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The Way It Is/ John Force is at the heart of NHRA drag racing

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
I enjoyed a very salubrious weekend last month at the National Trail Raceway dragstrip in central Ohio, just east of Columbus. I was there to write a story about the technology of drag racing for Road & Track and I spent most of the weekend with John Force's funny car team. Force's team opened their doors to me and educated me about their sport and I enjoyed it immensely. I want to offer a personal thank-you to everyone in Force's team to opening my eyes to the inner workings of drag racing.

I hadn't been to a drag race in thirty years and it was a rare pleasure to enjoy an up-close view of the funny cars and top fuel dragsters from just behind the starting line. The explosion of horsepower and contortions of burning rubber and clutch plates as the 8,000 plus hp monsters blast off the line is something to behold and I was amused at Indianapolis the following weekend to hear Chip Ganassi's assessment of the scene.

Chip had flown over to Columbus at Don Prudhomme's invitation on the morning after pole day qualfying at Indy and 'The Snake' made sure Ganassi got the whole faceful. Coming from a guy who spends almost every weekend of the year at a racetrack of some kind or another, Ganassi's view provided a keen perspective. "It really scared me," Chip said, looking a little wan. "I've never seen anything like it before. It was really something!"

The fact is, the NHRA puts on a great show that runs all day and much of the evening. Saturday night's final qualification runs are truly spectacular with a tremendous atmosphere even at one of the smaller venues on the NHRA's 23-race POWERade schedule. One of the great things about drag racing is that it also embraces the sportsman and local racer who get to run alongside the sport's national superstars and help provide the fans with a full day of racing.

Another thing that impressed me was that, in sharp contrast to American open-wheel and sports car racing, all the major teams enjoy strong sponsors. Most of these sponsors are from the automotive trade and industry but the majority of the cars are beautifully turned-out--a contrast again to what we see in Champ Car in particular today. Equally impressive is the level of team merchandising which is excellent with quality clothing and collector's items sold from trailers located in the garage area next door to each team's trucks and trailers. Fan traffic is high, much like NASCAR, and the whole scene is busy and enthusiastic.

One key area where the NHRA has failed is it has a tiny press corps. I was shocked to find that drag racing attracts an even smaller group of media than Champ Car and IRL, something I thought was impossible, but this explains why drag racing gets so little national coverage in the press. Like Champ Car, IRL, ALMS and GrandAm, the NHRA has plenty to learn from NASCAR about romancing and encouraging the print media to cover their sport on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, thirteen-time champion Force has been having a tough time this year. In addition to owning the NHRA's record for national championships, Force also holds the funny car records for ET (4.665 secs) and speed (333.58 mph) set in 2004 at Chicago's Route 66 Raceway, but he was beaten to last year's NHRA funny car title, finishing third behind Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps. Until last weekend, Force had not been able to win a race this year, although all three of his cars usually are among the fastest qualifiers. But at Route 66 Raceway, where he set those records two years ago, Force beat young teammate Eric Medlen in Sunday's semi-final and then nosed-out his other teammate, son-in-law Robert Hight, in the final.

Force's team of three Ford Mustang funny cars is the biggest individual team although Don Schumacher runs no fewer than nine cars and motorcycles in four categories while the legendary Connie Kalitta runs as many as four top fuel dragsters. Force's operation is based in Yorba Linda, California, but like Schumacher and Don Prudhomme, he also maintains a Midwestern base in Brownsburg, Indiana just east of Indianapolis.

Force's team is run by veteran crew chief Austin Coil who counts two more national NHRA titles than Force in his trophy case. Other key members of Force's team are Canadian veteran Bernie Fedderly, who made his name running Canadian drag racing champion Gary Beck's cars; John Medlen, a thirty-year veteran of the sport who runs son Eric's car; Jimmy Prock, who oversees Robert Hight's car; and Brownsburg shop manager Dean Antonelli, who will run Force's daughter Ashley's funny car next year.

Force has been racing professionally since 1979 and celebrated his 57th birthday on May 4th. "The competition is tougher," Force commented. " Scelzi knocked me off the top last year and the multi-car teams that are out there have made it tougher. Everybody complained when I got mine going and then everybody got them, at least the ones that can afford it. But the kids have been very respectful. I say kids--a lot of them grew up learning and a lot of them I helped. Tony Pedregon drove for me for eight years and Ron Capps is one of my best friends. Scelzi was in top fuel when he won his first championship and I remember when I met him. So I'm buddies with all of them. They're hungry. They want to win."

The increased competition and Force's advancing age have compelled him to start working out and adopt a more healthy diet. "I've always said the race cars do the running for me," Force said. "I keep my energy up all day by going from one meeting to the next, jumping in the car and driving, coming back to meetings, and going to autograph sessions. The world doesn't want a guy that's thinking about retiring and I'm under contract to Castrol and Ford and Mac Tools and all these people. It's what we do.

"But the truth is, this job is not that hard because I love what I do. I've said to my kids, if you don't love what you're doing in life, don't do it. It may seem good in the beginning and you can live through it, but after you've done it for thirty years you better like it because boy, the days just get longer.

