Forget retirement: At 70, John Force closing in on 17th championship

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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.

(Photo: NHRA)

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.

John Force celebrates after capturing a milestone 150th win of his career in Seattle on August 4, 2019. Photo: NHRA.

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.

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INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500