The only thing John Force does better than driving a Funny Car is telling stories. In this Q&A session, Force discusses everything. Really, everything. He talks about becoming a father all over again as Ashley Force, his 19-year-old daughter, sets...
The only thing John Force does better than driving a Funny Car is telling stories. In this Q&A session, Force discusses everything. Really, everything. He talks about becoming a father all over again as Ashley Force, his 19-year-old daughter, sets out to make a name for herself in Super Comp. The elder Force also talks about what makes him and legendary singer Mick Jagger so similar. He talks about winning a 12th title and the competition he will face among a myriad of other topics.
Q: How exciting is it for you to see Ashley get involved with drag racing?
Force: I enjoy it, I am just trying to stay mellow watching her. I want her to enjoy the sport, I don't want her to be thrown into competition or have to prove herself. I just want her to do her own thing. The sport is not just about driving. There are a lot of responsibilities including taking care of the fans, and it's about taking care of the sponsors, wearing the right hats for Ford and Bumper-to-Bumper and all of these people. I think she is doing a good job. Her driving is OK. She is getting to know the competition, and the other people out there that she is going to race with. She is going along, meeting people and doing well.
Q: What are the advantages of her racing in the same sport you do?
Force: I spend a lot of time on the road and I don't get to see my children. My oldest girl, Adria, is in the office and I talk to her on the phone every day. Brittany and Courtney, they are in school. Ashley is in her second year of college at Cal State Fullerton and it is very important to her mother that she keeps doing that. But I like to be out here with her. This is not a deal that John Force pushed. When she turned 16, on her birthday she said she wanted to go to Hawley's driving school and she really liked it. Last month she was in an Alcohol Funny Car down in Florida. It's kind of her thing. Racing has to be your thing. It's a lot more than just driving a car. You have to be out here all day for 12 hours signing autographs and getting the signs right on the cars. She has to learn the whole business. One day I will be gone and I want her to be able to continue on if this is what she wants to do. She has to learn the business. I have always made it clear to her. She went by me one time and she didn't have her Ford hat on. She was going to meet with ESPN. I told her she wasn't doing Ford any good if she didn't have something with their logo on. She didn't have her uniform yet. She went right back and got it. The fans are all excited, especially the girls, to see a girl driving because it looks like they can do it too. She is in the learning stage and I want this sport to be fun for her. It was fun for me - it has been from day one for the last 25 years. Anything I can do to fund her to have a good, safe, race car with a good crew, I will do. Ron Williams is running that car and he is a good person. That is very important to me that she is in a good, safe car. When I started, I couldn't afford all the good stuff. I had to race with a lot of bad stuff. That will get you in trouble.
Q: Now you own three cars on the quarter-mile beside your own car. Are you spreading yourself too thin?
Force: Austin Coil already got on me for not watching Tony Pedregon or Gary Densham, even though I was. But right now I am watching Ashley a lot because she hasn't had much time in the car yet. If it is your kid, then you want them to know you're there. I want her to know that she has her dad's support and that I am always going to be out there watching her. She always goes to watch me run. My children are very important. It's kind of funny, but it feels like I am becoming a father again. Maybe I haven't been that throughout her life. I have always been around her, always been close to her, always was there for the opinions with her mom. But I wasn't too involved with her cheerleading, never involved with her dancing or gymnastics, but this is something I can be involved in and have an opinion about. She always jokes that I couldn't help her in high school with her math and now that she is asking me about her car, I can't help her there either. I don't know how to drive that car. I'm not trying to fool anybody. I know how to drive my Funny Car. My Ford Mustang is all I know how to drive. I let these professionals, like Frank Hawley, Ron Williams and three-time Division 7 champion Mike Macbrair and his son and Brian Lillehaug and Mandy from the office to help her. Ashley had a lot of auto shop classes in high school, so she knows some things about cars. She is learning.
Q: Do you have anything to prove in 2002?
