FORCE STRIVING FOR EXCELLENCE, ONE GROUNDHOG DAY AT A TIME
John Force loves Elvis. The King of Drag Racing loves The King of Music.
And the song that’s playing in a loop in Force’s head is “Suspicious Minds”:
“We’re caught in a trap.
I can't walk out, because I love you too much, baby. Why can't you see what you're doing to me? . . .”
He’s singing that to NHRA drag racing.
“I am trapped in this job,” Force declared last weekend at Dallas after securing the Funny Car class’ No. 1 qualifying position at the AAA Texas FallNationals. He had a semifinal finish Sunday. That was a bit disappointing for his title chase this year, although he’s ranked third in the standings with two more races to close the 74-point gap between him and leader Robert Hight, his teammate and John Force Racing president.
Yes, Force is trapped, fighting like every other season for that trophy that’s leverage in the boardroom as he seeks to maintain and even expand his empire that stretches from Yorba Linda, Calif., to Brownsburg, Ind.
But he really doesn’t want it any other way, evidently.
“There was a movie once called, uh, where the guy kept coming back every day – ‘Groundhog Day.’ It never changes. I said to my wife, ‘I get off a plane. I go home. I get up at 6:30 in the morning and go right to the office as quick as I can get there to get started on the same problems I had a week [ago]. It’s a revolving door of problems,” he said. “And Robert runs half of that, or it would have killed me off by now.
“But it’s what we love to do. I’ve told you that a million times. Maybe I’m stupider than most, but there’s so many out here livin’ it. They do it because they just want to be here. They love NHRA. They love being a part of something,” Force said. “We’re sports people. We’re athletes, whether they want to think we are or not. And we get to be a part of something that’s big. And I just don’t want to give it up. I’m really thick-headed.
“And I’m going to be around awhile,” he said.
Force continues to waver whether, at age 70 now, to retire with his achievements untouchable or just keep doing what he loves most. His son-in-law, IndyCar competitor Graham Rahal, has encouraged him to enjoy a life free from that revolving door.
But Force can’t seem to know when to jump out of the door. He’s still going around and around, but that’s powering the province he has created from nothing but a vision.
Daughter Brittany Force, the 2017 Top Fuel champion, said her father’s feelings float from one end of the spectrum to the other.
“It depends on what day it is. You get something different, depending on what kind of mood he’s in. It’s always changing. Tomorrow it’ll be something different,” she said. “It more depends on how his race car’s running. If they’re running great, he’s going to be out here forever. If it’s the other way, it’s the other direction. I feel that as a driver, too.
“The one question he asks me all the time is ‘Do you still love it? You still love it?’ If you don’t love this sport, you really shouldn’t put yourself in that seat. It’s dangerous. Things can go wrong. I tell him, ‘Yeah, of course, I love it!’ when we’re winning. But the days that you lose, you get beat first round, those days are a little bit tougher. I always try to find the positive in every situation on the rough days.”
She is just like her father in that way. As a youngster, she contributed to an interview of her mother at Indianapolis, after John Force had earned one of his five victories at the marquee U.S. Nationals. She heard the question mother Laurie was contemplating: “What you want people to know about John Force?” And Brittany whispered into mom’s ear, “Say that Daddy never, ever, ever gives up.”
He isn’t giving up on a 17th series title. He doesn’t flinch at the fact he’s 70 years old (after all, Top Fuel pioneer Chris Karamesines is in his mid- to upper-80s). He isn’t intimidated by the young guns in the competitive Funny Car class; they just motivate him. And ultimately, he isn’t swayed by anyone else’s opinions, for he has been doing this for about five decades and has shaken criticism.
“I was out here with Shirl Greer. I was just starting and maybe he was just ending. But I saw that hot rod, and he was the one who won that first championship. [in 1974]. But I was out here, and what I’m saying is . . . I went to Australia. I was a leaker. I got laughed at. But to me, that’s something,” he said, meaning, too, that it’s something he was used to hearing. “They laughed at me playing football – every week. I still hold the record [as quarterback in consecutive losses for the high-school football team].”
The latter didn’t stop his alma mater from showcasing him.
“You know what was on the Internet the other day? My kids come in and said, ‘Look at that.’ They had this big sign on the side of a building . . . achievement award. It was Bell Gardens High School. And they had this huge picture of me that they’re honoring me in my high school.”
Juan Herrera, principal of Bell Gardens High School in suburban Los Angeles, told Competition Plus, “We are currently in the process of starting up the Bell Gardens High School Wall of Fame. We have put up some banners with the first seven alumni who will be inducted to kick off the concept of the Wall of Fame.”
A large color photo of Force adorns one outside brick wall of the school building. It’s on a banner bearing maroon-and-white school colors, along with the message “Strive For Excellence.” It’s a tribute – an unexpected one.