"I'm 57, but my race car does the running and I'm reinventing myself. I've got on a diet, kept my weight down. I'm 180-182, and we've done this reality TV show which has got me exercising. My daughters took me to a gym and bought me a sweat suit for my birthday. I'm starting to do a little bit of jogging again, but man the first day, I was so sore the next morning! They're filming me jogging and leaning against trees for this reality show and I'm telling these TV guys that this is bullshit.

"But I'll get through it because I need to stay in the game and right now, I'm getting spanked out here. One of my teams has been low qualifier for every national event so far this year. I think I've been low qualifier three or four times."

Force says he became embroiled in too many things last year, including helping launch the driving careers of three of his four daughters and putting together a deal for a reality TV show about his life.

"One of the newspapers wrote that I'd lost ten first rounds last year," Force observed. "How do you lose ten first rounds out of twenty-three races? By not focusing. I was working on my daughter Ashley's car, getting in my funny car, putting together a team for Brittany and Courtney, and signing this TV show. It's called overload. I forgot why I came, which was to win. If I had back a couple of those rounds I would have been the champ, but when I discovered I was screwing up it was too late. Don't think Castrol didn't ream me out over that. So did Ford. And it's going to be tougher now because those guys know they can beat you.

"But my toughest competiton comes from within the team. I've been beaten more times by Eric and Robert than I think I have by the competition because they've both got everything that my car's got and they're young lions with no fear. They'll drag them out the back door on fire. No fear. You know what I mean? The new kids have the energy to go all day. The point is, this isn't like NASCAR. If I had to drive around for three hours then it becomes physically draining. You've got to hand it to those guys who do that.

"I think the only difference with me is the truth is I've always had high energy and I love so much what I'm doing, I'm like a little kid. So I run around and I'm able to keep that energy going, and that's enabled me to stay ahead of the kids. But now they've caught up and there's so many of them that can knock you off in the first round and give the others a shot at the title. But mother time will get everybody and I try to hang on as long as I can. I'm number two in the points. I'm just short of a race behind, so I'm not counting myself out of the gate yet."

In recent years, Force started looking to the future. When Tony Pedregon left Force's team after winning the funny car title in 2003 to join older brother Cruz's team, Force realized it was time to bring some new blood into his team.

"I'm building the next generation," Force commented. "About three years ago it dawned on me when Tony left. When Tony beat me for the championship, I came back and won the next year, but I said to myself, you've got thirteen championships, you've done all this, maybe it's time to retire. But then when my daughter Ashley got in the funny car it just totally rejuvenated me. It was almost like I've got to stick around to see this. I want to be here for her.

"The same thing with moving Eric into the seat. I went after my own people instead of going outside. These guys have worked hard and deserve the chance. I want to build from within where nobody will ever quit me. Eric's been with us for ten years and his dad's been here a couple years more than that. So if these guys are going to quit, it's only because they've got their own team like Pedregon. Why would they quit if I can offer them this? Then I brought my son-in-law (Hight) in because Eric led the way and I started realizing I'm not going to last forever."

Force admits to feeling the aging process creeping up on him, but he's adamant that there's plenty of racing life left in his middle-aged body. "I'm not going to wait until I'm sixty and I can't cut it," he remarked. "Maybe at sixty I'll look out there and I won't be able to see that Christmas tree. Maybe I won't have the drive to fight a little bit longer. In the old days you could go and sit down for five minutes and jump right back up and be a tiger, but now when I jump back up my body talks to me. So now, I take little naps during the day. The guys laugh. They say, hey old man what you doing? I say, just taking a little nap so I can kick your ass!

"When I ran on a treadmill, for the first five minutes my blood pressure went down before it started going back up. My doctor said, 'John, you won't die from a heart attack. You'll pop a vein.' He said it's the class A stress that'll bother you. It's not the running around. Mick Jagger said once that doing a concert on stage for one hour was like working out at a gym for four hours. Well, I may only drive for four seconds but it's kinda like sex. In that four seconds, I give all I've got.

"So now I drink POWERade, but I can only drink so much sweet stuff. But they got Coca-Cola Black now. It's Coca-Cola with coffee in it. Talk about wiring you up for the day! But it's just like sex. It's only got to last four or five seconds. Let me have a little nap and when you're ready honey, call me. So I'm having to re-invent myself or I ain't going to make it down this final stretch. If I was in NASCAR, and you've probably heard this quote, but there would have to be rest stops because I'd have to go in and take a break. But out here, I'm able to take a break and I still love what I do. I still believe in my heart I can beat 'em."

Force is convinced he has both the equipment and the right approach to win more races and championships. "I believe we've got the cars that are the best," he declared. "We've proved that by our qualifying. We don't have the consistency. Capps might be a little slower, but he's consistent, and that's the fight. And then there's so many other guys to pick you off. We've got to really focus now, not get beat in the first round like I did last year ten times. That was the championship. Only needed two rounds to win.

"To go out in the first round ten times, my mind wasn't there. But I'm back in the game. I'm coming to work. I'm having meetings with the guys about strategy, about getting going in cool or hot weather--whatever's happening."

