The Force is still with(in) him, even at the age of 71

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John Force went over 332 mph in 1000 feet in Sunday’s National Hot Rod Association race at The Strip at Las Vegas, but it’s arguable that his greatest accomplishment of the weekend is outlined in the following quote after he was eliminated in the semi-finals:

“We did our job, we qualified good. We went some rounds, Robert with Auto Club, myself with PEAK and BlueDEF PLATINUM and Brittany with Flav-R-Pac and Monster Energy,” said Force, who is now seventh in points. “We didn’t get the win, almost got to the final but we had some breakage and that’s why you need sponsors. All my partners are really standing by me, Chevy, Cornwell Tools stepping up their sponsorship, Baldwin Filters and ParkerStore, you know and that what’s really important.”

Nine, count ’em, nine sponsorship mentions in one paragraph. Even NASCAR drivers would be impressed. As he said, “… and that [is] what’s really important.”

God, too. In an interview last week, “God just sends me down a road,” said John Harold Force. “I don’t know why, or where I’m going. But he always seems to let me recover.”

John Force racing in helmet and gear
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

The Most Popular Man in Drag Racing is now 71, still behind the wheel of his 11,000-horsepower Funny Car on Sundays, hoping to be the last man sitting as he wins the finals. On Sundays, you get one shot at drag racing; fail, and you go home. Force envies NASCAR racers who get to screw up a lap, then have hundreds more to make up for the mistake. You don’t get to do that in drag racing.

Lean and healthy, down 25 pounds over the last year, this isn’t the same porky Force we spent a weekend with in 1997, when he strode through his motorhome before races, repeatedly downing Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with additional peanut butter painted on them. That was 10 years after he won his first race. He won 16 season championships afterwards, and he isn’t ready to stop now.

But that’s exactly what he did at the start of the 2020 season, a couple of races in: After COVID-19 hit, the NHRA regrouped and resumed its season, but without Force and his three-car team. He quit, and he was uncharacteristically quiet about it. Many thought he was done, and maybe even the NHRA was done, too. Then he said he might be back in 2021, and here is. He and teammate Robert Hight, his son-in-law Funny Car driver, and his daughter Brittany dominated preseason testing at Palm Beach International Raceway. “I called my sponsors and told them, ‘Hell, looks like Force is still alive.’

“I knew then we were back,” Force said. “And I didn’t know how much I missed my hot rod.”

As COVID loomed, he met with the team—team president Hight “was an accountant in college”—and it was immediately clear that during the break he would be asking his sponsors for enough money to keep the doors open and stay on the road, but he had nothing to give them back that totaled up what the contracts demanded, and he wasn’t going to do that. So he closed the doors. “You have contracts that are cut and dried that tell you what the sponsors are paying for.”

He met with his sponsors—Auto Club, BlueDEF, a dozen others—“and we agreed to just move it down the road a year, pick up in 2021 if things were better.” They are, and he did. The NHRA has an implausibly tough schedule of 21 races, and Force, Hight, and daughter Brittany, who drives in Top Fuel, plan to make them all.

NHRA wasn’t so lucky. Mello Yellow, the citrusy soft drink, had partnered with the NHRA since 2002, and had a deal to continue being the series sponsor through 2023. But Mellow Yello lawyers took the opportunity to use the COVID shutdown to break the contract, effective immediately. NHRA counter-sued in September, but the outcome is unknown. Still, Camping World, run by CNBC’s “The Profit” star Marcus Lemonis, who sponsors NASCAR, tweeted that maybe the NHRA should have a sponsor that understands motor racing (it’s no secret Mello Yellow never really did), and they should talk. They did, and now it’s the Camping World series. The consensus is that Lemonis cut a sweetheart deal.

Still, for Force, it took a lot of money out of pocket to keep the electricity on in 2020. “For 25 years I scrambled to make enough money to stay on the road, and I finally made some money, and now I’m spending it all getting back on the road.”

