After sustaining close to career-ending injuries in a crash in Dallas, Texas, last year, drag racing champion John Force returned to the winners' circle this past Sunday in Topeka. The victory over Tim Wilkerson was the 126th win of Force's...
After sustaining close to career-ending injuries in a crash in Dallas, Texas, last year, drag racing champion John Force returned to the winners' circle this past Sunday in Topeka. The victory over Tim Wilkerson was the 126th win of Force's career, and extended his consecutive seasons with a win to 22. The 59-year-old Force last won a race on Aug. 12, 2007 at Brainerd, Minn. Force talked about his most recent win and being back in the game on a teleconference earlier today.
*** Below are excerpts from today's teleconference...
JOHN FORCE -- DRIVER, CASTROL GTX MUSTANG FUNNY CAR
TELL US ABOUT THE WIN AT TOPEKA AND HOW EMOTIONAL IT WAS FOR YOU TO GET BACK IN THE WINNER'S CIRCLE. "It really was because of my health. In fact, I got off a plane; I had a show in Kansas City with Castrol following the race on Monday. I got home Tuesday and went straight to the gym last night and went straight back to the gym this morning because I'm still going through my rehabilitation. I'm getting my strength back in my muscles and it's starting to show that it's working because I can drive my race car. So the win was very exciting. I've had a lot of wins. Your first win is always your best. I said in Atlanta that seeing my daughter win was the biggest in my career because it was my child. I made the statement at Topeka -- because the media kept asking 'Is this your biggest win?' It's my biggest win for me personally because I bounced back from the crash and I didn't know if I could win again. I believed it, but it was starting to show that my car; the driver is part of the car. We just couldn't get that magic to win a race. It was just on my list that I can stay in the business of NHRA POWERade drag racing and I can do what I love to do. Being an owner doesn't excite me. Driving excites me. Working with my drivers excites me."
DOES THIS WIN HELP YOU APPRECIATE THINGS MORE? "I used to take walking for granted. It's just amazing that life -- you just think you're going to go everyday. Let me tell you, just the way I drive my car on the street, I'm very careful at signal lights. I don't want to speed anymore because I realize death does happen. We lost Eric and then my crash. Safety has just become a priority for us. Winning was everything, but then I woke up one day and realized, 'Man was I stupid here.' I've got to win, or the sponsors like Brand Source, Old Spice and AAA that have joined us, they're not going to pay me if I don't win. And yet, you can't go out there and die. We worked so hard with NHRA and Ford Motor Company that we've a car that will protect its driver. It ain't a guarantee that it's a perfect world, that you still can't be hurt. It's a guarantee that it's seven times stronger than it was and it still performs on the race track. It'll still win. It isn't going to stop here with the safety. We're working on a car with Ford for the future; maybe setting the driver in gel where the vibration can't hurt him. We're working on a wheel; we just had meetings in Topeka with NHRA, with Graham Light and with Goodyear that we're going to go to a big development at an Air Force base back east and test these tires. We're all partners in it with Goodyear, NHRA and with Ford. We've got to keep working together and investing because there are three things that are critical and our president Tom Compton said it; nitro methane is critical, insurance is critical and tires. I know about insurance because of the crashes that I've had. I know about chassis' because they were part of that. And then tires, naturally part of that. Then nitro methane; look at the problems that we're trying to find nitro right now. I think everybody's starting to get their heads together and they're starting to realize that what Tom Compton and his crew up at NHRA talked about years ago was going to happen and it's starting to happen because the economy is in a crunch."
