Competing against John Force is a daunting task that many drag racers dream of, but also fear,
It seems like John Force has always been part of NHRA Mello Yello drag racing. Force has been the driver to personify the sport, second only to originator Wally Parks in importance throughout the past three decades.
The legendary 16-time Funny Car champion, Force is a brash, overbearing presence at the drag strip, but one thing is for sure - everyone brings their A game to beat him.
Not slowing down
Force turned 66 on May 4th but isn’t about to slow down. At Las Vegas this year, Force earned his 142nd victory in the Funny Car class and brought Chevrolet back to the winner’s circle after being with Ford the past couple of decades. While it was his first victory of the season, and that in itself was a disappointment for Force - who drives to win at every event - and thought he’d visit victory lane before the campaign got into its warmer months.
I couldn’t write a book on how to win because it’s like anything in life: dedicate yourself to it and you can do it
“Winning is always a good feeling. We were able to put it all back together financially where we can be competitive, run for the title and build technology and safety,” the irrepressible Force stated. Winning against son-in-law Robert Hight and putting two Chevrolet cars in the final at Vegas was an early high point in the 24-race season. “It just gave us a little kick and we needed it. We’ve had a rough going here in the last year and a half. Didn’t win the championship last year - lost it by a round or two - but we’re back in business.”
Even though he has 16 titles Force knows that a second - or repeat - title is far more difficult than a first championship. After trying to win a round of racing in his first 15 years of competition, Force appreciates each victory a bit more than he might have expected. “You live your whole life for that dream” of winning a race,” he remarked about daughter Brittany, who elected to race in Top Fuel rather than the family’s Funny Car classification, distancing herself and not really having any feedback from the rest of the clan.
The 'culture of winning'
He really can’t explain his culture of winning, even though Force leads all comers with his trajectory of victory. “You lose and you come back. You’ve got to dig deep. You got to live that gut ache every day (of loss), every time you go to sleep, every time you wake up. It becomes a way of life. I think that’s how you become a champion. You push every button you can from the team to the sponsor to the crew chief, everything right, then with a little bit of luck you might get that shot.
“You just got to live it,” Force continued. “I couldn’t write a book on how to win because it’s like anything in life: dedicate yourself to it and you can do it. I’m dedicating myself to it right now. I’ve changed my lifestyle since the crash (in 2007, when he nearly died). I live it and more than most.” A polio survivor, Force’s body has never been his friend but he’s forced himself, pun intended, to keep healthy, to work out and he’s found that “If I stayed in the gym, the gym becomes a place I love.”
The gym may test John Force, the racetrack may test John Force and, as ever his competitors test John Force. But the respect engendered this ageless racer is something that’s different from what everyone expects. Take, for instance 2012 NHRA Funny Car titleholder Jack Beckman, a cancer survivor who understands what it takes to overcome just about anything to achieve his goals.
Beckman noted that racing Force is similar to pitching to baseball heroes… “There’s no question in my mind there’s a little bit extra when John Force is in the other lane. Because you can compete at different ages in our sport, it would be like a Little League player getting to grow up and play against Babe Ruth. It means so much to so many of the other racers out there that you’re still coming out and fighting the fight, doing the things you’re doing,” he addressed the legend.
Beckman, reigning Funny Car champ Matt Hagan and the balance of the category’s hot shoes (including Hight and Force’s daughter Courtney) will be trying to bat 1,000 this weekend when the tour goes to Atlanta for the quarter-mark in the 24-race season. It’s a daunting task, beating John Force and the thought of it can bring a competitor to his or her knees.