"I ain't no Superman."
This is John Force talking, the most successful Funny Car driver of all time, winner of fourteen of the past eighteen NHRA championships, including an almost inconceivable ten-in-a-row streak that makes the records set by Michael Schumacher look positively second-rate.
At the moment, Force is working his quads on a leg press at the Yorba Linda Physical Therapy facility, not far from his home in Southern California. His features are contorted in what appears to be, but isn't, excruciating pain. "There's just something about my face that makes it scrunch up like this," he explains. "One time, a TV crew was filming me doing rehab and the lady next to me was lifting more weight than I was. It was embarrassing. But they're always trying to make a hero out of me. Like at Phoenix last month, the first test after the accident. Sure, I had the fastest run. But I was nervous when I got back in the car. Not about wrecking. I was scared to death that I wouldn't be able to do it anymore. Because racing is all I know. It's all I've ever done. If I don't race, I don't live."
Force is one of the great characters in motorsports, a human highlight reel and manic quote machine with an unrivaled flair for drama and enough excess energy to light a grandstand. Thanks to racing, he's enjoyed an improbable rags-to-riches transformation from a blue-collar working stiff into a multimillionaire with four Funny Car teams, two state-of-the-art shops in Yorba Linda and Brownsburg, Indiana, and, until recently, his own reality TV show. But the sport that's given him everything he owns nearly killed him last September in Dallas, when a tire blew at 300-plus mph. His Ford Mustang slewed across the drag strip, slammed into and vaulted over Kenny Bernstein's Funny Car, and cannoned off a concrete barrier. The collision was so violent that the carbon-fiber body soared into the air and the chassis split at the seat. "My first thought was, 'He's probably dead,' " recalls crewman Stephen Warwick, a former firefighter who's now in charge of Force's safety gear.
Force survived, ironically, because of cockpit upgrades that had been made after his protégé, Eric Medlen, was killed in a similar crash six months earlier. But while Force's head and neck were protected, his extremities were completely exposed as the car disintegrated. A boot and a glove were blown off, and he suffered a compound fracture of the ankle, a wrist so badly dislocated that it required the insertion of metal pins, and several broken fingers and toes. Oh, and a few fingertips were burned off, and a hose carved deeply through his knee ligaments. Between the loss of blood and the multiple surgeries, he spent more than two months in a Dallas hospital.
Force was fifty-eight at the time, silver-haired, beer-bellied, with a reputation as a wild man. "I stayed out all night, and I lived on Miller Lite, coffee, and peanut butter cups," he says. Nobody believed him when he said he planned to be back for the opening race of the 2008 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series - the Carquest Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in early February. But as soon as he returned home, he swore off beer and dedicated himself to a grueling rehab schedule.
"Most people come in three times a week," says physical therapist Robert Ortmayer, who fashioned a regimen - featuring an actual steering wheel and a faux throttle pedal - designed to get Force back into a Funny Car as soon as possible. "He's here five days a week, three hours a day, and he works out on his own at home. He's never missed an appointment. He never takes any phone calls. He never makes any calls. He's been more conscientious than any of the professional athletes that I've worked with."
Two days from now, Force will make his competition comeback at Pomona with a new beefed-up chassis of his own design, a new engine that's a product of an in-house development program, and several new sponsors who are expecting the indomitable Force of old.
But before permitting him to race, the NHRA required him to demonstrate his ability to corral a Funny Car - a 2300-pound, nitro-powered, 8000-hp beast that's the most evil-handling contraption on the planet - during preseason testing in Phoenix. Force had to be helped into and out of the car. But on his first full-throttle run, he tripped the lights at 4.782 seconds and went out the back door at 327.51 mph, the quickest and fastest pass of the session.
"They tried to make a hero out of me for that, too," he says, working his lats while "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" booms out the radio. "But I was just hanging on for dear life."
Force's crew is visibly deflated after his first qualifying attempt on Saturday, and crew chief Austin Coil looks like he's ready to chew his omnipresent toothpick into kindling.
There are four qualifying runs at Pomona. On Thursday, Force's first pass was sabotaged by a clutch malfunction. On Friday, he smoked the tires. This afternoon, he finally made it from A to B, as the expression goes, but his time was the seventeenth quickest, and only the top sixteen make the show on Sunday. If he fails to qualify in his final attempt in his comeback at his home track . . . the term "unmitigated disaster" comes to mind.
