John Force one of the best!
John Force’s greatest career accomplishment WAS NOT his performance last year in winning his record 15th NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Championship.
It wasn’t his comeback from crippling injuries suffered in a 300 mile-an-hour crash in 2007. It wasn’t his leadership role in improving race car safety, nor even his selection, by the readers of RACER Magazine, as 2010’s Racer of the Year.
By any measure, Force today is an American icon because of his single-minded determination to follow his dream despite the obstacles.
Just to compete at racing’s upper levels, the Southern California native had to overcome childhood polio, poverty, marginal mechanical skills and rampant skepticism, even from within his inner circle.
The fact that he ultimately became the greatest champion in the history of straight-line racing, perhaps the greatest in all of motor racing, was simply a bonus.
Wife Laurie, who met him when he was little more than cannon fodder for the likes of Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, recalls that “he didn't get much encouragement from anyone – family, friends, anyone. A few times, I even suggested that he should quit.
He had more reasons to quit than he ever did to (go on).
“For the first couple years, (his) was the worst car out there on the circuit,” said the woman who has been by his side throughout.
“His team?,” she smiled. “Well, I was a team member. What do I know about race cars? He had me packing the parachutes, backing up the car, mixing fuel. Anybody who was a friend and who was free labor, they were on the crew.”
Nevertheless, the one-time truck driver could not be dissuaded and his unwavering devotion to a sport that for 34 years has been both his vocation and avocation has paid dividends even he could not have imagined.
While other 60-somethings are content to manipulate nothing more stressful than a TV remote, Force this year is mashing the throttle on an 8,000 horsepower Castrol GTX Ford Mustang like the one that last year carried him to a category-best six wins and made him an Auto Racing All-America first team selection for the 15th time.
The first and only driver to win 100 NHRA tour events and 1,000 racing rounds, the first Funny Car champion to overcome a points deficit on the final day of the season, the first to win the title in three different decades and the oldest champion in any racing discipline, Force this year is trying to win for the first time without Austin Coil, his friend and crew chief for the last 26 seasons.
Although Mike Neff made all of the critical tuning decisions in 2010, Coil still played a major role in last year’s championship run before deciding, at season’s end, to leave the team.
In his absence, Neff will rely more heavily on Bernie Fedderly for support in the new season.
Of course, his total dominance of straight-line racing belies his early struggles.
“Anything to get us to the next race,” he has said of his initial philosophy. “Anything” included dressing up as a tree for a promotion at an auto dealership and as the namesake for one-time sponsor “Wendy’s” hamburgers at a store appearance.
He also made TV ads for Wally Thor’s School of Trucking and briefly considered joining his brother, Walker, in law enforcement before, as he tells it, “I flunked the inkblot test.”
Although he briefly attended Cerritos College after graduating from Bell Gardens High (where he quarterbacked a team that went 0-27 in three seasons), Force admitted that he “was too slow to play football (at the next level).
Besides, I kept falling over until they figured out that one leg was shorter than the other (the result of the polio).”
With no license, no sponsor and, really, no clue, Force used a tax refund check and the money gleaned from an organ his mother-in-law won on a television game show to buy a Vega Funny Car from his late uncle, Gene Beaver. He then hustled a winter booking in Australia – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Once back in the states, he wanted nothing more than to compete against the Prudhommes and McCullochs of the drag racing world. In his first 65 starts, he reached the final round nine times – but never won.
Fortunately for the sport, persistence finally paid off with a win at Montreal, Canada in 1987 (against McCulloch). It proved to be just a stepping stone for drag racing’s most prolific driver.
Although his Australia experience was the catalyst for his pro career, Force previously had dabbled in the sport. He bought the “Beaver Hunter” AA/Fuel altered in 1969, his first real race car, and in 1971 bought Jack Chrisman’s ill-handling, rear-engined, chain-driven, 427 cubic inch SOHC Ford-powered Mustang.
That vehicle ultimately became the short-lived “Nightstalker,” a car that Irwindale Raceway starter Larry Sutton deemed so dangerous that he forbade Force to bring it back to the track.