Over his long career Force has won more than 930 elimination rounds. Does he reflect on the fact that he's coming up on winning his 1,000th round? "I just like to win first round," he half-joked in response. "Get me thinking about stuff like that and you'll have me where I can't qualify. I don't even want to look at stuff like that. You don't want to talk about records because you focus too much on it and you choke."

Force then told a story about the dangers of thinking about re-writing the record book. "Back a few years ago, the Cragar club put up $25,000 for the first funny car to run 4.99 or better," Force said. "We were at Topeka and Chuck Etchells had a good race car and was fighting for the championship and he couldn't run any better than 5.10. I was running five-flat, and we ran all three sessions at 5.00 and came to the cool, night sessions.

"For whatever reason, Cragar had pulled their $25,000 before the race, and I went over to Castrol. I said, 'Nobody can run in the fours but us and we've got a shot at making history here tonight.' My crew chief said it was going to happen because we had run five-flat three times, the night air was killer, and we had put a little more in the clutch. He said, we're going to run 4.99. I told Castrol that I'd put up half the money and if I win it, they'd just have to pay the other half. I told them we wanted the recognition, and the timing and conditions were perfect. That gave the Castrol guy the time to go back and tell the company what he was doing.

"So it comes down to me and Chuck Etchells. Nobody else is close. This is the big one. You spend your whole life praying to God, 'Let me just have enough money to run the next round. Let me pay the rent and pay for the new Goodyear tires.' You never brag. You just say, 'Let me make a living.' But here you're up there, taking $12,500 and betting against yourself--overconfidence!

"This is a true story," he went on. "I did the burn-out and backing up from the burn-out I pulled the brake pedal and something was wrong. I put it in reverse and started backing up and the brakes had failed. The brake caliper had broken loose from its mount and I had no brakes. I didn't know what happened. All I knew was the cylinder was not working. I was afraid to back the car up and I'd run over somebody and kill them. So I shut it off and pulled over to the side of the track.

"I guess I went against God. After twenty years of just letting me exist and never being cocky, here I was saying it was a piece of cake and if I didn't run it, so what, because nobody else would. And Chuck Etchells ran 4.99! Tim Richards was the crew chief and they made it happen.

"We said, where the hell did that come from? But Castrol said, bring the $12,500 over in the morning because we have to write the check. It broke my heart to pay that $12,500, and I said, that's it. I'll never run my mouth again. It was bad enough that we failed, but then they did it and they weren't even close before that. So that taught me a lot."

Force believes he can continue to race into his early sixties. "I see a good five years, but when I reach sixty I'm going to start reevaluating myself," he commented. "By then my kids will be getting there. If you think they're good now, it'll take five years to turn them into veterans where they know this game. I can read every bump on every racetrack. I know them from one end to the other. That's what it takes."

John Medlen is crew chief on son Eric's car and is a renowned fabricator and clutch specialist who developed one of drag racing's first multi-lever clutches. Medlen is one of the most respected crew chiefs in the NHRA and he recalls an interesting race weekend in Seattle a few years when Force's team was struggling for results.

"I remember one time we had two cars and neither car was running good, and we were working on them as hard as we could," Medlen said. "Force never rides with us in the car to and from the racetrack. We were in Seattle and he said, 'Can I ride with you guys today?' We said, 'What happened with your rental car?' He said, 'Nothing, I just want to ride with you guys.' We said, 'Okay.'

"So he drove back and forth with us to the racetrack for four days and at the next race, we asked him if he was coming with us. He said, 'No, I've got my own car.' We thought, 'That's strange.' Later that race we sat down with Force and said, 'We don't get it. Why did you ride with us to the track for all of Seattle?' He said, 'Well, the car's not running good, and I just wanted to know what you guys were talking about.'

"He said he wanted to know if we were talking about our hobbies or investments or families. He said, 'I needed to know if your head was in this race car because if your head's in the race car we're going to fix it. If not, I'm in trouble.' We said, 'Well, what did you find out?' He said, 'Well, I'm not riding with you, am I?'

"I've thought about that ever since. That's an aspect of ownership or management that comes into play--to believe in your people. If their hearts are in it and they're giving a hundred percent, that's all you can have. If they're not, it's your job to be objective enough to say, I need to fix this. And that's why the multi-car team here is structured the way it is as three completely equal cars. Everybody shares everything and Force demands it because he feels that's the only reason that you benefit from a multi-car team.

"When you get it all down it becomes very obvious what he was trying to accomplish there. He knew what he was doing all along. We didn't. But when you get to the point where he wanted you to be, then you look back and say, 'I got it.' But up until that point, you think, 'What's he up to?' Whatever issue it is, however bizarre it may seem to be, later on you ask, 'How did he see that?' The man's the most complete team owner I've ever seen. He's the best guy I've ever worked for. There's a lot to be learned from him."

Some people call Force the hardest working man in racing. He's certainly the most voluble guy in drag racing, but there's much more to the man than meets the eye. After watching him and his team in action for a weekend, I believe those who say he's racing's hardest worker are right. The NHRA should count themselves lucky that he will be around, as a team owner at least, for many years to come.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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