It took John Force more than a year to earn his historic 150th career win.
It took him less than a month to win No. 151.
Only this time, it wasn’t just any ordinary win.
Force tied Ed “the Ace” McCulloch for the most wins all-time in Funny Car at the U.S. Nationals, defeating Jack Beckman in the final at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway on Monday to earn his fifth win at the biggest drag race in the world.
Afterward, Force was overcome with emotion in talking about just what this win means to him.
“I had a lot of people after Seattle, sponsors, they called me and they said, ‘we heard you say you are over it.’ I was over that moment. I didn’t realize how hard it was on me mentally. I didn’t know it until it was done,” a tearful Force said. “I’m in the wrong generation. My window has passed. I don’t belong here anymore against these young guns. I’m not quitting, but it just isn’t making any sense. I go out here with these kids that want to win so bad and I keep thinking is there a plan for me? What is it? Win Indy? I never thought I would get a chance again no matter how good I was.”
Force’s numbers at the U.S. Nationals are staggering.
He has five wins. He has visited nine final rounds. He has 53 round wins at this race alone. Oh, and he got the job done this weekend at age 70, a full 17 years since his last U.S. Nationals win in 2002. His other wins at the Big Go came in 1993, 1996 and 1998.
Immediately following the race, Force admitted that he had contemplated on more than one occasion exactly when he was going to call it quits after his nearly five decades in the sport. After seeing his win totals decline and suffering more and more errors on the track, Force revealed that retirement weighed heavily on his mind.
And, at least for a moment, that included the very real possibility of that day coming this weekend.
“Racing is what I love to do, but I have looked at different directions in life to go. I have a job to do, to raise money to keep this ship afloat for well over 120 employees. The issue is, I can’t get my book done. I can’t get my movie done because it has been rewritten so many times because I keep moving on,” Force said. “I am trying to figure out where I am going in life because I know Father Time is against me. When I got that 150 and then the next weekend at Brainerd I blow the tires off of it, I said here we are right back where we started. Then I come here to Indy and all of a sudden this car is running like cars should run and I am driving like you should drive. I thought, I’ve got 150, when do you walk out the door?
“It is coming. I don’t know when because every time I think it is now, it passes. I thought about it in Seattle, just walk out. And I even said today, if you (win) at Indy walk out. But I couldn’t do it. I stood there and said, ‘you are going to have a heart attack. You are going to die here like you always say.’ I don’t mean I want to die. The next step, I know where it goes. I’m just lost. And winning this, I just didn’t think I would get the chance again. I didn’t think I could get that good with the right team that supported me when I have failed so much.
“I missed my window. I should have retired for that quality of life 20 years ago. I should have walked away and now I don’t even know how to walk away. It is pathetic. I come out here and I ache and I hurt. It is getting tougher. But I owe this sport for so much.”
Force was especially reflective of his horrific 2007 crash at Dallas that put him in the hospital and the death of JFR driver Eric Medlen that same year as the first time he truly considered when he would hang up his racing helmet. And, after hearing many of those same self-doubts return in recent years, those thoughts once again returned to the forefront.
“I was in that hospital in ‘07 and my doctor told me, ‘you are done. You aren’t going to race again. You are going to be lucky to walk.’ I fought to get back,” Force said. “Now I am hearing, ‘you are 70. This thing is over.’ And you know what? It is true. It is just a matter of how bad you want it. It doesn’t matter if you are a race car driver. It doesn’t matter what you are in life. You do it because you love it. And when you don’t do good, you do the best you can.
“There are a lot of guys out here with more talent than me that just don’t have the race car with the money or the right crew chief. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones. “Someday, I’ve got to go out that door and I have said two things. It would be nice to win a championship and it would be nice to win Indy one more time. This race really means a lot to my girls, to show my grandkids. Now they are already starting on about going after the championship. I don’t know how to get off of this train, but I’ve got to.”
And his victory on Monday was as exciting as they come.
Matching up with the No. 1 qualifier and quickest car for much of the weekend Jack Beckman, it was a true showdown of titans. With the Wally on the line, the two veterans left together, separated by just seven thousandths at the tree. Behind early, Force slowly pulled ahead and just edged Beckman at the line.
Force crossed the stripe with a 3.919-second pass at 324.44 mph in his PEAK Chevrolet Performance Accessories Camaro SS Funny Car to earn career win No. 151 and his second of the year. Beckman, on the other hand, dropped to 0-for-5 in finals this season with a 3.940 at 325.92 mph in the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge.
“Somebody up there liked me better on this day,” Force said. “I’m racing guys that are young. Beckman, that guy is the best out there on the tree. I went out there jerking around trying to deepstage, doing everything stupid, but it is the only way I could stay up with these kids. It is just like somebody wanted me to win this race and I don’t know why.
“I am just having an emotional day because I won Indy. Jack Beckman, if he had taken his helmet off, I would have kissed him on the lips.”
And, final round aside, Force’s day wasn’t lacking in drama.
Jonnie Lindberg gave the eventual event champion all he could handle in the opening round, but Force drove to his quickest pass of the entire weekend to overcome Lindberg’s starting line advantage. Force ran a 3.858 at 329.58 mph, just ahead of Lindberg’s 3.943 at 323.19 mph.
From there, the road got much easier for Force.
Robert Hight went up in smoke in the second round, a big moment for Force who was a sleepy .098 on the tree as he sailed down Broadway with a 3.913 at 326.95 mph. In the semifinal, it was a similar scene as Matt Hagan’s tires shook loose at the hit of the throttle, while Force cruised to a 3.940 with a big speed of 330.88 mph.
Beckman, who looked like the class of the field for much of the weekend, defeated Justin Schriefer, Bob Tasca and J.R. Todd to reach his fifth final of the year, coming up short in all five races.
Following the win, Force exclaimed on camera at the top end, “get off that couch. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.”
He later explained that his outburst was directed at all of the people out there that are told they can’t do something because of age or other life hindrances.
“If you knew the letters that I get. I’m no preacher. I can’t save or cure the sick, but people write me all of the time,” Force said. “So I yelled out for people to get off that couch. I’ve seen so many people who are tired, people younger than me who give up because they’ve been told by the system that it is over. Well this is a big moment for me. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too old. Get out there. Walk. Stay alive and keep moving. That is the world.”
After a roller-coaster weekend filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, Force ended the day reflective of his nearly 50-year racing career and where the next few years might take him.
Because, while the season has certainly been nostalgic for the 70-year-old, he has a championship to chase with the Countdown beginning in two weeks at Maple Grove Raceway.
“Sooner or later it is going to get you. The ‘ol pump is going to quit. I’m back there pounding the coffee. If you only saw it, my doctor would come in here and have NHRA pull my license,” Force said with a laugh. “They would say this guy is on a suicide mission. But I’m not. I just love it so much. That is what is really pathetic. I started and I didn’t know my kids. I don’t know my wife anymore. I just go down this road to run out here and do this stuff because it is the greatest sport in the world.
“I almost feel bad. How is an old piece of s**t like me able to beat these kids, no matter how good my car is. I’m going to run until I drop because if I stop, I’ll die. And that is what I’m afraid of.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019