After transforming his uncle’s “L.A. Hooker” into the original “Brute Force” Vega, Force debuted a Chevy Monza version in 1977, a car that later was reproduced by son-in-law Robert Hight and given to Force by his employees as a Christmas present.
In 1978, Force and then crew chief Steve Pleuger upgraded to the Leo’s Stereo Corvette and a year later to the Wendy’s Hamburgers Corvette that carried Force to his first two final rounds.
There followed the Mountain Dew/Jolly Rancher Chevy Citation (1980-82) tuned by Henry Velasco and Larry Frazier which begat the Mountain Dew/Der Weinerschnitzel 1983 Chevy Camaro and, finally, the Bill Schultz-tuned 1984 Olds Firenza selected in one on-line poll as the “Ugliest Funny Car of all time.”
It really took off a year later when, in addition to the three aforementioned sponsors, he signed his first contract with Castrol GTX for a modest $5,000, a deal that would morph into the multi-million dollar program that today backs not one, but two championship Fords.
His ability to sign – and then retain – sponsors is the stuff of legend although his wife insists that there never was a magic formula.
“He told them, ‘I'll do car shows, I'll do cross promotions with other sponsors, I'll be at your store openings,’” Laurie recalled. “He never promised he could win a race – because he certainly couldn't back then, but he found other ways to make it work.”
Significantly, Force also remains the undisputed champion off the track where he long ago won the rabid support of millions of blue collar Americans captivated by his self-effacing charm, non-stop banter and unexpected accessibility In his fourth decade behind the wheel, he still sells more souvenirs, conducts more interviews and signs more autographs than anyone else.
In fact, his expanding impact in the world market resulted in his 2005 acceptance of AutoSport Magazine’s John Bolton Award in ceremonies in London, England, and his 2010 acceptance of the Spirit of Ford Award for career achievement in racing from Edsel Ford III.
If there was one moment that ever caused Force to question his chosen career path, it was the 2007 death of team driver Eric Medlen. In the end, it led him to create instead The Eric Medlen Project for racing safety at JFR East in Brownsburg, Ind.
“Winning is still the priority,” Force has said, “but today it goes hand-in-hand with safety. Vince Lombardi said ‘winning is everything’ and I used to go with that. It’s what I told my team. But I don’t think Lombardi ever lost a man on the playing field.”
Refusing to accept the explanation that Medlen’s accident was a one-in-a-million fluke that never again could happen, Force commissioned the first major changes to the basic Funny Car chassis in 25 years.
It was work that paid immediate and unexpected dividends when he himself crashed heavily on Sept. 23, 2007, exactly six months after Medlen’s death. That 300 mph crash in Dallas, Texas, left him with injuries that required six hours of reconstructive surgery and months of rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, while he suffered broken bones in both hands and both feet, broken fingers, broken toes, severe lacerations and tendon damage, he had no head, neck or torso injuries and remarkably, five months after his crash, the sport’s biggest winner was back in a race car.
He won the O’Reilly Summer Nationals at Topeka, Kan., in 2008, but he now admits that it wasn’t until last season that he really felt up to the day-to-day grind of competing for a championship.
Today, he makes no concessions to his age. He insists that he’s in “the best shape of my life. I still go to the gym every day. I owe to do that to give this team a shot at a title.”
Of course, if he never won another race or another championship, his legacy would be secure.
A 2008 inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Detroit, Force is more determined than ever to remain in the cockpit as teammate to a spectacular assembly of young drivers that includes youngest daughter Courtney, who will spend the 2011 season testing a JFR Mustang Funny Car.
“It’s all about these kids now,” he said. “I’m still going to race as hard as ever to win the championship. That won’t change. But my main job now is to (continue to) train (these young) drivers so that they won’t have to go through what I went through and to find new ways to continue to provide added value for all our sponsors.” Retrieve from online 10/26/2011.http://www.johnforce.com/johnsite/
Return from John Force to NHRA