YOU'VE NEVER BEEN A DRIVER THAT'S LACKED CONFIDENCE, BUT IT SEEMED LIKE YOUR CONFIDENCE LEVEL WAS DOWN A BIT THIS YEAR. HAS THIS WIN RESTORED YOUR MENTALITY? "I'm mentally back. But do you know what it was really good for? My team. I think it was good for my family. My wife was really excited. She actually wore the medal around her neck and she's never done that in 25 years. I said 'Here, this is for you honey.' And she put it around her neck and we went to the restaurant. That is something for Laurie. Ashley and the girls were all laughing. It was just a good weekend. To see Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly -- I told him, 'Maybe I can still do it Austin.' I mean I know I can get down the highway, I can drive the race car, but can I be good enough to beat guys like Ron Capps or to go after [Tim] Wilkerson or beat any of my own teammates. I don't know yet. But I did get a win, and that means I won't go winless this year. It's been so many years, I'd just hate to think for the sponsors that pay me millions, that I would go winless. I owe them better than that. Right now, I've got four good race cars. But my team is pumped. All Ford teams were excited. And they all teamed together in the final -- we had so many problems -- and I go, 'Just give me a race car and I'll pray this thing to the winner's circle.' I've gotten a lot into praying. I don't know if he listens to me. And I know the Lord ain't going to help me win because I pray 'Let me win.' It don't work that way. But it's mental for me to just try and be a better person."
ARE YOU GIVING ANY THOUGHT TO RETIRING AFTER THIS YEAR? "Nope, no thought of retiring. I'm just getting back [to] where I'm getting a second chance. Everyday I look at John Medlen. Ford, right now, is in Indy, our new building, because we're looking at ways to build more safety. I don't want to retire; I need to be in the car. I'll be honest, I want to win, but I've got good cars. Mike Neff in the Old Spice car has really evolved as a driver. The car has been in two finals. They didn't get the win at Bristol, but it was because they couldn't get the body up and Melanie Troxel, the young girl, she won there at Bristol. And it was great for women to prove again that Ashley's deal wasn't a fluke; that a woman can win. When it's your day it's your day. But Neff had a car that could win a race. We just couldn't get there. I'm excited about him. Ashley, she's second in the points. She's got a real good, consistent car. It's not the fastest. But she's still learning everyday. If I had a car that was the best to win the championship, it's Robert Hight in the AAA Auto Club [Mustang]. He's my best driver, my best reaction time driver. He's got the best car, even though it's struggled in the last three or four races. Jimmy Prock always chases the tune-up and he's looking for something bigger and better and the car got off track. He'll get it back on in Chicago. I'm not ready, because when I was in my prime, you had to do everything right to win, and you had to have luck. Well, I've got luck on my side, but I don't have my body physically ready to win. And my car is still not consistent -- it was at Topeka -- but it's still not there yet. But Austin and Bernie, they work on it everyday. Robert Hight's still my car that I favor to win the championship. Don't get me wrong, I want to. But I look at my cars that are my best cars."
HOW DO YOU TOP THIS EMOTIONAL LEVEL WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR NEXT WIN? "I don't know. I really want to calm down and I know how you can win a race and go to the next race and lose first round. So I don't want to get high on my heels, I don't want to say that we're ready, but I will say that I said about me personally going into Topeka, when I did my interview I said, 'Look, I need to start winning here.' And I called my team in and I said, 'Guys, we've got to team up.' This was on Friday, not our usual prayer meeting on Sunday morning. I said, 'It's time we start here with these cars. It's just time to make a move.' We've got all the cars in the top 10 right now, so we're excited about that. I think Ashley's second, I'm third, Robert is fourth or fifth and Neff's ninth. So we've got four good Mustangs, we're excited about that. But you've got to go back in with confidence and yet you've got to look at your car and make it the way to be, make the show. The structuring of qualifying with the rules and the countdown, I need some low ET's if I'm going to make the shootout at Indy because I'm not in yet. I'm way out of it because I missed races last year and I haven't been qualifying high this year. Ashley and Robert are both in, but Neff and I, we aren't. But with the countdown, now the way it is, and the format of racing, you've got to get in on that night's session. So you've really got to look at the first round going A to B and making sure that you get some kind of number. And then you can take the chance to go for it that night. If I try to go for low ET for the countdown and I fail, I don't make the show possibly. It's different how we go to fight the battle. It's a lot different than it used to be."