Force: I've already heard it from people, 'He is going to lose focus because of his daughter and he is going to forget how to race.' Let me tell those people something: I have more than 25 years of learning how to win. I know when you have to focus on winning and I know when you have to focus on your daughter. I just want to give my children some extra time that I never gave them before. But when it comes time to run my car, I'm there when it is time to warm it up, and I am there when it is time to race. Trust me, at 52 years old, they are talking to a polished veteran with a clean medical report. I'm ready to race, more than ever because I have something to prove. I need to prove that I can win a 10th championship in a row, and I need to prove that I can win a championship in general. I can also prove that at 52, you are as good as ever. But most important, I want to prove to my daughter that you never quit trying and that is important to me. Even if your age has caught up to you, and I don't believe mine has, that you take whatever situation and you size up your finances, your talent, your ability, your age, your crew, your team. I am losing Robert Hight this year, he is going to run the shops. That's my daughter's (Adria) husband who has been buckling me in for eight years. I love him to death, I look out of the car and I miss him so bad that he is not doing it. But change comes and you have to adapt yourself to change. I always compare myself with Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger is almost 60 and he is still singing with the young guys because he adapted. Through short hair, long hair, different kinds of music, crazy on the stage to calm on the stage. John Force is going to adapt.
Q: What is the reality of adding a fourth Funny Car team to John Force Racing?
Force: If it does happen, it will be in March. It would be Gainesville, like last year. I am building for the future, like Penske and Roush, with multi-car teams. It's all about impressions to Ford. Pontiac has 15-17 cars out there and Oldsmobiles, Chryslers, Plymouth and Toyota are all out there. So Ford wants multiple cars.
Q: You had talked about possibly putting a Top Fuel team together. Is that still in the works?
Force: That idea is parked. Ford has no interest in the Top Fuel category until we can develop a Ford motor. There are two things they want. Stuff for new technology, which is a Ford drivetrain. Or they want a Ford Mustang body. Otherwise they have no interest. The only reason they signed my daughter is because she is driving a Ford motor. And they have an interest in having a female driver. That is very important because that is a whole new market. Ford used to make cars for the husband to go to work, trucks, and the station wagon for the wife. Now they build cars so the wife can get up in the morning, drop the kids off, go to work and take corporate America out to lunch, in their car, and they don't want to go in a station wagon. Then they have to be able to run errands on the way home and pick up the kids too. Ford needs to build multi-purpose vehicles. Women are starting to run America and that is the way it is. So it is a combination of what Ford wants. They need to build a car for women and men. But women are very important to Ford and that is why my daughter is on the five-year plan with them.
Q: Who are the contenders for the 2002 Funny Car championship?
Force: When I was asked that (during the offseason), naturally I said Whit Bazemore, Tony Pedregon, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. When I look at a team like Gary Scelzi and Alan Johnson, you can't get any better than those guys. I've seen what they can do, they know how to win championships. Anybody is a contender. I've already been asked if I am worried about Bazemore and I said, 'No, I am worried about my kid.' That's all I worry about. I don't worry about anyone else on the track. Bazemore will be just fine. Al Hofmann and Jim Dunn is another group that is going to be competitive.
Q: Tell us about your relationship with Whit Bazemore. You told us in Dallas that he congratulated you on your 11th Funny Car title, but said it was going to be your last.
Force: I think it is more of a media plug. I believe he really believes he can win. And there is nothing wrong with believing it. I never said it. I never in my career have said I was going to win a championship or that I was going to win a race. I've always only said that I have a good team and that I was going to do the best I can. So maybe they (the Bazemore camp) are doing it to show the media that hey, they are going to go after Force. Great, if that helps them mentally and it pumps up their sponsors. The problem is if you lose, like last year, you have to eat your words. If they win, God bless them. There is an old saying in the end, "He with the most dollars, really wins." I changed that. My saying is "The one with the most memories, really wins." I see a lot of people racing, who are miserable. In the end, no matter who wins or loses, I will have the most memories. If they were to beat me to the championship, I would only be mad, not because a better team beat me, I would congratulate a better team. I would only be mad if my team or myself failed. That we gave it away. If we were ever to lose the championship, and I can look Ford or Castrol in the eye, and say, "We did everything we could to win," and the other team was just a better team that year. If my sponsors weren't happy with that, then I don't need that sponsor. Because if you gave them 110 percent, that's all you can give them. The better team isn't always just better. Sometimes they are just luckier. There is a lot to this. So let's just go race and he with the most memories, wins in life.