“It was there,” he said, almost trying to convince himself. “And I thought when I left there that I was the biggest bum there ever was – lost every football game. I got arrested speeding right in front of the high school, showing off to the cheerleaders. And the cops loaded me up and drove me off. I’m sayin’ I done everything wrong – and then all of a sudden you have a moment.”
He had that moment, as well, in 1987, at Montreal, when he won his first race. Making it to just one final round was an accomplishment for the truck-driver-turned-racer who for years was more often upside-down, on fire, and virtually broke than successful. Then he finally won – took out tough customer Ed “The Ace” McCulloch – in his ninth final-round appearance.
Since then, Force has had many moments. He owns the sport’s records – among drivers in all classes – for most victories, championships, consecutive championships (10), elimination round-wins (1,350), No. 1 qualifying positions (160), and top-starting spots in a single season (13) and at a single event (11).
He has had solemn moments along the way, most notably losing Funny Car protégé Eric Medlen to injuries from a March 2007 testing accident at Gainesville, Fla. Months later, he suffered multiple injuries that doctors told him would leave him lucky to walk and halt his racing career. But he spearheaded a safety initiative, the Eric Medlen Project, aimed at making racing safer. And by February 2008, Force was fragile physically but back on the dragstrip in a Funny Car, on the way to two more championships (2010, 2013).
And he did a little reminiscing last Saturday.
“I know when I lost my mom and dad . . . I thought I had all the time in the world with them. But I never took it. And it was the one thing I probably regret the most in my life. And then I wasn’t with my kids [when they were] growing up, because I was out here. I always joke, ‘NHRA gave ’em back to me.’”
Eldest daughter Adria is CFO of John Force Racing, and all three daughters with Laurie Force have raced with and even against him. Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force Rahal have stepped from their Funny Car cockpits, but Brittany Force still is active in the Top Fuel class, vying for a second series crown.
“So Brittany comes over and says, ‘Well, it looks like it’s just you and me.’ And I said, ‘OK. Well, we’re riding every day, we’re flying to everywhere. You go to my shows; I’ll go to yours – you know, appearances. It was like, ‘Oh, really?’ But she really has done it. She really wants to spend the time with me. And oh- don’t think we don’t have some fights! Oh, man. You click her wrong or she clicks [me wrong] . . . and things just go wrong,” he said. “But we know the time is valuable. She wants to be with me. But I know the other side: Something could happen out here. So I’m going to take every opportunity I can.”
He said he’s content – almost an unusual state for him – “when I can be with my children . . . I got right home [after Charlotte] because Courtney was home. She was like, ‘Daaaad, we’re all here. And you’re like, ‘Oh! This is the biggest thing! It’s like Christmas Day and we’re all together!’ But that’s how I feel about it. It’s like, you know one day it can just stop. And I want to be a part of them as much as I can.
“My wife is so tired of hearing me say I love her: ‘Can I touch your hand?’ ‘Oh, Johhhn.’ ‘But we’ve been gone forever.’ ‘You just left yesterday.’ But I’m a little cornball. I’ve always been that way, and I’m always over center on everything.”
So, too, does he like to be in the limelight, with the media he always has entertained and who return the adulation.
“I swore coming up the stairs [to the Texas Motorplex media center] that ‘I’m not going to give them the same bull---- like I always do. I’ve said it all the other day.’ And here I am, doing it again, because I love being with you guys.”
He knows he can’t get enough of the life with which he has become synonymous. He said his public-relations representative, Sara Slaughter, will bring him copies of articles showcasing him. And his reaction is a pretend-nonchalant, “Ah, OK, just put it down there [on the table]” response. He said, “And then the first thing I do is I read it, then I run right down and put it in my wife’s lap. And then I take it home and make sure all my kids get it – because that’s what we live for.
“It’s really a great life. But it is Groundhog Day,” Force said.
Who knows if he recognized the irony of it until reporters chuckled, but he said, “I saw that movie so many times. The guy in the theater said, ‘You’ve been here the last three days.’” He said, “Yeah, it’s Groundhog Day. I keep coming back to watch it.”
He said, “But that is the truth. It’s what we do, what we love. It’ll end someday. But I’m going out– it’s going to be embarrassing. I can’t hardly see now. Can’t hear. Can’t see. But still can talk, though. It’s going to be embarrassing going out, but it’s going to be a lot of fun. You know what I mean? Great sport.”
Striving For Excellence . . . It’s a perfect slogan for Force on the banner affixed to Bell Gardens High School. It’s still part of his life, both the school and the lessons he learned there and beyond. And whether he continues driving and winning and entertaining, he always will have that drive.
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