Overhead is substantial. At one time all four daughters were on the payroll, and some of their husbands. He built a huge house in Yorba Linda, California, with its own waterfall. He took over an Infiniti dealership just down from the Nixon library and turned it into his 34,000-square-foot shop, complete with a grand piano in the library.

If all this current news sounds a bit grim, let’s take a 1997 interlude with a different top-of-the-world, Ma! John Force: A kid was tugging on Force’s pants leg while he was signing autographs: “And finally, I turn around, grab the kid and pick him up. He starts kicking his little legs and yelling, ‘Put me down! Let me go!’ He’s a midget! He’s so pissed he runs off. I had to chase him down to apologize.”

1996 John Force and fans
Force surrounded by fans during the 1996 NHRA Winternationals held at Pomona Dragway in California. Jamie Squire/Allsport via Getty Images

Want another? Force was talking about the most unusual items he has autographed, and the winner was an elderly man who told Force he had nothing for him to sign. “I tell him, ‘Hell, I’ll sign anything!’ So the guy reaches down, pulls off his wooden leg, and hands it to me. So he’s hopping there one on foot, and I say, ‘And to whom should I make this out? Any special message you’d like? Any family members you’d like to mention?’ And the guy says, ‘Just sign the damn thing before I fall over on my ass!’”

“We have a saying,” said his former crew chief, Austin Coil. “Life with John is often difficult, but never boring.”
Force never gets tired of talking about his origins, a 50-foot trailer in the San Gabriel Valley shared with his father, a truck driver; his mother; and four siblings. “Our Thanksgiving turkey was stuffed with newspaper, you know what I mean?” Force had polio as a child, and while he came back from it and played some football in college: “I knew nobody was going to pay me to run. So I had to get a Funny Car to do the running for me.”

He lost 84 straight races, 16 straight final rounds before he and Coil started winning. “We used to beat Force like a drum,” said retired racer Don Prudhomme. And though Coil retired long ago, Force is still, well, a force.

Not to say it has been easy. Three times, Force was tested with tragedy—two genuine, one economic.

The worst was when they were testing at Gainesville Raceway in 2007 with Funny Car driver Eric Medlen. In the very definition of a freak accident, Medlen was literally shaken to death as his car developed the most severe tire shake recorded, as one tire was apparently deflating. It hit Force hard; he pledged to, and did, help redesign cockpits and consulted with Goodyear, doing work that has likely saved lives. Medlen, son of crew chief John Medlen, was 33.

Six months later, Force was in the worst accident of his career, when his car came apart at the Texas Motorplex south of Dallas, while racing Kenny Bernstein. Force was helicoptered to the hospital with a broken ankle, an abrasion on his right knee, a dislocated left wrist, and mangled fingers and toes. He was hospitalized for a month. Most, except for Force, thought his driving career was over. More work went into making the car safer, and likely more lives may have been saved. Even more work went into rehabilitation.

The third disaster came in 2014, this one economic, when both Castrol, a 29-year partner, and Ford ended its association with Force for economic reasons. It was devastating. He has a deal now with Chevrolet, signed for what was reported to be about half of what Ford was paying, but none of his partners has been as loyal and profitable as Castrol. Force wouldn’t give up, then or now. The connection between man and brand was so strong that some fans still think of him as a Castrol spokesman. John Howell, who was Castrol’s motorsports manager, said Force’s strength as a spokesman did not come from coaching. “There are people within our organization who have tried to coach John, but all it does is confuse him.”

Cut to the bittersweet season opener, the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Florida, where Medlen died 14 years ago. Force, Hight and Brittany all qualified well enough, but none won: J.R. Todd, one of the young guns who worry Force, took the title in Funny Car. Yet the Las Vegas run proved that it’s just a matter of time before Force, daughter Brittany, and Hight start winning again.

The respect is there on the other side, too. Todd says that when Force isn’t in the field, victory seems a little less glorious. “I’m glad they’re back. When I win, I want to beat the best. Plus, John is such a popular guy that it’s good to have him back at the track.”

“Back in the early days,” Prudhomme said in 1997, “everybody thought John was crazy. Now we think that maybe he’s just eccentric.”

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