Q: What is it going to take to qualify at every event this season?
Force: It's going to take 4.80s. Some races it will be high 70s. I think we will see 4.60s. The way my car ran at Phoenix (during testing), it ran 4.79. We ran the quickest 60-foot and we ran the 266 mph. Coil was pretty happy.
Q: What do you think about the competition this season?
Force: It's going to be good. It was good last year too. I think that is what the fans need. I think we have dominated for the last 10 or 11 years. It would have been 12 years but Cruz (Pedregon) knocked me off in 1992. Now he is back and I get a chance to get even. Maybe he will get even. When the competition gets tough, you have to understand the sport. It isn't when you have one good car, it is when you have a lot of good cars and anybody can take anybody out. We used to be able to win 12, 13 or 14 races a season. But we got into that season where there were so many good cars, they were taking us out in the first round. If you softened your car up to make sure you got by the first round, they would take you out. So all of a sudden, you had to push it first round and you'd smoke the tires. That's how it was first round. We had a good season. There are going to be a lot of good cars out there this year. I just saw (Dean) Skuza's new body style (Dodge Stratus) and I think he has given a lot to his sponsors. God bless him, I hope he has a good year. It's going to be the toughest ever since Don Prudhomme, and the Army Car, the Blue Max and the Budweiser car raced. This will be the year. I say this year, I am going to totally have to focus. Last year at the beginning of the year it was kind of tough. It went from (Bruce) Sarver, to Ron Capps over to Whit Bazemore. It is all a matter of everyone keeping it together for every race for 23 races. That is the key, keeping the team together and keeping the money financially right.
Q: What will it take to win a 12th Funny Car title?
Force: What's the reality? We plan on doing it. That is what Ford, Castrol, AAA and all of these people pay us to do. The bottom line: I would like to get 10 straight. Every year (PR manager Dave) Densmore throws something new at me and he threw 10. I said, 'Thanks, you are never going to give me a rest.' You know, I am totally in good health and I spent four or five weeks going over my health to make sure that at my age, 52, I was still prepared to continue the fight. I have five years left on contracts with Ford and Castrol. It's about where you invest your future. Now with my daughter coming in and with Tony Pedregon and all the loyalty of this team, I owe them to keep fighting and keep my game plan in racing.
Q: What makes drag racing, in your opinion, the best sport out there?
Force: I just have a love for Funny Cars and a need for speed. I think drag racing allows closeness with the fans and I think that is very important because they have built our careers. What is most unique about drag racing is that you don't have to retire at any age because you are only in the car for five seconds. It has a combination of things that allow you not to retire at 40 or 45 years old, like in other motorsports. I plan on racing until I am 60 years old, at least.
Q: What is it about drag racing that demands years of experience before a driver can become a championship contender? There aren't many 20-something year-old champions.