YOU MADE A VERY QUICK RECOVERY. WHERE DID YOU DRAW ON YOUR RESERVE TO GET YOURSELF BACK IN THE CAR AT POMONA? "There were two things. You know my family. And my wife had said to me, 'you know, you may not ever win again, but if you don't get back in that driver's seat, no one could live with you.' She knows how much I love it; it's been everything to me. Cars have been my life. I lived in a car practically growing up; you know what I'm saying. My books were in there my football helmet, my girlfriend's picture; I lived in a little trailer house and I didn't have a room, so I didn't go home until everybody was sleeping. And so the car was the way of life for me. And then racing and the 18-wheelers on the interstate, it was just a way of life for me, driving trucks. And then racecars. So I had to get back. Do you know that I carry a letter in my briefcase that my girls, it's got a little apple on it, and it says from your girls. It's from Adria and Ashley, Brittany and Courtney and basically it was like, 'you know dad, if you want to retire, we'd be happy with that so we could just have you. Ashley wants to be sure you're at the wedding.' Ashley wants her dad at the wedding. I just read this in an article that she did, she had never said it. But during my crash, my wife said that she went outside of the hospital room and fainted. And I said I didn't know all that happened and she said she'd just lost her dad. And she's never said that to me. I read it in the paper in Topeka, and it was kind of shocking. And she said all the dreams in your life about your dad at you're wedding, she thought they were all gone. She was the one that thought she had lost me. When my wife always believed that no one could get me, right? At the end of the day, I think it was the letter from them and the fans, the phone calls and the letters of people who stood outside the hospital. Brandon Bernstein and (Morgan) Lucas and (Whit) Bazemore, everyone. Ron Capps, Bernstein, everybody came. I was like, 'I'll be okay, just leave me alone and I can do this.' Everybody cared and it shows how great a family NHRA is. And then in the process, every day I lay there I thought about Eric. I thought, I owe Eric. I'll admit, it scared me. I've never been scared in all my fights. I'd come out yelling and screaming and I just believed you know that -- I just believed that I couldn't be hurt, you know, I was untouchable. And all of a sudden I lay there and thought, man what people believe, it ain't true. What people think about you, you're a mess right now. And I just thought, 'I don't know if I can do this.' But there were so many people supporting me. And my family and this letter that I carried everyday that just makes me cry when I read it. I'm getting old and senile, I don't know why I read this stuff, but when I'm down I just read this letter and it turns my heart around that my girls gave me. About that , 'you can do this dad, you taught us that nothin's too much.' And they even said in the letter that even though that this is really quite a bit, but we're behind you and if you wanna do it, then we're gonna help you get through it. Even on our vacation, in Tahoe for a week when I had to leave Dr. Ortmayer they took me everyday to the gym on my crutches so I wouldn't fall in the snow. And we stayed in the gym most of the day. I used to stay in the movies all day long whenever I had a day off, now I just stay in he gym and hang out. Because everywhere I feel sore, I just work on that area a little more. That and I had to do it for Eric Medlen, I owed him. He gave his life for something that he loved, he never intended it, but it happened. And so who would I be to walk away. And that's what Ashley said, she wasn't going to quit, nope, how could I look Eric in the eye. So, we're doing it."
