In his 32nd season at the wheel of a drag racing Funny Car, John Force is confronting the biggest challenges of his career, both personal and professional.
Seriously injured last September 23rd when his Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang was involved in a 300 mile-an-hour crash at the Texas Motorplex, drag racing’s biggest winner is trying to bounce back competitively at an age when most of his peers are content to manipulate nothing more challenging than the TV remote.
Retirement, for Force, never was an option.
“What else would I do?,” asked the 58-year-old icon during his three month convalescence. “Drag racing is all I know. It’s what I love.”
Although he has little left to prove in drag racing, the 14 time NHRA Funny Car champion never once considered taking a desk job after a collision with Kenny Bernstein’s Dodge Charger that resulted in multiple injures including broken bones in his hands and feet and a compound fracture of the left ankle.
The challenge of coming back from the most serious crash of his career, the only one that ever required a hospital stay, is compounded by the fact that the car he is driving this year represents the first complete re-design of the Funny Car in 25 years.
Furthermore, the engine that eventually will power the new Mustang is the first nitro-burner in 30 years emblazoned with Ford’s familiar blue oval logo, an ongoing collaboration between Ford Racing and John Force Racing, Inc.
For Force, who’s won at least three tour events for 18 consecutive seasons, it’s like starting over – and the prospect has re-energized him.
If he never won again, the veteran’s legacy would be secure. Nevertheless, after finishing “just” seventh in POWERade points last year, his poorest showing since 1984 (when he was 13th), Force is anxious to return to the form that has delivered 125 tour victories, 120 of them in the last 18 seasons.
Entering the 2008 campaign, the 1996 Driver of the Year was just eight round wins shy of becoming the first to win 1,000 racing rounds and although his record streak of 395 Consecutive starts came to an abrupt end last season, there are other records to be pursued. For one thing, with a single victory this year, Force can tie Pro Stock driver Warren Johnson’s record of 22 consecutive seasons with at least one win.
However, the statistical legacy that once seemed so important has lost some of its significance for the man who sells more souvenirs, conducts more interviews, signs more autographs and wins more often than anyone else in drag racing history.
The death last year of Eric Medlen, the teammate he portrayed as “the son I never had” forever changed the veteran’s priorities and re-directed his energies. Now, he is determined to make the sport as safe as he believed it was before the testing accident that snuffed out one of the brightest lights in the series.
Working with Medlen’s father, John, the NHRA, SFI (which establishes minimum specifications for all manner of equipment from firesuits to clutch blankets), Ford Motor Co. and McKinney Corporation, Force demonstrated his commitment to building a safer Funny Car through the creation of The Eric Medlen Project, which operates out of a permanent facility adjacent to the JFR shop facility in Brownsburg, Ind.
While 2007 was a season of introspection for the four-time winner of the Jerry Titus Award (presented to the driver who earns the most votes in All-America balloting), it never was cause to reconsider his career path.
In fact, he now is more determined than ever to remain in the cockpit of the Castrol GTX Mustang in which he feels he can be of the greatest assistance to the drivers who make up his Next Generation initiative: son-in-law Robert Hight, rookie Mike Neff and daughters Ashley, 25, Brittany, 21, and Courtney, 19.
“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.”
Significantly, while he continues to impress between the guard walls, Force also
remains the unchallenged champion off the track where, even before his crash, he had won the rabid support of millions of blue collar Americans captivated by his self-effacing charm, non-stop banter and unexpected accessibility.
Force’s dominance is unprecedented. Entering his 24th season with Castrol GTX
sponsorship, the “Elvis of the Asphalt” had appeared in almost half of all the final rounds contested in the POWERade series since 1990 (181 of 380)
After winning a record 10 championships in succession (and 12 in 13 years), he accepted a supporting role in 2003 when then teammate Tony Pedregon claimed the crown for Castrol SYNTEC. When he won in 2004, it was the 12th consecutive championship for a team that now has won 15 times in the last 18 years.
While he always has possessed the sport’s fastest mouth, it wasn’t until he hired Austin Coil as crew chief that Force’s car began to keep pace. Their partnership, which began in 1985, has been the most productive in the history of motorsports. In fact, Coil has engineered every one of Force’s career wins, every NHRA series championship and each of his 10 “special event” victories.
Force’s success in straight-line racing belies his early years on the tour, years of on-track futility and off-track vaudeville.
“Anything for gas money to the next race,” he has said. “Anything” included dressing up as a clown for an appearance at Wendy’s, with whom he had a brief sponsor relationship, and as an animated tree for a promotion at an auto dealership. He also appeared in TV ads for Wally Thor’s School of Trucking and briefly considered joining his brother, Walker, in law enforcement.
“I was too slow to play football in college,” said the former starting quarterback at Bell Gardens (Calif.) High School. “Besides, I kept falling over until they figured out that
one leg was shorter than the other (the result of a childhood bout with 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 appearance to buy a Vega Funny Car from his late uncle, Gene Beaver. He then hustled a winter booking in Australia – even though he didn’t have a license – and, by pure accident, became the first to break the 200 mile an hour barrier there.
“I was a hero,” he said, “until the promoter figured out that we didn’t know
what we were doing. If it hadn’t been for Gary Densham (who drove for Force from 2001 through 2004), I probably wouldn’t have gotten out alive.”
Once back in the states, Force wanted nothing more than to compete. In his first 65 pro starts, he reached the final round nine times – but never made it to the winners’ circle. His fortunes turned in June, 1987, when he earned a breakthrough victory at Montreal, Canada. He’s been virtually unstoppable ever since.
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