The qualities that made John Force famous — his competitive spirit and superhuman talent in the cockpit of a Funny Car — can almost be overshadowed by his larger-than-life persona.
His humorous media interviews, countless hours signing autographs for fans and tireless work attracting sponsorship and promoting NHRA are often the first things that come to mind about him.
Maybe it’s because his on-track accomplishments are so staggering, 16 NHRA Funny Car titles and 155 wins and counting at press time, that they don’t seem real, but rather just another part of Force’s identity. Everyone knows his greatness, but he’s made it look so effortless, that it’s just accepted as fact without much of a second thought.
Yet, John Force the race car driver, even at age 73, remains intensely competitive and still puts in work behind the scenes daily to help him win NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series races in his Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car.
“I don’t like being beat,” Force told SPEED SPORT on the Thursday before late July’s Sonoma Nationals, the second event of the grueling Western Swing. The previous week his John Force Racing teammate and team president, Robert Hight, defeated him in the semi-finals at Colorado’s Bandimere Speedway.
“I thought I was turning the corner; my race car was fast and then I’m not there,” Force continued. “And it’s like, ‘OK, he’s great on that light.’ I went straight home and went to the gym.”
Force’s primary objective remains winning, which is why he was immediately working on making his legs stronger and keeping his mental focus. He’s lost weight recently and gets plenty of rest.
As Force inches ever closer to retirement, it’s no stretch to call him the greatest of all time.
The term “GOAT” though is not something he considers part of his legacy. For one, he doesn’t want to take anything away from the greats of the past — legendary figures like Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Shirley Muldowney and Raymond Beadle, just to name a few.
He also believes it’s difficult to compare his stats to someone like Hight, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, who has been driving for less than half the time Force has been in the Funny Car ranks. With all records made to be broken, although unlikely, there is the chance someone will surpass even Force’s lofty numbers.
But part of the reason for his indifference to the term is that he is simply not content to rest on his laurels.
“I’m not trying to be cool or to make anybody think I’m special,” Force said. “What I’m just saying is, I don’t want to think about that because I don’t want to go down the road thinking, ‘Well I don’t have to win, I’ve been told you’re the GOAT, you’ve won more than anybody, nobody will ever catch you. Why do you care to win?’
“In the beginning, I never thought I could beat Don Prudhomme, I just wanted to drive a Funny Car. I wanted to hear the cheer of the crowd. I told stories in truck stops when I was driving a truck, ‘I was going to be a racer someday!’ and people laughed at me. Now I’m there, so I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to look back, I want to keep trying to win and when I win, my heart is strong.”
Force speaks a lot about finding his heart, something that has clearly given him an advantage over the years, but these days finding the heart and the passion is also important to him as he juggles the stress of running a massive drag-racing enterprise.
In addition to the Camaro SS Funny Cars he fields for himself and three-time champion Hight, the team also includes Chevrolet-branded Top Fuel dragsters for daughter Brittany (the 2017 category champion) and Austin Prock, the son of Hight’s legendary tuner, Jimmy Prock.
The operation includes a facility in Yorba Linda, Calif., which houses administrative offices, a museum and showroom, in-house production company, theater and more. It is a far cry from the modest homes where Force grew up with five brothers and sisters 25 miles to the west in Bell Gardens.
Meanwhile, the race shop in Brownsburg, Ind., prepares the race cars and is the home to Force American Made, which includes a machine shop, fab shop and paint shop.
The Force family is involved in nearly every aspect of the organization. John Force’s oldest daughter, Adria, is the company’s CFO, while Ashley Force Hood is the vice president of John Force Racing. Ashley was also a four-time Funny Car winner during her career. Her husband, Daniel, is crew chief for John Force’s car.
In addition, Courtney Force was a talented Funny Car competitor and collected 12 wins before stepping away. She is married to Indy car standout Graham Rahal. That leaves Brittany Force as the sole remaining driver, who through the end of July had scored 15 wins in addition to her championship.
At one time seemingly the least likely of the Force daughters to make a living in the sport, the former schoolteacher is the only one to have claimed a professional title.
A new generation of Forces is also up and coming, with Adria and Robert Hight’s daughter, Autumn, and Ashley and Daniel Hood’s sons, Jacob and Noah, accomplished Jr. Dragster racers.
When Brittany Force won the championship during the 2017 NHRA Finals at California’s Pomona Raceway, the joke was that no one had ever seen John Force speechless.
Today, he remembers the emotions of that afternoon, understanding he needed to let Brittany prepare in her own way, but he and wife Laurie were standing behind their daughter’s car at the starting line when she claimed the title.
“When I raced them in Funny Car, I always wanted my kids to win, but I never let them win, I wanted those wins, too,” he said. “If they’re going to be a champion, they’ve got to earn that right. And they were all champions to me … but the point was, I fight for every round, because I know one day it won’t be there. I’m going to do it as long as I can do it. So, my kids evolving meant everything to me. I was scared when they were on fire, upside down. I watched Courtney go end over end, I watched Ashley, Brittany in a Top Fuel car, but women are just like men, they’re tough, and they can do this and they can win.”
John Force has done plenty of winning himself, despite not claiming a national event Wally until Montreal in 1987. He was 38 at the time and had endured 10 winless NHRA seasons. But when the wins came, they did so in droves.
His most dominant stretch came from 1990 to 2006 when he won 14 championships in 17 seasons, including a mind-boggling 10 in a row from ’93 to ’02. Although his last title came in 2013, he is in the hunt every year, and though he might not be as dominant as he once was, there are still weekends where he can simply take over an event.
Yet, perhaps just as impressive as John Force Racing’s 21 championships is the resilience the organization showed after sitting out the remainder of the 2020 season when NHRA returned amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The JFR team and its sponsors decided it didn’t make sense financially to race, but seemed to never miss a beat, returning the following year with John Force winning three races, Hight two and Brittany Force one.
Sponsorship precluded Austin Prock’s team from competing, but it also returned for this season.
Throughout the hiatus, Force kept nearly all of his JFR employees together, meaning the chemistry remained intact despite them not being at the track each week.
“We do it because we love it, so when we came back, we were hungry,” Force said. “I never liked taking breaks because you get out of the groove. But we stayed together all year long.”
Since beginning his career as a struggling racer in the early 1970s, Force has seen the sport change drastically both in terms of corporate involvement and the technology utilized in today’s 10,000-horsepower cars. Sponsorship and the cutting-edge technology in the nitro-powered, 330-mph rockets go hand in hand.
Force says his style hasn’t changed, other than needing to adapt to the cars and shorten burnouts due to set-ups and fuel capacity. He says getting his energy up is the hardest thing. But in a sport where now everyone he races is younger, sometimes by two generations, he still is constantly learning.
“I might be the winningest guy in history, but let me tell you something. I’m smart enough, I listen to the young kids, how they drive, how they cut those lights,” Force said. “I learn every week from them so I’m excited about that.” n