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NHRA: Can you feel the Force?

Submitted by on February 3, 2012

John Force

Imagine interviewing a machine gun. That’s what it is like talking with John Force. The 15-time NHRA Funny Car Champion is the sport’s most popular driver

Californian John Force is extremely well known in the United States, but hardly at all outside the country’s borders. Why is he so well known at home? It’s because as well as being one of the most dominant drag racers of all-time, with over 1000 wins, he is an instant quote machine that talks as fast as his 300+mph quarter-mile runs.

He is the life and soul, a non-stop- livewire, and in another world could easily be a stand-up comedian. I twice had the pleasure of spending a day with him at his factory in Yorba Linda for RACER www.racer.com, and each time ended up with so much material we could have filled the entire magazine – and more. Here is a brief selection of many anecdotes.

His drag racing career actually started in Australia in 1974, and straight away came the first story. “I didn’t have a licence, I’d never been in a professional drag race, and we were bad. I didn’t have a clue, but it meant the organisers could introduce me as ‘American John Force’. I was on fire every week for three months it seemed. I’ve seen more burns units that State Parks.

“The only thing that saved me racing there was that I set a new national record on the opening day,” he said. “The promoter came to me and said ‘since that opening day, you’ve been terrible, you’ve burnt all your engines.’ So I told him he’d better send me home then. His reply was: ‘Well, you can swim back, because you suck.’

“We were milking the media there though, and the Sydney papers were running headlines about me. We were wearing big ol’ cowboy hats and boots in the pictures – I’d never worn a cowboy hat in my life! They all thought we were John Wayne… That’s when I realised the power of the media. I could give my own line of BS, and these people would love me.”

Force quickly became a sponsor’s dream when he returned to the States (“This guy can’t hit his own ass, but boy can he talk”).

As we set up for the RACER cover photo shoot, Force launched into a load of one-liners as chit chat. “I saw Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder… I never had a physique like that, even in my best days. Look at the guys in Formula 1 and IndyCars. These guys look like movie stars and can drive like hell. Which backyard farm do they grow them in?”

Or on the exhilaration of blasting away from the lights, and acceleration to 300mph and more in no time at all: “It’s about 4gs when you leave the line. They compare it with the Space Shuttle. But I’ve never been in the Space Shuttle.”

As we got closer to the shoot, he came out with this: “You guys at RACER have a great way of portraying race car drivers, and I want to be seen as I am – an overweight, blue-collared guy who gets the job done.”

To give an idea of his popularity, in 2001 he had an open day for his fans at his race factory, which is in the middle of a shopping complex. An estimated 23,000 people turned up, and ruined the trade for all the shops around it. So much so the local council refused to let him repeat it the following year. One of his sponsors was there: “Burger King brought 15,000 buns with them,” he laughed, “and they were all gone in four hours.”

Which leads to one of my favourite stories. “Burger King has been a long-time partner of ours, and you can tell I like them by looking at me. One day we had the big execs coming for a meeting, and the team thought it would be good for me personally to collect them at the airport. So I jumped in the car, and went and picked them up – forgetting that the back of my car was littered with empty KFC cartons! I told them I was just checking up on their rivals…”

As you can tell, he and his family were tailor-made for a TV series like the Osbournes, and sure enough it came. Driving Force was a thoroughly entertaining warts and all reality show about Mr Non-Stop, his wife and three girls.

There are so many more stories to tell –this really is scratching the surface – and we will revisit John Force for part two later in the month as part of a special series based on the photos RACER magazine did. There are some of the out-take Polaroids by photographer Robert Kerian here to give you a tease, so keep an eye out for the real thing!

Special thanks to RACER magazine, www.racer.com, NHRA, and of course John Force Racing, www.johnforce.com

By Andy Hallbery, follow me on Twitter @hallbean

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