2021 NHRA, Gatornationals
John Force sat out most of the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but he and his race team returned this season. (NHRA Photo)

WADE: Force Just Wants To Be There

SNOHOMISH, Wash. — Who would have known the National Hot Rod Ass’n — maybe the entire sport of drag racing — would receive its most reassuring message from the reservation belonging to the Barona Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians?

The tribe, whose reservation is located about 30 miles northeast of San Diego, owns, among other attractions, the eighth-mile Barona Drag Strip.

That’s where John Force and his family spent Valentine’s Day weekend, watching granddaughter Autumn Hight and her cousins, Jacob and Noah Hood, race Jr. Dragsters in the NHRA’s Division 7 meet.

And what Force saw warmed his heart.

Force, the most successful driver in NHRA history with 16 Funny Car championships and 151 event victories, announced two days later he and his pared-down team would return to NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series action this year. The team missed nine of the 11 races the NHRA ran last season because Force decided the finances didn’t pencil out for 2020.

“I had to keep it right for the sponsors, or maybe sponsors would have chosen to leave,” Force said. He reportedly told them, “We’ll work this out, but if I come back, I want to come back at full pay. I want to come back into the fight and I want to be able to win for you.

“We all agreed after the second quarter to shut it down. We all agreed as a group (so) I could stay financially (in business) and keep it going,” Force added. “I went with the best decision that would guarantee us coming back.”

Force and three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight reemerged from a year of self-imposed, COVID-19-related hibernation, along with 2017 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, the boss’ daughter.

If funding materializes for 2019 NHRA rookie of the year Austin Prock, the Top Fuel driver will be back in his John Force Racing dragster.

Force said, “I lost one car, but I’m going to find a way to bring that back — but I can’t guarantee that.”

Throughout the past few years, many have wondered if the sport could survive without John Force, without his zero-to-hilarious-in-one-second personality, his rags-to-riches story and the grit he has shown on the race track.

What Force learned at Barona that February weekend was that despite melancholy metrics about the age of the average NHRA fan (43) and competitors who have ranged in age from their low-30s to 90 (yes, 90), drag racing has plenty of life in it.

At Barona, he said, “They had 130 entries — to run Jr. Dragsters. That’s how much this sport will survive.

“The sport will make it,” Force said. Then, using Dale Earnhardt’s death as an example from NASCAR, he added, “They lost Earnhardt. And his son picked it up, just like one of my daughters will. But then Earnhardt (Jr.) retired. The sport will go on. Nobody’s an island. I want to make that clear. Nobody makes a sport.

“Everybody that leaves, someone else — a new star — will pick up the pace. Everybody gets replaced, even me. I’m just glad that I’m staying healthy, that I can be around to help the sport that got me where I am today; that I love. The new stars will be born — they’re being born as we’re talking right now.

“I’ll be replaced, if I haven’t been already,” Force noted.

But the drag-racing icon said he has plenty of life left in his career.

“My heart’s in it. I’m healthy,” Force said, revealing that he shed 25 pounds by dieting and spending an extraordinary amount of time in the gym during his hiatus. “I ain’t strong and built like Robert Hight or Austin Prock, but I’m a lot healthier than I was. If I didn’t go back 10 years, I went back five.

“I’m ready to go racing. I want to be out there with all them people I argued with because you realize how much you really love ’em,” he said prior to the season beginning.

“I’m glad if I can help at all. I just want to be there,” Force continued. “That’s the way I’d like that written.”

Happy to oblige.

Years ago, in a poignant moment, Force said he had no desire to announce his retirement and slog through a farewell coast-to-coast tour of a final season.

He rather poetically said, “One day I’ll just step over the fence and I’ll be gone.”

It appears that won’t be anytime soon. He told SPEED SPORT his contract calls for him to compete for another two years, at least.

“I want to be a part of it and I personally owe the sport. John Force Racing owes the sport. And I’m very fortunate that my sponsors stood by me,” he said. “I’m not going to retire. I’m going to stay in this thing and when I can’t drive, I’ll find other things to do, running this company. I’m still the top guy in this company. Robert’s president. They call me the CEO. I don’t even know what that means, but I work it every day because it’s my life.”

And drag-racing life is a bit closer to normal with John Force actively back in the sport.

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