Force: It takes years to build a crew and camaraderie because the problems start on Thursday when the guys are putting the cars together. It's not what's wrong on Friday morning when you made that run. The mistakes are usually made on Thursday. A lot of guys go to qualifying like it is a fun day. That is why we have team meetings. You can die during testing as easily as you can on race day. Race day is the day for the pay off. Qualifying is the stress day. Testing is the time for the new guys to get into shape. I tell the new guys, 'You think you are tired now, wait until you hit Pomona without a testing time.' That's why we have spring training. These guys need to get into shape too. It's their boot camp. It takes experience and years because every little mistake can cost you the championship. If you make an error on one qualifying out of four, and you drop out of the top eight, the first thing that happens to you in the first round is that you lose lane choice. Now your opponent has the advantage and you are playing catch up with the best car. It is very critical to have experience. How can a driver learn in a few years or even in seven years, what Gary Densham and I have lived and learned in 25 or like Kenny Bernstein or Don Prudhomme? Every time they throw in a new race track, as much as the guys question why we don't run well there, the other guy just got lucky. They aren't more talented, otherwise they would have 11 championships. They got lucky and we didn't because when it is a new track, no one has anything in the computer and the driver has nothing in his head. I know every track, every ditch, and every pot hole. Only the guys that have been out here all these years know what I am talking about. I had been racing for 10 years and we went back to some of the same tracks and when (a run went poorly) Coil would say, 'You knew there was a dip in the right lane at 800 foot. Did you steer a little to the left to clear it?' I had never even thought about it. So in the beginning I kept information in notebooks or in the computer. You don't want to think about next year's Englishtown race. You want to think that Englishtown is over and I won or I lost. But you need to think about it so when you come back, you know what to do differently. Then you need to factor in all of the other things, like if the weather has changed - if it is warmer or cooler. Then the whole track personality changes. Doing things like this for 25 years will make you the best. That's why "Big Daddy" (Don Garlits) was the No. 1 Driver of the century. How could they expect me to accomplish what Big Daddy did at all of the tracks he has already been to? He was 25 years ahead of me.
Q: What is going to be the toughest thing about being Ashley's team owner?
Force: As a team owner, she has to do the job like everyone else. She will stand at the ropes and sign autographs like Tony, and she does. She will be like Gary Densham and be there to know her race car and know what it does. She needs to know her jobs. I have never had a problem with her or had to tell her to do anything. She just does it. I didn't tell her to go to driving school, she asked me. I didn't tell her to take auto shop classes, but she did and I didn't find out until six months later. She is very much her own person. She is just like her mother, she is very independent, doesn't need a man. Just like her mother. The hardest part would be to have to come down on your own child. Working with my daughter Adria in the office, that as much as you love her and as much as she runs the business, there are days when I run the business the way I want to run it. I want to come and say, 'Here's how it is.' But it's hard because you are family and she's my daughter and I love her, but she's not listening to me. Then you have to come down hard. That's difficult for me because I love them, but they still need to know who the boss is. Someone has to lead in war, this isn't military war, but it is war to a degree. It's war in business and the racing end of it and they have to follow. Even if you are wrong. But if you prove to be wrong enough times, you won't be the general anymore. It's that simple. Now that my daughter has learned the business so well, she knows some aspects of it better than me. When I try to tell her how I did it, she will tell me how we are doing it now, not 20 years ago.
Q: What is going to be the best thing about being Ashley's team owner?
Force: Being able to be with my child will be the best thing. I joked (that during her first test session) that it was probably the first time in a while that I felt like a father. The times in my life when I felt like a father were my daughter's high school graduation. I felt like a father when my kids were baptized by the Catholic church and the first time that I saw my daughters doing cheerleading in a competition. Other than that, I have been on the road. This damn NHRA, I've been on the road 25 years! I've been a good father as far as loving my children and as far as supplying them with all that they need. I don't believe that a phone call from Englishtown, New Jersey is as good a hug, and putting them to bed. I missed all that in the last 19 years with Ashley and especially my oldest, Adria. The difference with Adria is that she has lived with me on the road. She married one of my employees, so we had that time together. We have bonded, we've had fights, but along the way we found a mutual ground that we balance on between right and wrong. She has been in the business for 16 years with me. She has become a boss, but she had to earn that right and privilege. The biggest thing that I find is