NHRA’s John Force tries to keep smiling, but it isn’t easy these days


Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely serious, but sometimes the best coping mechanism can be humor.

For example, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force is going through such major withdrawal from being unable to go drag racing that he’s starting to look like he may need a handout.

Just before California’s governor shut the state down two weeks ago, Force walked into his local coffee shop for some java and doughnuts. The customer ahead of him saw Force desperately rifling through his pockets for some change.

“She was getting her change back, turned toward me and said, ‘Here, just keep this. Will that cover it (his bill)?’,” Force told NBCSports.com. “The lady behind the register said, ‘Do you know who this is? That’s John Force.’

“I told the lady I really wanted to thank her, the fact she didn’t know who I was, but she’d help anybody. She said, ‘You looked like you were in trouble, and I had that change.’ It was funny to see this woman was going to help me.

“I didn’t take the help, but I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ Then I stood outside the door when she walked out. She didn’t want to get close to me because when you look at me, I’m a little rough anyway. I look like I’m going to tip over.”

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

In a mostly melancholy 30-minute interview with NBCSports.com Friday, the winner of a record 151 NHRA national events started off as his typical comedic self but then grew quite somber because of the seriousness of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

First, a bit more humor:

Because the state mandate is limiting how much he can go to his shop in suburban Los Angeles, Force is trying to keep busy around his house. But for a guy who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes drag racing, Force is somewhat challenged when it comes to spending his time wisely.

Instead of planning for his next race, he admits his days are typically spent binge-watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show,” exercising, cutting his own grass (instead of a lawn service) and turning off unnecessary lights in and outside of his house.

“I had so many lights on outside that my house looked like an airport landing strip,” Force said. “That shows how stupid I am. So I’ve been turning all the lights off.”

He’s even hard at work on his waistline – and getting as little respect as the late Rodney Dangerfield.

“My wife said, ‘Now’s a good time to go on a diet, fatty,” Force said.

So Force is now on Nutrisystem, although he admits he keeps fighting the urge to eat eight of the company’s brownies for dinner. And always the hustler, Force is thinking about pitching Nutrisystem to become a sponsor of his four-car Funny Car and Top Fuel operation.

Force, who turns 71 on May 4, then abruptly turns very serious, perhaps more so than he ever has.

The COVID-19 pandemic has a seemingly fearless man who has endured countless fires and crashes,  including one that almost killed him in 2007, truly scared for his family, his fans, his sport and the world as a whole.

“I’ve always been a motivated kind of guy, but this is probably the toughest boat I’ve ever been in,” Force said. “We don’t use the term ‘business as usual’ anymore. That ain’t a real word. Our No. 1 priority is to keep everyone healthy.

“It got real serious and now the grim reaper is knocking at our door,  and I’ll fight that son of a bitch too. … We’re going to do what we have to do to stay well and healthy.”

A Sunday drive for Force typically goes about 330-plus mph in less than four seconds. Photo: NHRA.

Like most of his fellow NHRA team owners, Force has had to make some very tough business decisions because of the financial impact of the outbreak.

He admits he’s had to lay off some employees, furlough others without pay and cut hours to just 20 per week for others.

“I had to make the payroll I could afford,” he said. “I’m not kidding anyone, I made cuts. My people worked with me, or I would have had to close the doors.

“I’m doing whatever it takes to save my company. We went to everywhere we could cut to survive. I know my people. I want to apologize to them for all this rough stuff, what it’s doing to their families, their homes, their college funds. But we’re going to make it and put it back together as quick as I can.”

Force knows and understands that some of the employees he was forced to lay off, furlough or cut their hours are actively looking for other jobs.

“I told them, ‘Hey, make all the money you can while you can,’” Force said. Then he added with a half-humorous, half-serious tone: “While you’re at it, if they’d like a 16-time Funny Car champ to drive that concrete truck, I will be there.”

As painful as the job cuts have been, Force also knows he has several dozen employees still relying upon him. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.

“I don’t want people that look at me as a leader and be negative,” he said. “I can’t do that. I’m going to be positive. That demon is at the door, but I ain’t going to let him in. I just ain’t.

“I laid in a hospital bed with arms and legs broke, and they told me I was done. I was never even going to walk again. And I showed them. I came back, and I still won.”

For nearly a half-century, Force’s life has been chasing trophies and winner’s checks. While he laughs about not knowing what to do with himself, he once again turns serious about how the current pandemic is actually good for something: Making up for missed quality time with his family.

“Half of us are workaholics,” he said. “We work every day to feed our kids. We don’t get to see our kids or grandkids. We don’t get to enjoy our home. I bitch that I’ve been in my pool just once in the last year, why did I build it?

“But now you’ve got an opportunity to go home, turn off the switch, which is the hardest thing in the world for me. To turn my mind off. Sit on that couch and be with your children.

“You wish you could have done that for the last 10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years in my case, and now you can finally go home. I’m looking for anything that’s positive.”

Force tries to keep smiling, but it’s not easy for him given what’s happening in the world. Photo: NHRA.

Force also is trying to stay connected with his legions of fans. He recently spent a day filming videos and other content that will be parsed out on his social media channels as well as on John Force Racing’s website for the next few weeks.

“We want to show our sponsors we’re still alive, and we know there’s fans out there that need to be entertained,” he said. “We want to help people.”

Force then paused and said he wanted to impart a message, even chuckling when he referred to one of his rivals:

“I just want to say to all the racers and NHRA people, I miss you and love you guys, even though we fight all the time,” he said. “NHRA is going to be back. You’ve got to stay positive.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed it, going 300 mph, fighting the fight. Hell, I even miss Hagan (fellow Funny Car driver and one of his biggest rivals, Matt Hagan). You don’t realize what you’ve got until you lose it.”

That’s why Force remains ever the optimist that the coronavirus eventually will pass, and life will return to some semblance of normalcy.

Not only does he want to get back to the drag strip as soon as possible, the NHRA’s No. 1 ambassador also wants the fans to return as well.

“You’ve got to be positive,” he said. “We are going to come back. NHRA will be back. Come out and buy a ticket and come watch what we love to do for you, and that’s to entertain you.

“But for now, the No. 1 priority is for everybody to stay well. That is most important.”

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‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500