WHAT DOES DIGGING DEEP MEAN TO YOU? "Digging deep is really funny to me. You know when I beat my daughter and I saw Robert go out and Neff was out in Topeka, I just sat there and said, 'you can go through this day and you can lose, or you can go through this day and make this car go A to B. You can cut the lights that you haven't in years.' And when you're up against guys that are the best like Ron Capps, you've got to be right there in the game. Because if your car is equal to their car and they run side-by-side, they'll beat you on a holeshot because they are the best. I was the best, but I'm not anymore in the driver's seat. And I just gathered it down deep and I think it brings your energy to a level. You can't take energy from coffee or too much POWERade.... because the brain won't work. You have to find that real energy that God gives us that makes you want to win. It's kind of like when a car falls on a parent's child and the parent can lift the car off that child and they say how can they do that? Because the brain, and I'm not going to get into the theory of all this or the facts of it, but we know that we only use a percentage of our brain. We know that we only ask our body to do a certain percentage. So when you say you can only get to 100 percent, because that's all a person can do, I really believe that a person can give more than that. I'm not going to put a percentage on it, because we don't use our brain to its potential and we don't use our body strength to our potential. And that doesn't mean that you're out of shape, that's good. But I'm talking about the potential to go beyond what it takes. I've got days that I've got to the gym and I'll be honest, I've cried. I've sat outside bent over in the seat and told my guy Chad, that I'm not going in. I ain't getting' nowhere, and he's actually shoved me against the door to get me out the door, Chad Light that took me through all of this. And I'd get in there and you get in there with no strength and all of a sudden you start working out and body gets better and better and halfway through your work out, man you're like, 'why didn't I come in here?' That other person takes over that other personality and that's where you're forced to dig deep. And that's what you have to do on the race track and I think any champion has to. It's just, the hardest thing for me is racing my own team, because I get mental against them. I just get mental that I don't want to get up for the fight. And I've got to do that because otherwise I'm going to lose my job. Even though I'm the owner, I'd have to take myself out of the seat if I didn't deliver, so I'm trying."
ARE THE OTHER OWNERS STARTING TO COME AROUND TO THE NEW SAFETY THINGS OR IS IT STILL A HARD FIGHT? "I'm not blaming the other owners about safety issues. There's guys that own cars and are having brand new ones built and we go and tell them, 'look what happened.' And people don't want to believe. And I know, I've been that type of person. When I saw the crashes when we lost Blaine Johnson and I was there and when we lost Darrell Russell, it was like for the first day we're all sick over it, but pretty soon, you go back to what you do and you don't tend to want to believe because there are so many opinions. So what we did was we didn't take opinions, not even our own. I mean the stuff that we believed happened after we brought in Dr. Melvin and we worked with NHRA and Ford and we did the studies over six months, we realized that what we thought, we weren't even close. And let me give you an example. The first time we ever took a racecar to the wind tunnel, our aerodynamics guy looked at it and said, 'this is so bad, you ought to turn it upside down and make a boat out of it.' Because we didn't understand aerodynamics, and what we believed was wrong. And we thought everything pushed the car down. What we didn't realize was that the car needed to suck from the bottom. And we had designed a car that would push down, but the pressure underneath shoved the car off the ground. You've got to get somebody that's trained in that science to teach you. And they redesigned the cars that we have. So, in the process, we weren't going to try and figure out what happened to Eric and what happened to me, we jumped into it with people who had studied it in NASCAR. People from Ford Motor Company that were technicians that travel around the world with F1 and worked with NASCAR and IndyCar that work with this stuff and we listened to them tell us. And that's how we got our answers. I tried to go back and explain that, what you learned in six months, you can't explain in a 10 minute conversation at the race track. So we did what we had to do. But my daughter crashed and she wasn't hurt. Robert crashed at Topeka, there's been a number of guys. Jim Dunn's car crashed at Dallas, he was so mad at me, and I love Jim Dunn. I said, look at your driver. He had the new roll cage and he didn't get knocked out. But the car was bent in half. That was the roll cage technology that we learned from Eric. And then when my car ripped in half, I didn't even have a headache. I was knocked out, but I woke up with no head injuries and it was starting to make sense because my car had the oscillation and the harmonics worse than Eric's. My car was shattered from one end to the other. The only difference is Eric didn't hit the parachutes and I did at 300. And my car was sucked in half and then it got my legs and my arms and hands. So what we did was fix the chassis with a six rail. So, to answer your question, the driver's are starting to thank me. And I don't want to be thanked. I had Ron Capps say, 'I love this car. I get in it and it's the best.' Bob Tasca [III] loves this car. He said, 'I feel safe in it.' They're coming around and they're going to have to have these new cars. So we'll see what happens. But they can't argue it because one, it is heavier by 100 pounds, but two, it still runs almost as quick. It will still win races and it's really kind of leveled the playing field because guys that didn't have the big budgets to buy titanium and all the trick stuff and magnesium to make the cars light, they come out of the box with cars that were already heavy and put on the safety stuff, and it didn't seem to effect them at all. And that's why [Tim] Wilkerson right now's got a good hot rod. And Gary Densham has qualified good and Jim Dunn was the low ET this last weekend in Topeka. You know, I can't remember the last time he was low ET. He's got a heavier car, but he knew how to run a heavier car. So, I think it's working. They're all intelligent people, it just takes time."