that at 52 years old, I get to be a father again, and that means a lot to me. I've missed that. I wish I knew more about her dragster to teach her. I can tell her about staging, but I have to be taught by (Ashley's crew chief) Ron Williams and Mike Macbrair. The guys have been very instrumental not just in teaching my daughter, but teaching me about the car. I tried to talk to her about deep staging. And Macbrair told me that you never want to deep stage in this category because you will change the set-up on the car for the dial-in. I didn't know that and here I was excited to talk to her about what I knew. I couldn't help her with math in high school and I can't help her with her race car. All I can do is find her sponsorships. What will build a great driver is not only experience, but also the funds to run the car. That is what John Force Racing can offer and I proved that with Gary Densham. Gary could always win, he just never had the money to be there at the right time. With my daughter, she has to earn her way. She has to work at the ropes, she has to get up early in the morning with the team, she has to get her sleep at night and do everything every driver has to do. The only thing I can help her with is funding. My children are not spoiled. I can honestly say that their mother has raised them right, and that is the bottom line. I would have spoiled them out of guilt over not being with them. I would have given them everything. At times when I wanted to give them things, their mother would say no, and that they had to earn it. Ashley is working at the office when she is not at college. She has to learn the business. When I die, hopefully, that is down the road. But when John Force leaves this great earth, I hope my children can continue on in the great sport of the NHRA. I really mean that because I love it dearly and I hope my children can do it. If I give them everything and I leave, then they will not prevail. They will fail. They have to learn how we got here. I have to teach her to watch every dollar. Every decal on the car counts. If we pull a decal off the car and it is still good, then we re-tape it and try to put it on another car at another time. Why throw it away because it doesn't fit that car? My children will learn that. The biggest thing I can do is teach them to work. If you don't love the fans, and you don't take care of the sponsor, you are not going to make it in this business. This has become a money game and that is sad because there are so many talented people in racing that don't have the money. They were so busy learning how to run a car, that they forgot how to get money. And that takes a lot of experience. Those people need to invest in an agency to find the money. Austin Coil could not find the money. I could not tune a car. Austin Coil tuned the car and I found the money. That's why Coil is my best friend, yet I never see him. Then how could he be my best friend? Because he is the last guy I see before that car goes down that race track. He becomes your friend yet, he'll ask if I have time to go for a motorcycle ride, and no, I don't have any time. I've got to find money. That is what I do seven days a week. Every waking hour of my life is spent looking for money. If I have breakfast with my kids on Sunday morning, I am thinking how to get more money and how to win a race.
The best thing about Ashley racing is that I get to be around my daughter. On one of her runs I went down to watch her and I said, "Am I bugging you?' She said I was always standing there when she got out of the car. Well, I don't tell her that I am worried, because I don't want that to transfer over to her. We all love our children and never want to see them hurt. But things can happen in any category of speed and I want to be there so she knows that I will always be there for her. I want her to know that if she is ever in a crash, her dad will be standing there. Now, there will be days when I can't, but I am really running and trying to be there. I may have failed her in the first 19 years of her life, I don't want to fail in the next 20 years.
Q: What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now?
Force: At 75 I am going to orchestrate my own wheel chair operation. I am going to pull all of the drivers out of retirement and I am going to allow the fans to pay to push us around the pits. They can push Al Hofmann, John Force and Don Prudhomme around in the pits in the wheelchairs. At that age, I will still be figuring out how to make money.
Q: Cruz Pedregon is the only person, other than you, to win a Funny Car championship since 1990. Now he is back in competition. What do you think about his return?
Force: I'm glad for him. I think Cruz proved he could win a championship. He beat me in 1992. When I looked at all of the ins and outs of a driver, Tony kept coming to mind when I was looking for a new driver. Why? Maybe I saw the potential. Not just because he was the brother of Cruz Pedregon, because that does not mean Tony was going to be a good driver. But they come from a family of racers. From "Flaming" Frank Pedregon, their dad, they have all grown up around drag racing. I knew they would be dedicated to the sport. Tony was a good kid, he was an up-and-comer. I wanted the baby of the family. I knew Cruz brought home to Tony what it was like to win a championship. I think Cruz needs to be a team owner. His type of personality is that for him to function, he needs to control his own destiny and not be dictated to. Tony is the type of driver who could own his own team, but could also drive with somebody.
Q: What does Tony Pedregon bring to John Force racing?
