NHRA Funny Car driver John Force (NHRA Images)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — John Force has spun some legendary yarns in his time.
Without the least bit of prompting, he will weave his way through a vivid string of tales gathered from a lifetime spent living in the fast lane, stories featuring a colorful cast of characters that includes the likes of Jeff Gordon, Elton John, Rusty Wallace, Elvis, Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger, Mario Andretti and Dale Earnhardt with a wide assortment of kings, queens, presidents and jesters sprinkled in for good measure.
“Every story I tell has got a little bit of truth,” Force said as he sat back in his pits between qualifying rounds on Friday night at Bristol Dragway.
Once Force dives headlong into one of his stories, it’s often hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins. But that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with one of the last living folk heroes in all of motorsports, a man who casts a tall shadow across the Funny Car division he has dominated during his five decades in the sport.
To his fans, Force is the champion in the Superman cape, a man who once won 10 straight Funny Car titles on his way to 15 career championships and counting. He’s the man who’s “been on fire from here to Australia” and lived to tell the tale. He rose from the ashes of a devastating crash in Texas back in 2007, rebuilt himself and became the oldest driver to ever win an NHRA championship in 2010.
But to John Force, he’s flesh and bone, nothing more or less than the guy who started his motorsports empire with one desk and one telephone inside a room attached to a gas station back in the late 1970s. He’s just a man trying to fight off Father Time long enough to add another chapter or two to a legend that is admittedly part fact, part fiction.
“Me, I’m just John Force, still struggling,” Force said. “But that’s where I came from. People always talk about 15 championships. That ain’t really what it’s all about. I tell my girls it’s about how you fought from the bottom, or else the top won’t have any meaning to you.”
Still, he’s determined to keep blurring the line between the old man wearing the firesuit and the Superman his fans still see when he flashes his million-watt smile in the pits at Bristol Dragway.
“They’re on me, but I love them because they want you to win,” Force said. “A fan is loyal to his driver. They want to see you deliver. The problem is I spoiled them. I won for 15 years, 10 straight. It was like, just another win. There’s times we’re towing back to the winner’s circle at the end of the day after winning, and it was like, ‘Boy I’ll be glad when this is over.’ Now, you go by and you say, ‘I’m going to get back there, and when I get on that stage I ain’t leaving.’
“You don’t take anything for granted,” Force continued. “Maybe they’re spoiled a little bit, and so are my sponsors. But they pay us good, so we’re going to get back into the game.”
In many ways, the perspective Force has gained over the years has been his greatest ally during a slow start to the season. While his fans and sponsors may be getting nervous during the long winless streak he’s currently suffering through, Force has weathered the hard times before, and those droughts have taught him not to panic.
Following a horrific crash in 2007 that left him with a broken ankle, a dislocated wrist and a few mangled toes and fingers, Force limped through two seasons that left even his most ardent supporters wondering whether his best days as a driver were behind him. He finished outside the top five in points for the first time since the early days of his career in 2007 and followed that up with another lackluster performance in 2009.
But in 2010, Force hit the gym and got himself in better shape, and by the end of the season, he capped his superhuman comeback with his 15th career points title.
On the flip side, Force also knows better than to get too wound up about one great run down the drag strip. Force was the fastest of the Funny Car class during the first qualifying session Friday at Bristol Dragway, but he knew there was more work to be done.
“We’ve been struggling all year and trying to help each other,” Force said. “(Crew chief) Mike Neff is a great tuner and we hit a lick, but that don’t win races. You’ve got to win four straight rounds on Father’s Day, and that’s what I plan on doing. It would be a nice win, and we need one.”
Force said Father’s Day is sweeter for him these days now that so much of his family has joined him on the NHRA circuit. His daughters Courtney and Brittany are racing full time along with his son-in-law Robert Hight. Daniel Hood, Force’s other son-in-law, is a crew member for John Force Racing.
“All those years I raced at Bristol without my kids. Now they’re all here,” John Force said.
He said he's constantly passing along lessons to his kids as they try to make their own way in the NHRA.
“I tell my girls, if there’s anything I can teach you, when you have a day when you win, never forget what it was like when you were losing,” Force said. “They really have listened all these years.”
So in much the same way all of Force’s stories contain an element of truth, all of his wins contain some residue of his losses. Lean times motivate Force to get back to the top and savor each win as if it was his first.
If Force retired tomorrow, he’d walk away as the greatest champion the sport has ever seen. But as he sat in the pits on Friday, he was fixated on the days when he was hustling just to earn a living behind the wheel of a race car and scrambling just to recruit sponsors.
“Hell, I painted Coca-Cola on my car when I didn’t even get any money from Coca-Cola. I did it because I did a regional show for them,” Force said. “Then all of a sudden, everybody said, ‘Coca-Cola? I want to be a part of that.’ I got Stop and Go Market, I got involved with Wendy’s in the early days.
“Nobody wanted to be with me. Now they do. So I’m doing OK now, but never forget where you come from.”
Now that Force was rolling, he decided to tell the story about the time he took his family to England. He was hanging around with his wife and kids outside of Buckingham Palace trying to catch a glimpse of the queen. The way Force spins it makes you think of the Griswold clan gawking through the fence in "National Lampoon’s European Vacation."
"All of a sudden, everyone said the queen is coming out,” Force said. “We wait, and all of a sudden a little Ford Taurus comes out. I don’t know if that was her, but we never did see the queen.
“I said, ‘At least I know the queen drives a Ford.' "
And with that subtle sponsor plug, Force rose out of his chair to go warm up his engine for the second qualifying run. As he did so, the smile faded from his face, replaced by the serious gaze worn by every elite competitor.
He had a simple message for all the fans out there wondering whether Superman had left the building for good this time.
“Let them know that I’m not done,” he said.