WITH HILLARY, ASHLEY AND MELANIE WINNING THIS SEASON, WHAT DOES IT DO FOR THE MEN AND WHAT KIND OF BENEFITS DO YOU THINK IT'LL HAVE FOR THE SPORT? "Well, it makes the men think, 'gee, we thought we were hot stuff, and we weren't.' We didn't believe -- we'd watch women from Shirley Muldowney all the way up through the ranks of the dragsters. Hillary Will winning this weekend [Topeka]. Melanie Troxel that won, women can win in top fuel. But we never thought that women could handle these Funny Cars. And [Danica Patrick's] first win in Japan in the IndyCar, it was like wow. And then Melanie backs that up at Bristol, then all of a sudden women are in the ballgame. And the boys have another fight on their hands. But I think the men, you know are a little bit envious because they want to win. I think they also realize that half the grandstands are full of women. And that now we've given something that the husband doesn't say, 'come to the races with me today and watch my heroes.' And the women are like, 'okay, we'll go there.' And all of a sudden they've got their own women, they can create their own heroes. And what this brings is corporate America. Corporate America comes here and says, 'whoa, we've got female drivers.' I know, because I've got Brand Source on my car which is home appliances. Mitsubishi, all this different stuff that we use, Sanyo TVs, all of this. Because they sell to the women. They us Ashley, they use Brittany and they use Courtney. At the races, because we won the race at Topeka, they gave away a washer and a dryer to a fan that won the contest because we won. So we're creating new ways for families to get involved and ways for sponsors to go to market instead of just going out there. We sell oil, we sell cars, you know we do what we have to do. We sell tires, and at the end of the day, bringing in the female products, like the Old Spice you know, we're affiliated with one of their brands, Secret, with Ashley and my two younger girls. Women winning is a big positive in the world for all sports. And this economy that we've got, you know, you see me run around with an Old Spice towel around my neck. Well, it's a way to generate some exposure and we put it in a contest and we give the money to charity. But it's also a way, I think it goes to the Ronald MacDonald house. At the end of the day, we've got to be creative because the world is in a crunch. Not just, this isn't just from Sept. 11, this is because of the fuel and the economy and the stock market, and we've got to find new ways to sell the sponsors. And the females are making that possible."
DO YOU STILL FEEL YOU NEED ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP TO VALIDATE EVERYTHING THAT YOU WENT THROUGH? "There's so many kids that want to win a championship. My daughter is one of them; Robert Hight is just frothing at the mouth. And Mike Neff, you know he won it with Gary Scelzi (as a crew chief), so he wants to win. But there's so many kids out there that want a chance. And that's what's good about the new Countdown; it doesn't allow someone to just runaway with it. I ran it away those years and I'd have it wrapped up at Dallas. And now that the points structure has changed, it's leveling the playing field for this playoff. Would I like another championship? Yeah, I'd like to add to my legacy so to speak, it's all I'll have in my old age. But the real truth is, I'm for growing the sport. And if one guy wins too much, that's not good. So it's good for it to spread out so we can all keep our sponsors. Don't misunderstand me, I'm gonna fight to win. And I want to win because I came back from my crash. But there's so many others that are deserving. I'm gonna do my best job, if I get it, I get it. But if I don't, there ain't nothing that is going to tear me apart. And if one of my teammates get it, well then that will be the icing on the cake. But if some other kid gets it, I'm gonna stand there and praise them for getting that chance. Ron Capps is way over due. [Del] Worsham is way over due. You know what I'm saying, because they've worked really hard. And they're going to get it, it's just a matter of time. And so does my buddy [Tim] Wilkerson, so I just wish them all good luck and tell them I love 'em and lets be safe in these cars and when we know we're safe, lets go racing."
-credit: ford racing