I was stunned to hear of the news of John Force’s injuries Sunday at the O’Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex outside of Dallas Sunday.
It was my first time at any sort of drag racing event, and yet Force, upon meeting me, treated me like I had been covering the sport for 50 years.
I had expected to get a couple minutes with Force after the racing had ended on Saturday. Needless to say I was stunned when he dragged me to his personal motor coach and regaled me with story after story for at least an hour and half.
I’ll never forget cracking a beer with Force. I had to. He basically told me to. If I remember it right his words to me went basically something like “If we’re going to sit here and bull@#$% we’re going to crack some beers and do it right.”
It was just stunning to me. There I was sitting with the man who at the time was the biggest name in his sport and he was basically dragging me around by the arm not wanting to end the interview.
He was quite possibly the closest thing that I’ve ever met to superstar still being regular Joe. Refreshing doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Here’s the story that ran in The Courant on May 20, 2003 after my interview with Force.
JUST TALKING, HE COULD FORCE ISSUE
In motorsports, getting a sponsor to pay the bills is essential.
A driver who isn't at the top of the podium on a regular basis better be able to bring something else to the table if he wants those checks to keep rolling in.
As a long-haul truck driver, long before he was the biggest name in drag racing John Force learned what he calls the keys to getting something for nothing.
``I always found that if you were in a truck stop cafe, if you told a good story you'd always end up getting a free cup of coffee or two,'' Force said. ``I was always that way. I don't know if I'm a good talker, but I'm a talker. I found if I was out in the middle of the country and there was nothing to eat, somebody would buy you a hamburger if you'd tell them what was going on.''
Force carried that lesson to his early days in the NHRA's Powerade Drag Racing Series.
He knew if his motor couldn't get the job done on the quarter-mile strip, his motormouth would have to be the key to his survival in the sport.
Back in the '80s, the 10-time defending NHRA Funny Car champion was, admittedly, not that good.
``I couldn't win a race,'' Force said. ``But I needed some sort of hook to get attention. Bottom line, you tell them a story, people want to hear more. The TV took off and my popularity grew from that. That's how I got here. It wasn't because I won races, that came along later.
``It's kind of like this, there were movie stars in the old days, before they had the talkies and they were still silent films stars. Those guys were great, but when the talkies started the old stars faded away because they couldn't talk. That's how I compare my rise in racing. I came into the arena at the perfect time, when TV was looking for characters.''
Today, there is nobody bigger in drag racing than Force. As a matter of fact, no other driver comes close to Force's popularity.
“John has been one of the greatest ambassadors this sport has ever had,'' NHRA president Tom Compton said. ``His personality is second to none. He works as hard or harder than anyone out there. He's a first-class guy. It's hard to describe how much we value John in this sport.''
Force had hoped this past weekend's trip to Old Bridge Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., one his favorite strips, would be what he needed to get back to victory lane and back on track for a run at his 11th consecutive Funny Car championship, 13th overall.
But Force's struggles in 2003 continued. He jumped the start in his second-round matchup with Ron Capps on Sunday at the K&N Filters Supernationals and was fouled out. Force has not made a final-round appearance in eight events this season. He left Englishtown eighth in the Funny Car standings.
But win or lose, Force is never disappointed after a visit to Englishtown.
Force credits late Old Bridge Raceway Park co-founder Vincent Napoliello for kick-starting his career in the early '80s.
In the '70s a racer by the name of ``Jungle'' Jim Liberman had made himself the clown prince of racing in Englishtown. In 1977 Liberman was killed in a car accident.
``[Napoliello] called me from Englishtown and said, `I know you can't win a race, but I heard you do long burnouts and I hear you're full of [it].' He told me he needed a Jungle Jim type of guy. I went there. I'd never been to the East Coast, had never even seen New York. It was a whole new world. That was a real culture shock to a kid from California. I stayed for months running all the tracks up and down the East Coast.''
Force earned the first of his 106 career Funny Car victories in 1987. In 1990 he won seven of 19 events to secure his first championship. Since then the only year he hasn't taken home the champion hardware was 1992, when he finished second to Cruz Pedregon.
Eight races into the 23-race 2003 schedule, Force isn't worried yet about the possibility of his 10-year streak coming to an end.
Tony Pedregon, who drives for Force, leads the standings, 338 points ahead of the boss. Another Force car, driven by Gary Densham, is fourth.
``We've been known to win five or six races in a row. This team has when it gets on a roll,'' said Force, 54. ``My No.1 car right now is Tony Pedregon. He was running this way last year and I just barely beat him there at the end. This year is going to be the toughest season next to my first championship in 1990. Every race somebody can knock you off. But the bottom line is, you don't know where you're at until the end of the year. If my car gets that far behind, then I'll be the guy that will test all the technology. The idea is to make sure your best car has the best parts. But right now I'm still in the ballgame and I can still get back and race Tony for this championship. We've got plenty of time to catch up to him.''
And if the streak does come to an end, Force is sure he has got plenty of time left to rack up a few more championships.
``Understand in this sport, it's not like NASCAR where guys are retiring at 40, 45,'' Force said. ``They've got to drive for three hours. I've always said if I had to drive in NASCAR they'd have to have a rest stop for me. In drag racing, it's a four- or five-second sport. As long as your eyesight is good and you keep your reflexes good, the seat-of-pants driving you just learn.''
No matter what happens, Force is sure nobody on the circuit will be catching up with his mouth anytime soon.
``I might be slowed down,'' Force said. ``But you still can't shut me up.''
Shawn Courchesne, 12:41 a.m.