John Force ‘needed to get back in the car’ after painful 2020 hiatus from the NHRA

NHRA John Force returns
Brad McClenny/USA TODAY Sports Images
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — John Force returns to the NHRA by climbing on his scooter, turning the key and taking off.

He weaves between parked cars and waiting dragsters.

He dodges fellow drivers, track workers and fans on his way from the pits to the strip.

It’s the slowest pass he’ll make this week at Gainesville Raceway. It’s sure to be one of the most rewarding.

“Welcome back, John,” shouts one bystander.

“Glad to have you back,” yells a competitor.

Force gets waves, head nods and hat tips, all signs of respect for one of the most talented drivers and undoubtedly the best salesman to ever make a living at 300 mph.

The 71-year-old is back with the NHRA after a yearlong hiatus prompted by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The 16-time champion and patriarch of drag racing’s first family will make his return in the season-opening Gatornationals that begin Friday.

“I had it for 40-something years, and I took it for granted,” Force said Thursday. “When it was gone, I’m sitting over there, and nobody cares to talk to me and then you get sick looking at all the championships and trophies. I needed to get back in the car.”

Force reluctantly walked away last summer, opting not to race when the NHRA returned in July following a five-month break. It was a business decision made to salvage a company he built over five decades that had an $8.4 million annual payroll.

He looked at the depleted number of races and felt it would be better to sit out than try to give all-important sponsors less than what they’ve come to expect from one of drag racing’s top teams.

“To keep it all going, I would have been in trouble,” Force said. “And I couldn’t have recovered. I wouldn’t be here now if I would have stayed. That’s a fact.”

Force “spent a few million” out of pocket to stay afloat in 2020. He lost about half his 100-person staff at the start of the pandemic. Some of them landed at other companies in Indianapolis. Many of those who remained had their hours cut.

Instead of building dragsters, John Force Racing started outsourcing projects for other teams in other racing series. He says his team “survived” the pandemic, but acknowledged it is still going.

“I brought everyone back and now I’m going to pay them no matter what happens,” he said. “I made a lot of money over the years, and I’m going to spend it on keeping this thing afloat and to keep my company.”

John Force Racing will start the season with three of its four cars. Force was able to maintain sponsorship for himself, daughter and 2017 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, and team president and three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight.

JFR continues to search for sponsorship for driver Austin Prock, who remains employed and working as a crew member.

“You sit out a whole year and your mind starts to wonder if we’re ever going to get back to doing what we love,” Hight said. “You start thinking, `Am I ever going to get behind the wheel of a Funny Car again?’ ”

Hight had the unenviable task of telling Force the finances in 2020 wouldn’t work. Force parked a chair in front of Hight’s office daily and hounded him about the numbers.

“It was no fun,” Hight said. “John likes to micromanage. He likes to be involved in everything. He did not want to sit out, but it wouldn’t have worked for us financially. Now, we’re back. We have everything we need, including the people. We’re hungry and we’ve got to get it done.”

Neither Hight nor Force could bring themselves to watch races in 2020. Hight spent the extra time watching his daughter drive a junior dragster and got back into trap shooting. Force watched three grandkids race and welcomed another grandchild into the world.

He also hit the gym, dropping nearly 25 pounds – so much weight that he had to get his fire suits refitted.

“I learned how bad I was abusing my body,” said Force, who quit drinking after a series of crashes a few years ago. “I hated it mentally, but I think this time off did me good. It helped my health. My guys are saying you look like a different driver already.”

The results are evident, too. Despite having not been in a dragster since February 2020, Force turned in the low elapsed time during Funny Car testing last week in West Palm Beach, Florida. Hight posted the top speed in the class, and Brittany Force notched the best Top Fuel pass.

“I didn’t know if we would come out here and stink,” John Force said. “Up to now, we look OK.”

The real passes begin Friday in front of a reduced-capacity crowd, quite possibly the smallest one Force has raced in front of during his storied career. Regardless how many show up, he’s looking forward to it after spending the past year feeling like he let everyone around him down.

“I’m just thankful to be back here and doing what I love,” he said.

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).