Exclusive - The Man Behind John Force Racing
John watches as Courtney Force runs down the track. Photo by Brandon Farris - VAVEL USA

Exclusive - The Man Behind John Force Racing

VAVEL USA writer and photographer Brandon Farris recently got to sit down with NHRA Legend John Force to talk about his team, the future for it and NHRA.

Brandon Farris

When VAVEL USA recently attended the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Seattle we were given some exclusive time to sit down with the man behind John Force Racing, the man, the myth, the legend, 16-time Funny Car Champion John Force.

While this piece has been ready to go for a while, with what a unique and special piece this was for the author he was wanting to hold back on it and have it line up with a fellow milestone as his 50th piece with VAVEL USA.

As someone who grew up watching NHRA but in recent years lost touch with the sport, to be granted the opportunity to sit down with someone like John Force who is a legend in this sport was a major honor and an unforgettable moment. This interview was conducted on Saturday before the finals and final results. John Force would make it to the semifinals where he would fall to Del Worsham.  

To say John is a legend is an understatement, fans line up 10 to 20 deep every weekend at tracks across the country hoping to get a glance of the 16-time champion let alone the opportunity to take a selfie or get an autograph from Force who understands the importance of his fans, for without them, NHRA and John Force Racing wouldn’t be where they are at today. During the interview he asked if he could get a couple of minutes to step away for a few die hard fans that had been standing just outside his pits for a while hoping for that brief moment and interaction with their driver.

Force has a moped staged at the end of the track so that way if he races/runs before either of his daughters or teammate Robert Hight he can quickly get back to the starting line to observe there runs down the track. He is an owner that truly shows dedication and care towards his team and wants to ensure as a whole all of his cars, not just his own, are successful throughout the season.

Like most sports, NHRA has been in a recovery following the recent economic issues nationwide that has swept the country as a whole and created struggles to find new sponsors to replace those that decided they couldn’t fund a team anymore, even for a 16-time champion that has proven he and his team know how to win and get those sponsors to victory lane and on television.

Special thanks to Elon Werner and John Force Racing public relations for taking care of us and setting this and our other interview with Courtney Force up that will be a follow up piece.

But enough of the chit chat, here is the interview.

VAVEL USA (VU) – What are your expectations for the remainder of the season?

John Force (JF) – Got to win. Can’t come here trying to finish place number two. That’s the wrong attitude going into an event.

VU- How do you feel your season has gone so far?

JF – We’ve got a fast car over there, up to fifth in the points, think we can move it up. But we’re trying to build with an entire brand new race team. I’ve got a bunch of young kids, John Shafer is a 27 year-old crew chief. He’ll be a rock star someday.

VU – What does it mean to you to still be racing and what is it that keeps you racing and not going into retirement?

JF – The Seahawks, you know them guys? One of their coaches said to me, “How old are you?” I said I’m 66. He asked, why are you still doing this? I replied, because I love it, it’s what I do. I went on to tell him I played football before I did this for three years in high school. He said really? What was it like to play with a leather helmet?

VU – What does it mean to you now to have your daughters racing in the sport with you as part of your team?

JF – Well I won this race last year, the year before my daughter Courtney won it in Funny Car, and I like to keep my family together like anyone. I got my grandchildren out here, they got there drag strip over there on the table (John points to some tape on the table where his grandchildren race there hot wheels cars). Ashley won Indy a few years ago, Courtney is about to marry her Indy car racing fiancé. We are a racing family, it’s what we do.

VU – Talk about the switch to Chevy this season.

JF – Well Ford moved on after 16 or 17 years, but I won my first championship in Chevrolet. They’ve been really good to me, we’re building a brand new 2015 Camaro Super Sport that will be done next year. It’s an all new design. But we are getting into a lot of stuff. Going into some engineering studies with them but we are just getting started. Also, we lost Castrol after 30 years, I took a major hit. But I’ve recovered, so I’ve been real lucky.

VU – How hard was it to add top fuel to your shop when Brittany Force wanted to run that over Funny Car?

