone could mount one more comeback to glory, it was Force.
And the results this season have shown it: in addition to his wins at Seattle (the milestone 150th of his career) and less than a month later in historically what has been the NHRA’s biggest race of the season, the U.S. Nationals, Force has also amassed two runner-up finishes as well as eight semi-final showings in the first 20 races of the NHRA’s 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
Compare that to 2017 (one win, zero runner-ups, and just four semifinal finishes) and 2018 (one win, 2 runner-ups, and five semifinal finishes – but advanced to the semifinals just once in the final nine races of the season, including the six-race playoffs).
Since winning his first NHRA national event in 1987 (in Montreal) – after losing nine prior final round appearances – Force has gone on to become not only the greatest drag racer in history, his animated and often hyperkinetic way of talking with the media (“It’s my ADD,” he’s joked numerous times) and his love for the fans (and their love back) has made him a legend not just in drag racing but in all sports.
Now, not only is he running the best he has in years, he’s on the verge of potentially claiming another championship four races from now. I recall a conversation I had with Force a couple years ago when I asked how he would like to finish his career. Without batting an eye, he quickly replied, “Call me crazy, but I’d like to win 20 championships” before calling it quits.
At the rate Force is now going, less than a year after it looked like maybe he had reached the end of the line, suddenly No. 17 – and potentially even No. 20 (perhaps by the time he’s 75 years old, if not sooner) – doesn’t seem too far out of the question.