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Sat June 28, 2014
Sports

No Reason To Quit: Driver John Force Still Racing Full Throttle

Originally published on Thu July 3, 2014 2:33 pm

The National Hot Rod Association puts on one loud and fast show. Funny Cars dragsters accelerate to over 300 miles per hour on a straight, quarter-mile track. Each race lasts just 4 seconds.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to fire up the engine of a 10,000 horsepower Funny Car, just ask driver John Force.

"It'll blow your ear sockets out," Force says. "When you hit that throttle, you think an H-bomb just went off. The motor just roars. ... It can shake you so hard, it can knock you out."

Force is 65 years old and still in the driver's seat. He's not slowing down, either. Last month, he shattered the national record in Topeka, Kan.: 318.84 miles per hour in 4.021 seconds.

On the track, Force says, it's a good day whether you win or lose.

"Better if you win," he says. "But if you're alive at the other end, it's a good day."

Cars Were A Way Of Life

For as long as he can remember, Force has had a love for cars. He'd sneak out of his family's cramped, beat-up trailer home just to sit in his mom's red Buick Wildcat.

"The car became your bedroom," he says. "You carried your girlfriend's picture on the dash and your football helmet on the backseat."

The only thing better than sitting in that Buick was racing it, he says.

"That was the first car I ever went down a racetrack in," Force says. "And my dad was madder than hell."

But racing was in his blood, and by 1974, he made it into a career. Force would work on his car out of his brother's garage.

"I slept in my pickup truck in the driveway," he says. "There'd be nights we slept on the shop floor all night long and get up in the morning and go right back to work to fix the car."

He says they used to use junk parts because that's all they could afford. On race day, engines would blow and oil would spill. The first race his wife saw him in, "his car was a ball of fire and his eyebrows were singed off," Laurie Force says.

"Even I looked at him and said, 'Maybe you should find something else to do,' " she says. "I did not really have faith in him. I mean, he was truly that bad."

But John convinced her to stick around. She even worked on the crew mixing fuel and packing the car's parachutes.

"I don't think any of us knew what we were doing," she says.

For nine long seasons, Force didn't win a single event. Then in 1986, he signed a $5,000 contract with Castrol oil company and everything changed.

John Force started winning.

The Sweet Taste Of Victory

Old ESPN interviews show him climbing out of his car, face covered in soot, hugging his crew and yelling: "We did it! We did it! That's all that matters. I didn't even believe it! About 1,000 foot, she started nosing over. I thought, what a hunk, it ain't gonna happen. We did it!"

Force got a new crew chief, started setting national records and went on to win an unprecedented 16 world championships.

From Montreal to Indianapolis, Force was unstoppable.

Even his rivals, including driver Cruz Pedregon, respected his tenacity. Pedregon first met Force during Pedregon's rookie year in 1992. Force had a nickname for Pedregon's McDonald's-sponsored car: "The Hamburger Stand From Hell."

No matter what he did, Force couldn't beat Pedregon that year.

"He was like the boxer on the ropes, bloody and one last gasp of hope," Pedregon says. "He just threw a flurry and was missing like crazy, but he was giving it his all."

Force rolled his car over on its roof trying to get to the finish line.

Catastrophic Collision At Texas Motorplex

Force says you never forget the close calls.

"Motor explodes, body can fly, fire can come up in the cockpit," he says. "I've been known to scream a time or two out of fear. Anything can go wrong."

But nothing could prepare him for the race against Kenny Bernstein in Dallas back in 2007.

They hit the throttle, and at 315 miles per hour, Force's rear tire exploded. It was the worst crash of his career. Laurie Force says doctors didn't know if her husband would be able to walk again.

"In all the years of his racing, I don't recall him ever even having to go to the hospital," she says. "I knew he had concussions; I knew he'd roll over, caught on fire, all kinds of stuff. But he was always OK until that day."

Force broke his left ankle, lacerated his right knee, dislocated his left wrist and burned his hands.

After countless surgeries and months of intense rehab, he miraculously returned to the track for the 2008 season.

"I was driving with casts on my arms and legs when I got back in the car — I wanted back in that bad," Force says. "I should get out at my age, people say. No reason for me to quit. This is what I do."

He's not the only one: All three of Force's daughters race, too. His youngest, 26-year-old Courtney Force, took the 100th National Hot Rod Association victory for a female in May.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Boy, it's been an exciting World Cup so far. But I know a lot of Americans don't get that excited about the beautiful game. Often you have to wait a while for some scoring action. If you're one of those impatient types, it's OK. For you, we have a world-class sport that's fast - and loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAG RACE)

RATH: If the sound of that nitro-methane supercharged engine makes you go all wobbly, the National Hot Rod Association has the sport for you. Top fuel dragsters, known as Funny Cars, accelerate to over 300 miles per hour. Each race lasts just four seconds.

This weekend, race day is in Joliet, Illinois. As NPR's Daniel Hajek reports, the driver to beat has been competing for 40 years.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: If you have ever wondered what it's like to fire up the engine of a 10,000 horsepower Top Fuel Funny Car, just ask John Force.

J. FORCE: It'll blow your ear sockets off.

HAJEK: He's 65 years old and still in the driver's seat.

