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John Force Out to Prove Drag Racers Can Win After 60By DAVE CALDWELL
Published: October 18, 2010
MOHNTON, Pa. — It was late, and John Force was working out after spending most of the day traveling from California to Pennsylvania for yet another National Hot Rod Association event. In the old days, he would have found another spot at the hotel to relax.

John Force has won 14 N.H.R.A. championships in the funny car class, but none since a 2007 accident seriously injured his hands and legs.
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Force, 61, hopes to become the first N.H.R.A. major-class champion older than 60.
“I went from two hours a day in the bar to two hours a day in the gym,” Force said recently as he sat in his motor home at Maple Grove Raceway.

Force, as fast as ever at the age of 61, stayed until the manager told him he had to close the gym. It was 11:30 p.m., but Force asked for a little more time. He has recovered from a horrifying accident more than three years ago and is racing again, driven by a quest to prove he is not finished yet.

“They’re going to have to drag me from this racecar, screaming,” said Force, who is aiming to become the first N.H.R.A. major-class champion older than 60.

Al Unser Sr. was 47 when he won the 1987 Indianapolis 500, and Harry Gant was 52 when he won a Nascar top-series race in 1992. Drag racers require less staying power than drivers in other motorsports — excellence is measured in smoky, frighteningly loud four-second bursts — but Force is aware that another championship would be quite an accomplishment.

Force has won 14 N.H.R.A. championships in the funny car class, but none since Sept. 23, 2007, when he crashed at an event in Ennis, Tex., seriously injuring his hands and legs and keeping him out of a racecar for more than four months.

“He was determined,” Force’s wife, Laurie, said. “And who am I to say, ‘I don’t think you should go back.’ ”

He did come back, but his progress came slowly, especially for a loud-talking and gregarious titan like Force, who spends weekends piloting a thundering 8,000-horsepower car down a track at 300 miles an hour.

His hands, mangled in the accident, were wrapped so thoroughly that he remembered struggling to drive his car to the gas station and being unable to pluck his credit card out of the slot above the pump. A woman asked, “Do you need help?”

Force and his family later went to find a Christmas tree. His walker, which Force still calls a “creeper,” fell off the car and stuck in the grill of a trailing garbage truck. While his family got a big kick out of the way the truck reduced the walker to scrap metal, Force cried.

Ashley Force Hood, the Forces’ daughter, who also races funny cars, said of his doctors: “For them, a realistic goal was for him to walk again. They were looking at us like we were a bunch of crazies for thinking he could drive an 8,000-horsepower car again.”

He was still so tender from his injuries after he returned that he could not hop to the ground from the hatch on the top of his car without gritting his teeth, Laurie Force recalled. Force, who owns his car, also struggled to win, making his recovery even more tedious.

Although he did not win in 2009, one of his drivers, Robert Hight, won the funny car championship, leading Force to believe the safer cars — developed by his racing team after his accident and the death of the driver Eric Medlen after a training crash earlier in 2007 — were also capable of winning.

Force shook up his race team, bringing in Mike Neff as his co-crew chief. Force won an event in February in Pomona, Calif., and has not slowed since. Austin Coil, his co-crew chief, said Force’s change in lifestyle had sharpened his reactions.

“I guess you could say the eye of the tiger is back, like it was back in the 1990s,” Coil said.

A night owl, Force said he liked to drink beer, the other fuel of drag racing besides nitromethane, because it helped him fall asleep. Drag racers live like vagabonds, and many do not eat well. Force remembers that he would stop by the snack bars at racetracks late at night to collect sandwiches that the proprietors were going to throw away.

The accident in Texas changed his style. Force, using an appropriate metaphor for a drag racer, said he was headed down a dead-end street. He had never visited the gym, but as part of his therapy, he started working out, and he has become zealous about it.

“I was given a great motivational tool,” he said. “It’s called your health. It’s called getting your life back.”

Force, who grew up in a trailer park, never had trouble with motivation. Immediately after his accident in Texas, as he sat in the wreck, he yelled, “Fix the car!” as if he could get out for another run. After Force came out of surgery at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, he called a staff meeting.

“The will has always been there after his crash,” Hight said. “He just hasn’t had a good racecar. Even laying in his hospital bed, until reality set in, he was saying, ‘I could set up a car to drive next week.’ ”

He entered the event at Maple Grove in first place in the standings but left in second, behind Matt Hagan. Hood, 27, was in fourth place and Hight, 41, was sixth. It would mean a lot to Force to see his daughter win a title. But he has reasons for winning another.

“I wanted my kids to see I still had it,” he said.

He said he wanted to keep doing well because his corporate sponsors and the Ford Motor Company had been good to him during the economic downturn. He said he expected to drive for at least five more years. His wife said he did not talk at all about quitting.

The only thing she has tried to talk him into is running — or maybe more like walking — in a marathon in California. Force once would have scoffed at such an idea. But he looks at his life a little differently now.

“He’s back to his usual fired-up self — back to the person I remember being around for most of my life,” Hood said.

She added: “He wants to do this as long as he can. But he wants to do it the right way.”

Now that he is contending for another championship, Force wants to do it as fast as possible. He came back, in part, because he did not want to end his career with a crash, particularly since it came so soon after the death of Medlen, a rising star.

“The heart is right and the mind is right for the first time since the crash,” Force said. “I want to put closure on Dallas. The mind now tells me, You can win the championship.”

1,922 Posts
Force is the man. My family (dad and uncle) were NHRA drag racers throughout the 90's so as a kid I got to spend A LOT of time at events all over the country, hanging with John when his daughters were young kids like myself.

He was always my favorite driver (apart from my Dad, of course!) and it has been great following his career. The guy is hilarious too, he says some of the wildest shit I have ever heard, what a classic.

7,271 Posts
nothing like a John Force burnout!!!
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