Sport’s Biggest Winner Still Going Strong
By any measure, John Force is one of the great success stories in American sports history.
Raised in Bell Gardens, Calif., by a fry cook mom and a truck-driving dad, the youngest of five siblings, he overcame childhood polio to become the quarterback of a high school football team that lost every game it played for three seasons.
At the outset of his professional racing career, his team was so inept that it was considered a major accomplishment when his car reached the finish line under power.
On the rare occasions when it did so, it usually was engulfed in a ball of flame, prompting Force to declare that “I’ve been on fire from here to Australia,” which, in fact, was true since his unlikely pro career actually began with an Australian tour in 1974.
Simply stated, he was a disaster on four wheels who, for nine long seasons, didn’t win a single NHRA tour event.
With a start like that, who could have imagined that he would grow up to be the most prolific winner in the sport’s history, one who this year is poised to add a half dozen more footnotes to an already bulging resume at the wheel of a rejuvenated Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
Force has won more rounds, more races and more championships than anyone. He’s sold more souvenirs, given more motivational speeches and delivered more memorable one-liners. Furthermore, with Castrol, his sponsor since 1986, he’s closing in on the record for the longest continuous marketing relationship in sports.
Nevertheless, the one thing that sets John Force apart from those who have dominated in other fields, from sports to business to politics, is his longevity.
He has been a Top 10 finisher for 28 consecutive seasons, an NHRA record, and has won a tour event in 25 of the last 26 years, failing to do so only in 2009, two years after surviving a potentially fatal accident at Dallas, Texas.
Such success led in 2012 to his enshrinement as a first ballot inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. He also is a member of the Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich., and in 1996 was the first drag racer ever recognized as Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing.
It’s success that no one, not even Force himself, could have anticipated.
Wife Laurie, who met the former big rig truck driver when he was little more than cannon fodder for the likes of Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, recalls that “he didn't get much encouragement from 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,” said the woman who has been by his side throughout. “His team? 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, Force could not be dissuaded and his unwavering dedication to his craft has paid dividends beyond imagination.
While other 60-somethings are content to manipulate nothing more stressful than a TV remote, Force again is mashing the throttle on an 8,000 horsepower Ford Mustang capable of zero-to-100 mile per hour acceleration in less than a second.
The first and only driver to win 100 NHRA tour events and 1,000 racing rounds, the first Funny Car driver to overcome a points deficit on the final day of the season to win the championship, the first to win series titles in three different decades and the oldest champion in any major racing discipline (61), Force this year has new mountains to climb as he closes in on his 600th start in the NHRA series (594).
Force’s dominance belies early struggles that would have chased a lesser man out of the sport. He wasn’t pursuing championships in the 1970s and early ‘80s so much as he was surviving, just trying to make enough money to pay for gas and bologna sandwiches. Staying in a hotel was a luxury that usually meant six guys to a room.
“Anything to get us to the next race,” he has said of his philosophy. That 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 with visions of football grandeur, Force admitted that he was too slow to play at the next level. He opted, instead, for what in his mind was the next best thing – drag racing.
“I loved the cheer of the crowd,” Force said of his football career. “In drag racing, I still get to wear a helmet and hear the fans, but now the car does the running for me.”
Nevertheless, his success did not come without sacrifice. With no license, no sponsor and, really, no clue, Force used a tax refund check and the money his mother-in-law won on a television game show to buy his first Funny Car from his late uncle, Gene Beaver. He then hustled a winter booking in Australia.
Once back in the states, he wanted nothing more than to compete on the same big stage with Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and three-time world champion Raymond Beadle, who used to let Force and his crew use his hotel room to shower and clean up and whose “Blue Max” T-shirts were the first real “uniforms” Force’s team ever owned.
Although his Australian experience was the catalyst for his pro career, the 134-time tour winner 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, 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 before unveiling the Leo’s Stereo Corvette in 1978, a car that a year later, he and crew chief Steve Pleuger introduced as the Wendy’s Hamburgers Funny Car.
There followed the Mountain Dew/Jolly Rancher Chevy Citation (1980-82) tuned by Henry Velasco and Larry Frazier, the Mountain Dew/Der Weinerschnitzel 1983 Chevy Camaro and, finally, a 1984 Olds Firenza selected in one on-line poll as the “ugliest Funny Car” of all time.
Force’s career finally began to turn in 1985 with the arrival of Austin Coil as crew chief on the Coca-Cola/Wendy’s Corvette. It really took off a year later when he signed his first contract with Castrol GTX for a modest $5,000 plus oil. 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 said. “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, that attitude is why Force also remains the undisputed champion off the track where long ago he won the rabid support of millions of blue collar Americans captivated by his self-effacing charm, non-stop banter and unexpected accessibility.
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, a tragedy that led to the creation of the Eric Medlen Project at JFR East in Brownsburg, Ind.
“Winning is still the priority,” Force said, “but today it goes hand-in-hand with safety. Vince Lombardi said ‘winning is everything’ and I used to believe 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 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 to an already injured right knee, he had no head, neck or torso injuries and 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 the 2010 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, especially after undergoing ACL reconstruction before last season, that he’s in “the best shape of my life.”
Of course, if he never won another race, his legacy would be secure, but the affable veteran is more determined than ever to remain in the cockpit as teammate to a spectacular assembly of young drivers that includes his two youngest daughters, Brittany, 26, and Courtney, 24.
“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.”
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