In the days before the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided to retire from the National Football League.
Plagued by injuries, uncertainty, and a reduced passion for the game, the 29-year-old quarterback said he had had enough and told the team that he was hanging up his cleats to spend more time at home with his family.
That announcement had a profound impact on John Force.
Having become a familiar face around Colts games with his racing operation located in Indianapolis, Force took the news a little harder than most. After all, retirement is a word that comes up more and more often in his daily life.
The difference between the two competitors is staggering. Luck is a youthful 29, while Force just turned 70. Luck never won a Super Bowl, while Force is a 16-time Funny Car champion. Luck is about to be a first-time father, while Force has raced professionally alongside his daughters.
But despite all the differences, despite the age gap, the sport gap, the championship gap, the two are remarkably similar in the life decisions they are currently wrestling.
“I don’t plan on retiring, but I have days that I think, ‘man, you’re tired, maybe you should,’” Force said. “You know, I said to my doctor a few weeks ago after winning, ‘man, I really feel tired.’ And he goes, ‘John, you just turned 70.’ I told him, ‘yeah, but you said my heart is good’ and he says ‘it ain’t about your heart, you’re in perfect health.’ Then he asks me how long I have felt that way and I told him, ‘20 years.’ He says, ‘yeah, that’s about right. Guys (your age) are retiring.’
“I look at Luck who just retired. I really feel bad for the guy with the stuff they are saying. The fans, we love you, but they expect us to be warriors and die on the playing field. And probably the only one stupid enough to do that is me. But with (Luck), with his shoulder, with his ankle, he’s got a new baby on the way. He’s got the rest of his life. When I was his age, I was just starting. But to be told at that age that if you get hit in the leg by one of these 300-pound freight trains that you ain’t going to walk again? You’ve got to think about stuff like that.
“Now here I am 70 and too stupid to quit. They already told me, ‘if you get hit in the head again, you’ll be walking around crazy.’ But as my wife says, ‘nothing will change, he’s already nuts.’ The key is I do it because I love it. I know Luck loves it and it broke his heart. I don’t know the man, but I’ve watched him because of this town and he is hurting, as are the fans.
“People live for football like they do baseball and racing. They live for it and it hurt them losing their dream. But you know what? He had to do what he had to do. Now there are two other quarterbacks out there ready to take his place. Some new tiger will surface. And I’m sure there is some new guy that will take my place someday. But right now, they are going to have to drag me away from this sport.”
To help with his longevity in the sport, Force has undergone several transitions in his life in recent years. He’s given up alcohol. He is eating better. He is going to the gym regularly. And he is generally taking up the routines that many of the top youngsters stick to to try and stay young and competitive for as long as the as the sport – and his body – will allow.
And that is especially important following a string of head injuries over the past few years following several impacts with the wall.
“It all really started when I crashed in ‘07. I was broken up really bad. My arms and legs, knees, bones, and the doctor says, ‘you need to treat every day like Disneyland. Put down the phone, don’t run the business, or you ain’t going to walk out of here.’ They told me I might never drive again and that scared me,” Force said. “Then last year when I hit my head, when I crashed four times, I had more miles in a helicopter and an ambulance than I did on the race track. When I went (to the doctor) they said, ‘how many times have you been hit?’ They saw all of the videos and they said, ‘wow, were you knocked out every time?’ and I told them I was. And they said, ‘first of all, do you drink?’ And I told them every day, but I do my work and I win. And they said, ‘the brain floats in water. And if you want to get well, quit drinking.’
“So I quit drinking. And I’ve never had a problem since. It’s been over a year, since March of last year. I just went cold turkey because I wanted to walk and I wanted to think because I have days sometimes where I am like, ‘why don’t I remember that?’ So I know I’m a lucky guy.”
The other thing driving Force at this point in his career is safety. Safety for himself. Safety for his daughter. And safety for his teammates and even his competitors.
“I’ve got a beautiful family around me. I’ve got four great teams. I’ve just been really lucky and I can’t quit,” Force said. “When we lost Eric (Medlen), I saw what his dad and mom and all of his family went through. It was painful. So I need to keep building technology. I need to keep learning and keep trying. We build our own cars here in Indy and I don’t know if anybody listens to us, but if they want to know anything we know, we tell them.
“I won’t know until I’m just so tired that I can’t get out here anymore, but even then I’m going to just keep doing it because the car does the running. And, God, when I get in that car, I’m alive again. It’s like my heart starts working and everything is good.”
