Sport’s Biggest Winner Still Going Strong
John Force’s greatest career accomplishment was not his come-from-behind performance in winning the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Championship at the age of 61; not his comeback from crippling injuries suffered in a 300 mile-an-hour crash at Dallas, Texas in 2007; nor even his leadership role in improving race car safety through the creation of The Eric Medlen Project.
By any measure, Force today is an American icon because of his single-minded determination to follow his dream – regardless of the obstacles. To compete at drag racing’s top levels, the Southern California native had to overcome childhood polio, poverty and rampant skepticism, even from within his own inner circle.
The fact that he has become the greatest champion in the history of straight-line racing, perhaps the greatest in all of motor racing, is just a bonus, one that will pay more dividends this May when he becomes a first ballot inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
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, the frustrated football quarterback could not be dissuaded and his unwavering devotion to a sport that for 35 years has been both his vocation and avocation 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 the Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford Mustang that last year carried him to his 27th straight Top 10 finish.
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 racing discipline, Force this year is striving to become the first to top the driver standings with three different crew chief tandems.
After sharing the 2010 title with crew chiefs Mike Neff, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly and winning multiple times with Coil and Bernie Fedderly, Force this year will pursue the title with crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli and new tuning partner Danny DeGennaro, most recently the crew chief for Cruz Pedregon.
The 1996 Driver of the Year and a four-time winner of the Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy that identifies the driver receiving the most votes for the AARWBA Auto Racing All-America team, Force this year is bidding for his 16th title in 23 years; his team’s 18th.
Nevertheless, his total dominance of straight-line racing belies early struggles that would have chased a lesser man into a more traditional career.
Force wasn’t really pursuing championships in the 1970s and early ‘80s. He was just trying to make enough money to pay for gas and bologna sandwiches for himself and his crew. 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 after graduating from Bell Gardens High (where he quarterbacked a team that went 0-27 in three seasons), Force admitted that he was too slow to play football 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. It was 1974.
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 own hotel room to shower and clean up and whose “Blue Max” T-shirts were the first real “uniforms” Team Force ever owned.
In his first 65 starts, Force reached the final round nine times – but never won. Fortunately for the sport, persistence finally paid off when he won at Montreal, Canada, in 1987. It proved to be just a stepping stone for drag racing’s most prolific driver.
Although his Australian experience was the catalyst for his pro career, the 133-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 “Bruce 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 Plueger 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 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 and all the oil he could use. 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 he long ago won the rabid support of millions of blue collar Americans captivated by his self-effacing charm, non-stop banter and unexpected accessibility
He still sells more souvenirs, conducts more interviews and signs more autographs than anyone else.
Nevertheless, 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,