J. FORCE: When you hit that throttle, you'd think an H-bomb just went off. The motor just roars. When that car leaves, you're talking 4 to 5 G's, space shuttle. It can shake you so hard it can knock you out. You get to the lights, foot off that gas, shut that engine off, parachutes are on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAG RACE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: There's a run.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Look at that.

J. FORCE: And on a good day, you blaze down through there. It's a good day win or lose - better if you win. But if you're alive at the the other end, it's a good day.

HAJEK: For as long as John Force can remember, he's had a love for cars. He would sneak out of his families cramped, beat-up trailer home just to sit in his mom's red Buick Wildcat.

J. FORCE: The car became your bedroom. You carried your girlfriend's picture on the dash, you know, your football helmet in the back seat, your schoolbooks. At the end of the day, cars were a way of life.

HAJEK: The only thing better than sitting in that Buick was racing it.

J. FORCE: That was the first car I ever went down a racetrack in. And my dad was madder than hell.

HAJEK: But racing was in his blood. And by 1974, he made a career out of it, working on his car out of his brother's garage.

J. FORCE: There'd be nights we slept on the shop floor all night long and get up in the morning and go right back to work to fix the car.

HAJEK: And they'd use junk parts. That's all they could afford. On race day engines would blow and oil would spill.

L. FORCE: The first race I saw him - his car was a ball of fire and his eyebrows were singed off.

HAJEK: That Laurie Force, John's wife.

L. FORCE: Even I looked at him and said maybe you should find something else to do (laughing). I did not really have faith in him. I mean, he was truly that bad.

HAJEK: But Force convinced her to stick around. She even worked on his crew, mixing fuel and packing the car's parachutes. She remembers for nine long seasons Force didn't win a single event.

L. FORCE: I don't think any of us knew what we were doing.

HAJEK: Then in 1986, Force signed a $5,000 contract with Castro Oil and everything changed. He started winning. Old ESPN interviews show him climbing out of his car, face covered in soot, hugging his crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J. FORCE: Ah God we did it. Are you [bleep] me? I didn't even think it. I didn't - huh? Oh [bleep]. [Bleep]. We did it. We did it. That's all that matters. I didn't even believe it. About 1,000 foot, she started nosing over, I thought what a hunk, it ain't going to happen. We did it.

HAJEK: From Montreal to Indianapolis, Force was unstoppable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J. FORCE: I said put her in the sand. But I never thought she had dug in. That baby dipped on me, hooked the nose and what a ride.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: John Force, consistently the best interview in drag racing.

HAJEK: Force had a new crew chief, started setting national records and went on to win an unprecedented 16 world championships. Even his rivals respected his tenacity. Drivers like Cruz Pedragon.

CRUZ PEDRAGON: Oh, absolutely we've been rivals.

HAJEK: Pedragon recalls his rookie year in 1992, when he actually beat Force.

PEDRAGON: He was like the boxer on the ropes, bloody and one last gasp of hope. He just threw a flurry and was missing like crazy but he was giving it his all, you know?

HAJEK: Pedragon says that was especially true the day Force rolled his car on its roof, trying to get to the finish line. Post race ESPN interviews show Force's frustration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J. FORCE: This damn thing ain't over yet. But I'm starting to wonder about it. I'm starting to get plenty pissed but we're not down on this damn title.

HAJEK: It was a high-intensity rivalry but Force kept it lighthearted. He had a nickname for Pedragon's McDonald's sponsored car.

J. FORCE: I called it the hamburger stand from hell.

HAJEK: Despite the jokes, drag racing is dangerous. That's the nature of the sport. Force says you never forget the close calls.

J. FORCE: Motor explodes, body can fly. Fire can come up in the cockpit. I've been known to scream a time or two out of fear. Anything can go wrong.

HAJEK: But nothing could prepare him for the race against Kenny Bernstein in Dallas back in 2007. They hit the throttle and at 315 miles per hour, Force's rear tire explodes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAG RACE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: And John - whoa, whoa, whoa, big crash. John, there's a problem with his car. He comes across. He hits Bernstein. Both cars continue on. John's car is torn well up.

HAJEK: You can hear it in the voices of Paul Paige and Mike Dunn on ESPN. This was the worst crash of Force's career. Laurie Force says doctors didn't know if her husband would be able to walk again.

L. FORCE: In all the years of his racing, I don't recall him ever having to go to the hospital. I knew he'd had concussion. I knew he'd rolled over, caught on fire, you know, all kinds of stuff. But he was always OK until that day.

HAJEK: Force broke all four limbs and burned his hands. After countless surgeries and months of intense rehab, he miraculously returned to the track.

J. FORCE: I was driving with casts on my arms and legs. When I got back in the car, I wanted back in that bad. I should get out at my age, people say. No reason for me to quit. This is what I do.

HAJEK: And he's made it into a family business. All three of his daughters race too. His youngest, 26-year-old Courtney Force, won her 100th race last month, a first for a female in the sport. As for John Force, he's faster than ever. Last month, he shattered the national record in Topeka, Kansas - 318.84 miles per hour in 4.021 seconds. Daniel Hajek, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, fails to make the distinction between Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars. They are two separate classes of drag racing. John Force races in the Funny Car class.]

RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.