JF – It was a transition, we’ve raced Funny Cars for 40 years now and we’ve done well as a four car funny car team. We had four at the time, so I put her into Top Fuel. That’s why she went that direction. It cost just a little bit of money, then Chevrolet picked us up. Auto Club has been nothing but loyal, just re-signed on with a new five-year extension. Mac Tools has been around for 20 years, Traxxas also joined us, been lucky. It’s awesome but I also still feel lucky.   

Right now, I’m still rebuilding this company. I lost some of my employee’s to other teams, just didn’t know the future. Can’t blame them. But, bottom line, starting to feel ok again.

VU – What does the future hold for John Force Racing?

JF – What we’re doing, we are like the trapeze artist in the circus. Generations, it’s what we do. My dad never raced but my cousins did. My uncles, then I got into it. Went to Australia in 1974 and 75, same year Jaws come out. Been doing it ever since, now my kids are doing it.

I wanted sons, but got four girls. My oldest runs the office, she’s the CFO, I the CEO. She runs the money. Ashley runs the production company. We have John Force Entertainment now that does our TV, videos and all that stuff. It’s a family deal. My son in law, Ashley’s husband Danny, runs the Traxxas carwith crew chief Ron Douglas. Courtney’s gonna marry an Indy car racer.

VU – Will we ever see you step into a top fuel car, even for just a run or two?

JF – Not my thing. Brittany’s the fastest in the family. I just have no desire. I’ve been a funny car guy since I started. It’s a moving billboard. I have places to hang a lot of signs. A lot of the drivers, it was once said a lot of the drivers go to Top Fuel when they retire. The older guys, like Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein. They did well, they won championships.

But no, Funny Car’s is what I like. It almost got me a couple times, almost got me. Put me in the hospital. I was in Baylor, Texas for six weeks, they said I wouldn’t walk. If I did it’d be on a cane, yet here I am. Back to winning races and championships. Won two since then in ’07.

VU – Do you get nervous as you approach the starting line, what goes through your head?

JF – Watching my kids, always a fear there. If it wasn’t a gut ache when you got up in the morning then why do it? That’s what motivates you to win and be the best. That’s what makes me click. I want to see my kids be the best.

We build our own safety for a lot of it. Build our own chassis, motors and bodies and stuff. After we lost Eric Medlan, we have the Eric Medlan project. His dad helped start the project, who moved on to Schumacher racing. It happens. We want to build race cars that are safe but will also win. Nobody knows this business as well as me. Only a few have been out here as long as me. We’ll see what happens.

VU – What’s your thought process as the tree lights up and turns green?

JF – Focus. I train on a Christmas tree. I’m in the gym every other day. I joke I used to be in the bar every day for two hours, now I’m in the gym every day. It changed my life. Haven’t drank a beer since the crash. Still drink a little wine and champagne here and there, but my party days are over. Even when I race I might drink some, but I’m too eager to wake up the next day and start again. It’s what I do. It’s what I love.

I don’t fish, I tried. I don’t know how to golf. I have a car collection, can’t ride my Harley’s anymore. I have two museums, one in Indy and one in California. Can’t drive my Harley’s because I can’t take another hit. Doctors say if I break my legs again I’m done. I got no complaints, the good Lord has a plan for me and I’m just waiting to see what it is.

VU – What do you see for the future of NHRA as a sport as a whole?

JF – They’ve had some serious change, a new President has taken over. I like the old one, you know what I mean, but Peter Clifford has taken over and in his announcements he hired Terry Blount who has always loved racing from ESPN, and when he went into the stadium with the Seahawks that’s where he worked and everyone said you finally got what you wanted Terry after being there eight years. You get to go racing cause that was his love. You need a guy like that that loves it.

The work that it is, like what you do, if you don’t love it why do it. Then they announced a new TV package which is huge. Proofs in the pudding, they got a great product and they know it. They know how to make a great product. Problem was the time slots with ESPN were bad, they needed to fix that and I believe they are going to. If they don’t, well I’ve been in the boardroom for the last two years, that’s what keeps coming up is the TV, but we’ll see.  

VU – How do you get these cars to go faster but remain as safe and get safer?

JF – These kids are good. They live it, and it’s a hard job. Could go get a five day a week job and make the same amount of money. But they do it because they love racing.