And, of course, Force is far from done winning.
At the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in early August, Force famously won his 150th career NHRA race, a milestone that belongs to him and him alone.
It was an overwhelming moment, one that generated a flood of emotion – and actions – that took even him my surprise. He jumped out of the car. He crowd surfed with the fans. He jumped – and fell over – a fence. And, of course, he kissed fellow Funny Car competitor Ron Capps whom he had just defeated in the final.
“I didn’t realize how big it was. I’ve had records. I’ve set every record that is out there. I’ve had years where I would win 14 or 15 races and I’ve had years where I might win one. But everybody said that this is 150. They even gave me a painting of 150 that they painted after Denver last year because they said ‘he’s going for it.’ And it took me a year and a bunch of races to win it,” Force said. “I didn’t realize how big it had got. Television was hyping it every week. And after I won it, there were people from Chevrolet, presidents from companies, Peter Clifford, (Glen) Cromwell from NHRA. They all wanted to be a part of it. (Richard) Petty said that Ronald Reagan was there in the stands when he got his 200th win. And I’m thinking, I know it would be tough to get (Donald) Trump there, but it was his hometown. He could have been there.
“Then I kissed Capps at the end of the track. I just had an emotional meltdown. I love the kid and I hugged him and kissed him. Then I go up in the stands and, at my age, no women are looking at me, but I did have two guys propose to me. They both wanted to kiss me because they saw (the Capps kiss) on the big screen.”
After the race, Force received phone calls from folks across the industry, but it was the reception he received from his family that was the most rewarding.
“They were so relieved. My wife was relieved. She said, ‘we saw what you were going through.’ Honestly, it wasn’t that I couldn’t win 150, I just couldn’t win,” Force said. “I didn’t want to think about it because it doesn’t help you. I told my people not to even bring it up. I didn’t realize how important it was until I did it. I got out of the car and went crazy. All of a sudden, all of that which had built up in me for so many races just exploded. I was swearing. I even had to apologize because some of it snuck through (on television). I was just overwhelmed.”
So is Force glad it is behind him? Yes and no.
While he is glad that the weekly interviews and constant chatter is no longer about 150, he said he was a little sad to see the figurative monkey hanging from his back go. Because, at the end of the day, the little guy served as motivation.
“You know what is funny? I had heard all of the stories about having a monkey on your back, but I didn’t think about it. I go to four or five races and I lose in the final and they are all like,’ ah, you’ve got a monkey on your back.’ I don’t believe in that stuff,” Force said. “When I got out of the car, I said, ‘heck with that monkey,’ And then I thought, ‘no, wait, where is that monkey?’
“Because the truth is, as Austin Coil said, it is trying to tell you something. You think you know your car and then you are crossing centerlines and you’re doing crazy stuff and you are screwed up on the Christmas tree, driving in deep when you don’t want to go deep. And (Coil) said to me, ‘that ain’t the John Force I know.’ So I went and had a talk with that monkey. And it was basically telling me you don’t know your car.
“Now I love that monkey. Because that monkey really got me back on track. Why aren’t you winning? Why are they telling you you’ve got a monkey that doesn’t exist? But I realized, you better look at why you’re not winning.
“So about two months ago they changed the steering in the car. All of a sudden I looked like I could drive again. They changed the brakes. They just did so many things. So the monkey really helped me. Now I tell anybody that when they say they’ve got a monkey on their back that it is a good omen. Because all you need to do is pay attention.
“I’m thinking about buying a monkey so I can have a friend.”
Not one to shy away from signing hundreds, if not thousands, of autographs in a given weekend, Force’s pit area in Indianapolis has been filled to the brim with eager fans hoping to get a picture, a handshake, or an autograph with the 70-year-old who just keeps defying logic and Father Time.
And, as Force will quickly admit, it is those fans that truly keep him young.
“I’m addicted. My daughter Brittany said to me once, ‘I lost and I’ve got to go out to the ropes and I don’t know what to say to them.’ I said, ‘honey, they don’t even know that you lost. Your name is Force. You’re beautiful. They just love you.’ That’s what I do. I go out there and they say, ‘hey Force, how are you gonna do next round?’ And I say, ‘I’m going to win.’ They don’t even know if I’ve won or lost,” Force said. “I tried being miserable. I’ve sat with drivers at autograph sessions and I’ve seen them going through the pain and I’m not going to do anything that I don’t love.
“I love signing autographs. I love the people. It is what keeps me going.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019