COMMENTARY: DRAG RACING’S AGE-OLD DILEMMA…
You should have seen it.
The line to get an autograph went on forever. Hordes of people hoping to snap a quick selfie, heck just to see John Force. It was like waiting backstage at a rock concert.
After all, this was the U.S. Nationals. The granddaddy of them all. The Big Go. And just a few feet from them, standing on the other side of a brightly colored rope, stood immortality. The ageless wonder. A man that 300 mph smashes, concussions, broken bones and God himself can’t seem to unseat.
And Force went on doing his thing. A rock star this sport never has – and may never – see again.
As rain fell on the huddled masses Sunday morning at the highly-touted biggest drag race in the land, they remained. Standing there with their copies of the latest National Dragster (complete with a crowd-surfing John on the cover celebrating his historic 150th career victory), a hero card nipped from the back of his hauler, even memorabilia representing every decade of his nearly 50-year career, they stood. Just waiting for the man to make an appearance.
You always knew when that was about to happen. As he walked from his race trailer to the team motorhome, you would hear yips and whistles echo between race haulers and an occasional “go get ‘em John” emerge from the crowd. And Force would acknowledge them with a wave of a hand and a short, “I’ve got some work to do.”
But they never left. They stood right there, in the rain, in the oppressive heat, waiting for the racing John Wayne to return to the ropes and sign a few more things. And this John always obliged.
Once, when the crowd had grown particularly large, a man passed out. His face hit the concrete with a scary thud, bloodying his cheek and nose. He was helped up by some friendly race-goers and sat on a chair just outside of the lavish JFR hospitality area. As the track medical staff tended to the gentleman, John, who was extremely busy schmoozing sponsors and guests before the race, noticed the scene and excused himself from one of those VIP conversations. He walked over to the man and had a nice chat, even taking the hat off his head, signing it, and handing it to the injured race fan. All the while the crowd was hootin’ and hollerin’ with cheers of “you the man John.” I’m quite sure one man even shed a tear.
And then he went back to signing autographs. For five minutes. For 20 minutes. Whatever time he had available that wasn’t devoted to sponsors or his racecar, he gave to the fans.
It was a scene not uncommon at many an NHRA drag race. And the audience was just as you might expect as well.
There were your middle-aged dads proudly boasting to their ear-plugged sons about “back in my day” as they waited just feet from the mythical Funny Car of Mr. Force. There were your general motorsports fans, there to get an autograph from the man they had seen on television. There were your sports memorabilia collectors, complete with diecasts, cutouts, old hero cards, and books of “stuff” for the man to sign. And then there were your usual blend of children being pushed to the front of the line to get an autograph from a man that looked like their grandpa, diehard NHRA fans, and even a few media members. And then, there were the older folks. With receding hairlines as white as the nose on John’s Peak-sponsored Chevrolet Funny Car he ran that weekend, all standing around to hoping to touch the man that they grew up idolizing. After all, he represented a stand-in Fountain of Youth. A man that age can’t touch. A man winning races at age 70. 70!
These fans made up the vast majority of the crowd.
Enter the timeless dilemma plaguing all sports. The balancing act of the established veteran – mythical figures in their respective competition of choice – versus the young guns. The up-and-comers. The new blood. Tom Brady is a legend. 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes is the reigning NFL MVP.
LeBron James is the G.O.A.T. 24-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo is taking the NBA by storm.
Jimmie Johnson is a seven-time champion. 23-year-old Chase Elliott is the heir to the NASCAR throne.
But Tom Brady is 42. LeBron James is 35. Jimmie Johnson just turned 43.
John Force is 70.
For many-a-fan, grandpas, fathers, and sons like to come together to debate who was the greatest of their generation. In the sport of drag racing, the man representing that for all three generations was, is, and continues to be John Force.
On the surface that is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, what sport wouldn’t want a living legend continuing to draw fans, sign autographs, and win within their league or association?
But there is another side to this coin. If you are the Coca-Cola brand, owners of Mello Yello, do you want a Matt Hagan or a Leah Pritchett or a Brittany Force or a J.R. Todd telling you how awesome their drink is? Or someone a bit outside of their demographic? It is marketing 101. The same could be said for the marketing arm of the NHRA in general.
So what next?
At the U.S. Nationals, the talk all weekend circled around retirement and when that day might come for Force. He said it could have happened after that Denver win. He said he thought about it after winning the U.S. Nationals. He said it should have happened 20 years ago, but might not actually happen for another decade.
That talk must have had the NHRA brass squirming in their seats. The man is tired. He is beat. He is bruised. He has kids and grandkids. His emotional interview in the media room following the Indy win was much more somber than one would expect following a win at the biggest race of the year. He is ready to walk away and let people glow, “wow, look at what he did for this sport.” But he can’t. At least he thinks he can’t. He admits that he doesn’t know how to say quit. He says in interviews, “I missed my window to walk away 20 years ago.”
Maybe he is right.
John Force is not too old to do anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. He proved that in Indy.
He is a legend. He is the best ever to turn a tire. But when is it time to pass the torch?
For the health of the sport, when is it time for those long lines and people yelling and cheering and crying just to get an autograph or receive the hat off the head of a driver to come from someone else? The sport needs new, youthful drivers and new, youthful fans. It is imperative to the future of the NHRA.
Which presents that age-old dilemma: how do you honor the past, while looking toward the future?
Perhaps in 20 years we will look back and pose this very same question about an Austin Prock or a Jonnie Lindberg. Or, perhaps, John Force will win another race at 90.
After all, age is just a number.