The memories blew through John Force’s brain like a freight trail barreling through a crossing. One minute they were there, and the next – gone.
Sunday, Force celebrated a monumental 150th career victory; one which took him 25 races to achieve. It was a stretch of frustration which led Force to utter multiple f-bombs on live television and kiss final round opponent Ron Capps on the lips, and later giving wife Laurie one on the cheek.
The road had been that tough for Force.
Still as challenging as the 25-race dry spell had been, Force cannot help but remember those days when crossroads revealed themselves daily, if not hourly.
The 1979 season, his first full pull on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series was when Force really won No. 150.
“I didn’t really do things back then, the way I do now,” Force admitted. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the way I did stuff in the past.”
Force was a survivor, doing what he needed to do to keep the dream alive. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, match race to match race and beating the checks to the bank with a last-minute deposit.
“It was everything I lived for,” Force said. “I wouldn’t change … what could I change? I’ve won. I’ve set the records. I’ve been able to be with my family. Feed them. Taken care of over 100 employees. Grow. I don’t know.”
A life without drag racing?
“I thought a few times that I’d wish I’d gone to Indy car or NASCAR,” Force explained. “Well, I had that thought over the years just like Prudhomme but the bottom line is that I wouldn’t be racing at my age if I was in Indy or NASCAR. The car does the running here and does it in a few minutes and I’m able to still stay and play.”
Regrets? Well Force has had a few. If he had it all to do over again, there might be a few things he’d improve.
“I’d try to be a better person,” Force said. “I think I was a pretty good race car driver and owner. I think I’d try to look back at life and – not that I did anything wrong – but I wasn’t perfect. Too much drinking. Too much partying. I don’t do that anymore. Just some things I would change about me. Be closer to my children. More time to my wife. But I gave all that up to be a champion and I’m not saying you have to do that, but I did. That’s probably the biggest mistake.”
Was it worth it?
“Yeah but you look back, what are you going to change now?” Force said.
“I joke that I’m still trying to finish the Bible. I’ve been on it three or four times and read through it and gone through it and read through it again, because every time you read it you learn something new. I don’t believe anybody can say they did the best they could but I’d try to be a better person. I’d try to be closer to my family and that’s why I’m staying out here right now with Brittany. She wants to race and I’m going to race with her.”
Maybe it’s the kids who keep him engaged at 70-years old. He estimates he’s seen five generations of drivers come through in his time.
“I’m not kidding nobody, I’m 70-years-old,” Force said. “How long can you do this? Number one, you owe it to do good for the teams. It takes all I’ve got to get up to race these young kids out here. But I always felt I owed something to this sport. To watch the new stars. You’ve got to understand, I can remember seeing Shirl Greer’s car. I wasn’t anybody then.
“You look at the generations of drivers, Shirl Greer, then I come into the era of Don Prudhomme and Mongoose, of course Shirley and Garlits. Then I went into the Hoffmans and Bazemores and the Etchells. Then I went into the Hagans and the Robert Hights and the Courtneys and Brittanys of today, Capps, Wilkersons. Now there’s a new generation with Brittany and Prock and Vandergriff.
“I mean hell, that’s five groups that I’ve been through and I’m still standing here and it’s starting to get a little embarrassing. But people don’t understand I do it because the car makes me good and I’ve got to give it all I’ve got. I’m trying things like pulling back on coffee, pulling back on sugar, pulling back on everything that gave me an adrenaline rush. Taking all that away. Not so I can live longer, that’s why I should do it, but to try to balance myself to do a good job in the seat. I want to go out a winner. I’ve struggled the last couple of years. Considering from my crash they said I’d never win a championship. I think I’ve won a couple. I’ve got no complaints. Just want to do good and when I can’t cut it in the seat, I’m setting up another driver to go in.”
Best decision of Force’s life was the one day at the most crucial crossroad of his life, keep moving forward. It was the most defining drive of his career.
“Sitting in Memphis, and I’m broke, tired, couldn’t win when I was in the cab of the 18-wheeler, on the side of the interstate,” Force recalled. “I pulled over and I started crying. And I said ‘I can beat these guys. I can win. I’ve got to find the money.”
“That’s the key. The sport’s out there, the world’s out there, the fans are out there. I’ve got to not just be a driver, I’ve got to be a truck driver, I’ve got to be an owner, I’ve got to drive this car, I’ve got to work on the motor.” And here I am in the middle of the night, flat broke without enough diesel fuel. I went in to a Union 76 to call my dad collect at home to say ‘send me money. I need to get gas to come home.’ I tried beating Don Prudhomme and I can’t see this turning a corner.”
“There had been too many crossroads, too many downers, too many fires, too many hospitals. My dad said, ‘my son doesn’t quit. You said you were going to do this.”
“Even against what my dad said saying, ‘you’ll never beat Don Prudhomme.”
“I wish he would have lived long enough to have seen it. He’s in heaven he’s seen it. But I remember him saying, ‘You did it. You put yourself out there. You’ve got a fan base of people and you’re gonna tell me you’ve had enough?” He said “I don’t want to hear that.”
Force’s dad wired him the money, and also the contact number of Lynwood Dupuy, from the old Houston Dragway, who wanted him to come in and do a match race when several of the other top name nitro races bailed on him at the last minute.
Force negotiated decent money and a couple of hotel rooms for he and the crew. In the end, the match race provided the impetus for Force to move forward.
“That’s all I needed, was the right chance, the right opportunity … and that day I got it,” Force admitted. “It didn’t make me rich in money, but it made me rich in spirit. I just knew there was a day ahead for us when it wouldn’t be so tough just to make it to the next day. I knew one day we’d be somebody to make everyone proud. It’s always that one decision that becomes a defining moment.”
Sunday in Seattle, Force couldn’t help but think of it.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019