Feb 6, 2014, 1:06 AM EDT
Closing in on 65 in less than three months, drag racer John Force is at an age where he’s outlasted, outraced and outperformed all of his rivals over the last 30-plus years.
And yet while many of those same rivals have long since retired – including legendary drivers such as Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Frank Hawley, Raymond Beadle and so many more – Force shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
Last season was a perfect example. En route to further extending his own record of National Hot Rod Association Funny Car championships to 16, Force compiled four wins, five runner up finishes and six No. 1 qualifying positions on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule.
His driver’s license may say he’s 64, but Force is driving like he’s still in his 20s.
“I love this sport with a passion,” Force said on an NHRA teleconference earlier this week. “Cars are all I know. I love them. I’ve got a romance with the highway, trucks and cars. It’s just what I do. I have no reason to quit.
“Health may make me (quit) some day, and I’m going to race as long as I can do the job. And when I can’t do the job, I’m going to figure out how to get in the race car, test them, and at least learn how to make them safer.”
Preparing for the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., which begin Thursday, Force is ready to not only defend last season’s championship, he’s eyeing yet another title in 2014.
Even with his age, it’s hard to bet against Force. Since winning his first NHRA Funny Car championship in 1990, Force has won 16 titles in the last 24 seasons, including a run of 10 straight from 1993 to 2002.
And while last year’s championship was his first since 2010, Force proved he’s as formidable as he’s ever been.
“I set my goals to continue to win,” he said. “(The) hardest thing for me is I have drivers like Robert Hight, and my girls Courtney and Brittany, they want to win too. But if I’m going to sell myself, I’ve got to continue to win to dominate. At my age, I’m no spring chicken. If I’m going to stay in the fight with these guys, that’s what I have to do.”
But Force also comes into 2014 on the verge of perhaps the biggest challenge he’s faced in his lengthy career.
First, this will be his final season with support and sponsorship from Ford and Castrol Oil, relationships that have propelled Force to become the greatest driver in NHRA history.
And while he’s hoping to secure similar support and sponsorship for 2015, Force is also aware that this could possibly be his last season in the NHRA ranks.
“I’ve always said if somebody’s got to sit out 2015, it will be me,” Force said. “My daughter, I’ve set her on fire; I’ve crashed her. I’m not going to tell Brittany, ‘You can’t race that dragster.’ I may have to move her into a Funny Car.”
Even though Ford and Castrol will still be around in 2014, the most popular driver in the NHRA for the last two-plus decades has already begun the search for their replacements.
“We’re working hard, we’re having meetings,” Force said. “I’ve got to bring a manufacturer back. But I’ve got to look at can I ever get my funding back where it was? I was a $24 million program, $24 million. I can’t count on the world to come save me.
“So if I don’t get it all back, I go out of business, and I will not go out of business. I have too much invested.”
Force is even starting to look at a potential NASCAR-like scenario, where he’ll sell sponsorship to a certain number of race events with one sponsor, another number of events with a second sponsor – and more if he has to.
“We’re chasing manufacturers, we’re entertaining them,” Force said. “We’re looking at not just trying to find a major sponsor that will buy a whole team, we’re going NASCAR (and how it) has rewritten how it’s done. They might have four or five sponsors during the year. … They’ve rewritten the way to go to business, and I’m following it.”
Second, Force – now a grandfather – wants to enjoy the racing careers of daughters Brittany and Courtney, who have followed in the footsteps of their father.
Another daughter, Ashley Force Hood, was one of the sport’s most popular stars less than a decade ago before retiring to begin a family. Ashley works with yet another Force daughter, Adria, in running their father’s multi-million dollar operation in Yorba Linda, Calif.
While he right now may be without sponsors for 2015, Force is not without options. He talks about potentially going back to barnstorming throughout North America if necessary, returning to his match-racing roots of running at any dragstrip that will pay him.
He also could move into the ESPN TV booth, and for the first time in his career is considering selling motors to other teams, much like Hendrick Motorsports does in NASCAR.
“To drive a race car, I don’t care if it’s Pro Stock, Pro Bike — I don’t care what it is — a Fuel Dragster, I want to be able to race and be with my family and be with the fans,” Force said. “If corporate America says, ‘Here’s where we want you,’ I find a way to go there.”
“Everything I do is around racing. I have opportunities to go other places I am addressing. If I take my motor program, and I sell to Funny Car teams and I sell to dragster teams, that’s a no-brainer. I can stay in business. But then they all come back and beat me with my technology.
“I’m going to make money in TV and in racing and with my endorsements, I can afford to pay for one car. I can spend $3.5 to $4 million for my daughter’s car. But I have to find a sponsor for me. I’ve got money in the bank, but in three years, I’d be flat broke. So, nope, I’m chasing it.”
Force is even looking outside the U.S., essentially anything to survive and keep his company’s doors open, his teams racing and his employees working. At an age where most people are slowing down, Force is perhaps working harder than he ever has. It’s a matter of survival.
“Corporate America global says do you race in Canada, Mexico, England, Dubai?” Force said. “Well, I will, if that’s what it takes. … I know they want me. They’ve been trying to get me back for years. So going to have to stay in business. If I’m going to race NHRA, and that’s who I race for, then I’ve got to do a lot of work to make it happen. Then throw in a TV show, it’s a heart attack in the making. But I’ve got no choice. It’s where I’m going.”
With retirement inevitable, Force feels much of the NHRA’s future survival after he stops driving rests on his shoulders. The sport and sanctioning body have been so good to him and his family that his fierce loyalty won’t let him just call it quits and say “thanks for having me. See ‘ya.”
Rather, he’s sincerely and deeply worried about the future of the sport and is bound and determined to keep it alive for many more years after he’s gone.
“The sport, where is it going? What is good? What is bad? What are we doing wrong?,” Force said. “Everybody’s trying. NHRA is trying, PRO (Professional Racers Organization) is trying.
“I’m continually trying to grow the sport. Continually trying to grow the JFR brand as well as NHRA. The first one was the toughest when you win your first championship because you don’t know how to do it and you learn. But I read a letter from a man named Jim Jannard, and he said you’ve got to continue to reinvent yourself. That is true. That’s what I’m trying to do with my business as well as myself.
“The sport that made me financially stable in life that I could send my kids to college and I can retire right now, I owe the sport (and) NHRA. I owe the fans, and I owe it to protect these kids (keeping up-and-coming drag racers safe in their cars, one of Force’s biggest passions after nearly being killed in the worst crash of his career seven years ago).
“NHRA is my home. It’s where I want to race. I know they work hard. They can only do so much, and the rest of us got to work. We’re not going to fail. I will not fail because I’ve got nowhere to go. This is what I love, and I won’t fail my kids. I put them in this business. NHRA has a great product, and we’ll fight our way out of this hole.”
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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