‘Groundhog Day’: John Force back in the thick of the NHRA Funny Car championship race
16-time NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car champion is third in points heading to Las Vegas
John Force hardly could believe the tribute he received at his alma mater recently.
His likeness, which matched his larger-than-life personality, is displayed on a giant, inspirational banner as part of a wall of fame at Bell Gardens High School in suburban Los Angeles. And the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion—and former prep quarterback—couldn’t imagine the school would find him worthy of such a grand honor.
“I thought when I left there that I was the biggest bum there ever was—lost every football game. I got arrested speeding right in front of the high school, showing off to the cheerleaders. And the cops loaded me up and drove me off. I’m sayin’ I done everything wrong—and then all of a sudden you have a moment.”
That’s a gratifying moment. And the 151-time winner, the most decorated in drag racing, is looking for one more: clinching a 17th series crown. He’s third in the standings, four points behind No. 2 Jack Beckman and 74 off the pace of leader Robert Hight, his teammate and the president of John Force Racing. Two races remain in the season: next week’s Dodge Nationals at Las Vegas and the Auto Club Finals next month at Pomona, California.
As Force battles for the lead and tries to improve while holding off Matt Hagan, Bob Tasca III, Ron Capps and J.R. Todd, he has been wrestling publicly with whether he should retire or plow ahead, doing what he loves and does best. When he won Labor Day at Indianapolis on the sport’s biggest stage, he debated with himself emotionally what he should do at age 70. He said he knew he should quit but didn’t know how.
When he was top qualifier at Dallas last weekend, Force said, “I am trapped in this job. There was a movie once called, uh, where the guy kept coming back every day—‘Groundhog Day.’ It never changes. I said to my wife, ‘I get off a plane. I go home. I get up at 6:30 in the morning and go right to the office as quick as I can get there to get started on the same problems I had a week (ago). It’s a revolving door of problems. And Robert runs half of that, or it would have killed me off by now.
“But it’s what we love to do. I’ve said that a million times. Maybe I’m stupider than most, but there’s so many out here livin’ it. They do it because they just want to be here. They love NHRA. They love being a part of something. We’re sports people. We’re athletes, whether they want to think we are or not. And we get to be a part of something that’s big. And I just don’t want to give it up,” he said. “I’m really thick-headed. And I’m going to be around awhile.”
Daughter Brittany Force, the 2017 Top Fuel champion, put it in perspective.
She said, “It depends on what day it is. You get something different, depending on what kind of mood he’s in. It’s always changing. Tomorrow it’ll be something different. It more depends on how his race car’s running. If they’re running great, he’s going to be out here forever. If it’s the other way, it’s the other direction.”
Brittany Force also is the one of his three daughters who eventually joined him on the racetrack. And she’s the one who, as a grade-school student, chimed in on an interview with her mother after another U.S. Nationals victory for her dad. The question was, “What do you want people to know about John Force?” And Brittany whispered into mother Laurie’s ear, “Say that Daddy never, ever, ever gives up.” She’s correct. He doesn’t appear to be giving in to age or stout opponents—or the opinions of others.
Calculating how long he has been chasing his dream, John Force said, “I was out here with Shirl Greer. I was just starting and maybe he was just ending. But I saw that hot rod, and he was the one who won that first championship (in 1974). But I was out here, and what I’m saying is … I went to Australia. I was a leaker. I got laughed at. But to me, that’s something. They laughed at me playing football—every week. I still hold the record (as quarterback in consecutive losses for the high-school football team).”
But steadily he climbed from his status as leaker to that of leader. Today he owns the sport’s record—among drivers in all classes—for most victories, championships, consecutive championships (10), elimination round-wins (1,350), No. 1 qualifying positions (160) and top-starting spots in a single season (13) and at a single event (11).
But he always wants more. His brain and his routine are programed on autopilot for that.
Force said his public-relations representative, Sara Slaughter, will bring him copies of articles reporters have written about him. And his reaction is a nonchalant, “Ah, OK, just put it down there (on the table).” He said, “And then the first thing I do is I read it, then I run right down and put it in my wife’s lap. And then I take it home and make sure all my kids get it—because that’s what we live for. It’s really a great life. But it is Groundhog Day.”
Maybe he didn’t recognize the irony of it right away until reporters chuckled, but he said, “I saw that movie so many times. The guy in the theater said, ‘You’ve been here the last three days.’” Force said, “Yeah, it’s Groundhog Day. I keep coming back to watch it.”