DAVE DENSMORE SPEAKS (COMMENTARY): - TO UNDERSTAND FORCE IS TO KNOW HIM
John Force is a freak of nature. He’s Vince Lombardi in a firesuit; the poster child for a generation of Americans who played as hard as they worked and whose goal wasn’t just a participation ribbon but to be the best at whatever they attempted. It was to prove themselves against their peers; to be champions whether the contest was football, baseball, hoops or hot rods.
And if you didn’t achieve that goal? That was okay, too, because you gave your best; you didn’t just go through the motions counting your endorsement dollars or waiting for your mama or your daddy to level the playing field so that “everybody wins.”
Force doesn’t do it for the money. Oh, I know he whines about the financial aspects of the sport and, trust me, I got as tired as everyone else during the “chasing corporate America” saga but, when you cut away all the crap, John Force races because he loves racing.
To me that is what came through once more Sunday on national TV, Force being Force, as excited about his 144th NHRA win as he was about No. 1 even though he had to “whup my baby girl” to get it.
I doubt that Force actually has ever raised a hand to daughter Courtney, nor Ashley nor Brittany nor Adria. But on the racetrack, all bets are off. Yes, he wants his kids to win every stinking round and he’ll lobby and filibuster and do whatever it takes to get them every advantage. But he still expects them to compete, to “get up” for the big rounds whether the opponent is Ron Capps or John Force.
That said, he lives by the words the poet Dylan Thomas penned in 1934: “do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave against the close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Force showed Sunday that he is raging still. How bad does he want to win at age 67? Well, he knew going in that if he beat Courtney in the final, he was going to be very unpopular at home. Always is, his wife Laurie having been very vocal about whom she supports in these family duels. I’m sure that weighed heavily on him. However, in the end, his competitive nature won out. It almost always does.
This is a guy who used to throw out fishing gear and golf clubs when he found them in his race car trailer because he believed that to be a champion you had to make a single-minded commitment to that goal. He made the pledge and he expected no less of those around him. In an era in which we lack leadership at every level of government, in most businesses and in our school systems, I would run through a brick wall for John Force and ask why only after knocking myself out.
Yeah, I get mad at him. And, yes, he finally wore me down after 25 years on the road. I tell people I was much taller when I started working for him through Castrol in 1987. Fortunately, they broke the mold when they forged this guy from whatever leftover parts they had.
One of his legs is shorter than the other because of childhood polio. When he gets tired, if you look closely, you’ll detect a limp, one of the reminders of the 2007 crash at Dallas that, at worst, should have killed him and, at the very least, should have convinced him to follow a new career path. He would have none of it.
Elon Werner and I sat with him every day in the hospital in Dallas and on the first day after he was airlifted out of the Texas Motorplex, the day after he underwent six hours of reconstructive surgery on his arms and legs, he was ready to fire me because I had the audacity to suggest in a press release that he would not be able to compete at the next tour event in Richmond, Va.
Lying in bed, hooked up to dozens of monitors, full or painkillers and who knows what else, he went on a rant that could have been heard in Oklahoma about how it still was 10 days until the Richmond race and how could I have said he wasn’t going to race without checking with him?
Actually, in my defense, I only wrote that it was “unlikely” that he would return in time for Richmond. Thankfully, Elon and I survived that rant and, against the odds and to the amazement of his doctors, Force not only survived to walk again but to race again and to win again and to claim two more championships.
He now has won an NHRA tour event in 29 different seasons, a statistic the more remarkable because he didn’t win his first race until he was 38. In fact, for the first 10 years of his career, during which he was splitting time between truck driving and following his dream, Force was the equivalent of a back-marker in sports car racing; a seat filler at the ESPYs. He was cannon fodder for the Don Prudhommes and Raymond Beadles and Kenny Bernsteins.
This guy came from poverty which, like him or not, should be an inspiration to us all. He remembers hard times and he doesn’t want to go back to them. And, one more thing, he still vividly remembers something the Snake told him 10 years ago, before his crash. “Someday,” Prudhomme said, “you’re gonna wake up and can’t win anymore.”
Force wakes up every day determined to prove him wrong. Can he win more than this one event? Sure he can. Can he win another championship? You want to bet against it, go ahead. As for me, I know better. It ain’t over till Force says it’s over.