Force: He is smart enough to know when the boss is having a bad day. Tony is very good with the fans, very good with the sponsors, very good with me. Tony could wrap me around his finger. I've watched him do it. He knows the right things to say and I have to laugh sometimes because when I am mad about something, he will always say in that little kid voice, 'I never disagree with you, you are the boss.' He always shows respect and what he has learned to do is keep a lid on me. We know how to balance each other. After seven or eight years nothing ever turns into a fight. Tony never allowed it to get there. Tony and I have never argued or fought in all of these years. We have had debates about right or wrong. Because if Tony thinks you are wrong, Tony will tell you. Once a guy tells me that, I can hear it in his voice, that he means it. What is most important to me is not to prove that he is right or wrong, it is to prove what is the right decision. It isn't automatically right just because I am the boss. When a guy takes a stand against you, you better take a minute to listen to him. If he is wrong, then you better teach him why he is wrong, not just yell and scream at him because then he just walks away lost. He has to believe in the answer because that is what makes it work. I have learned so much from Tony because we race very different. Tony races for the love and I race for Corporate America. Sometimes I forget to have fun. Tony never does. It is always a ball game to him. He is in Little League baseball and he is having a ball at 320 mph. I forget sometimes. I'll get out of the car and the guys are yelling at me that we are the low E.T. and I will be thinking, 'Are the signs right on the car? Did you guys notice if you could see it?' I forget sometimes to enjoy the good moments. He brings youth. Tony brings a love to the sport that in 25 years, I got beat in the road so hard, that I took for granted. I never really took the time to enjoy the wins and championships.
Q: Do you think it will be tougher for Ashley given that you are her dad?
Force: What I can give my daughter is a good, quality crew. I will hand pick those guys. I am watching all the guys to make sure they can do the job and can handle the pressure. I want to see when the car goes wrong, how they all react. Everybody is different. I want the combination of Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly. Coil is one direction and Bernie is the other. If there is a crisis, Coil speaks up. In the crisis, Bernie is the guy who keeps the balance of the calmness. I want to find a crew chief who has both for her. On top of that, I want to be able to fund her the money to do it right. That is what is going to make her succeed. I had some lady tell me, 'Cover up the (John Force Racing) patch on her uniform and then see how good she is.' I laughed about that. I said, 'First of all, ma'am, this isn't about my daughter being good. My daughter is here to learn the sport. I'm not here to impress you.' Then she said, 'Do you think she is going to do well just because she is your daughter?' I said, 'No. But the only way I can help my daughter is to teach her the love of the sport and that you have to fall in love with the car.' I think that is one thing that went wrong with my life. I fell in love with the race car and forgot about the kids. I paid the price, but now I get a chance at redemption.
Q: What does Gary Densham add to the team?
Force: Experience. Gary knows a budget, he knows how to run on a budget. His AAA car was on a budget last year. With MBNA sponsoring that car along with Ford and AAA, it was still on a budget and I put in a million dollars of my own. I invested in the chance in keeping another team because that is what I want, a multi-car team. With Gary I get experience to help organize a crew and work with Jimmy Prock. And Gary brings a friendship that we have had for 25 years. On a day that I am having a very bad day, I am very happy to see Gary having a very good day. So when I lose and it makes it a horrible day, if Tony or Gary wins, that makes it all better. A lot of people thought I was upset when Densham beat me (at Memphis, for his first career victory and again at Dallas) twice. I lost my 100th win that way in Ford's 100th year and they wanted that 100th win to help celebrate and I couldn't get it. But I was happy for what Gary had accomplished.
Q: What do you think about that 100th victory?
Force: I'll get it this year. (Breaking records) never gets old. Sometimes you take it for granted because it happens and you want it to be over so you can move on the next deal. A lot of times you win a race and you know that you need to be on a plane at 5 a.m. and you can't even have a beer to celebrate. You can't enjoy it because you are running to the airport or you have to get a good night's sleep and you have an early morning meeting, pitching MBNA in Delaware. I've always respected the car, but maybe sometimes I don't take a moment to enjoy what it has accomplished.