Force rolls into the paddock on his red scooter. His face is gray with fatigue and disappointment. Thanks to a right leg that's shorter than the left - the legacy of childhood polio - and the surgically repaired ankle, he's clomping around with a rolling, stiff-legged gait reminiscent of B-movie zombies. With two hours to go before last-chance qualifying, you'd think he'd chill in his motorhome or hole up with Coil in the team's technology trailer to pore over data. Instead, he lumbers to the hospitality tent to schmooze with sponsors.
"You doing OK? You getting what you need? Make sure you get something to eat," he says over and over as he shakes hands, slaps backs, and trades high fives. He summons his marketing guy, Chad Light, to meet with the DiPinto brothers, who've recently come onboard with Lokkii BBQ Briquettes. "They used to be truck drivers, so they understand me," Force says. "Now, how do you pronounce your last name? Chad, you need to remember that. These guys are paying our bills. They're keeping us in business. Make sure they get what they need."
Force hobbles over to the car, which is being torn down and reassembled. (Between each run, the crewmen perform a frenetic ballet as they service and/or replace virtually every component in the engine other than the block and the crankshaft.) Cheering fans are standing five deep at the front of the paddock. As he approaches, they shove hats, T-shirts, programs, hero cards, gas masks, spoilers, and God knows what else across the rope line for him to sign. "You the man, John!" "Give it the gas, bro!" "Over here, John! Over here! Let me get a picture with you!" He dutifully poses for photos with everyone from infants to gangbangers to little old ladies. "It ain't pretty," he tells them, wearing a giant, white smile, "but it's me."
Joe Windham, a friend who's working personal security for Force, parts the crowd like the Red Sea, and the two of them ride the overloaded scooter to the posh hospitality suites overlooking the track. There, Force spends another hour doing three more meet-and-greet sessions with sponsors. When they return, Force clomps back to the hospitality tent and makes the rounds while Windham leans wearily against a tow vehicle. "I don't know how he does it," he mutters. "At this point, even I'm tired."
Nobody understands how important sponsors are more than Force, and nobody gives them better value. During his early days, in fact, pretty much all he could offer his backers was lots of face time and an entertaining show for their money. Race wins were uncommon. Mechanical failures and spectacular fires were not. "For a long time," he recalls, "my relatives tried to get me to quit, saying I was a disgrace to the family."
Force had been born poor and raised hard in a trailer home so small, he says, "you could sit on the toilet and pull a chain to take a shower at the same time." For years, he worked as a truck driver, scuffling to scare up the money to feed his racing jones. Unlike most drag racers, he wasn't mechanically savvy enough to wrench on his own cars. So he worked the other side of the street, making friends and promoting himself. "The Forces have always been good talkers," he says. "We like to tell a good story. Now, I've never been a liar. No, I always tell the truth. But I have been known to bullshit a bit."
Just ask Coil. As a crew chief, he already had two NHRA championships to his credit when Force - who hadn't yet won a single NHRA race - sweet-talked him into hiring on in 1985. "He called me every four hours until I said yes," Coil recalls with a laugh.
"Come to find out, he didn't have enough money to pay me my retainer. He had to borrow the money from a sponsor. We didn't even have a shop at the time; we used to work on the car outside. We did that first season for $400,000. Now, we spend at least $4.5 million per car."
This year, Force Racing is running four Ford Mustang Funny Cars: one for Force; one for his daughter Ashley, the reigning rookie of the year; one for Mike Neff, who took Medlen's seat; and one for his son-in-law Robert Hight, who's married to Force's eldest daughter, Adria, the chief financial officer of John Force Racing. (Force's two youngest daughters, Brittany and Courtney, also race in so-called sportsman dragsters.) Everyone but the boss is solidly in the field when Force stages for his final qualifying pass.
When the Christmas tree goes green, he launches with a roar that rattles windows and sets off car alarms in the parking lot. His rear tires haze - a sign of excess wheel spin - and the car sashays back and forth. Halfway down the drag strip, the attempt looks marginal, and everybody holds their breath. If Force lets the car drift out of the groove, the tires will lose traction and go up in smoke, and he'll be out of the show. Somehow, he manages to grab the wayward car by the scruff of the neck and jerk it back into line before hurtling through the lights. For a moment, smoke obscures the scoreboard. When the time is flashed - 4.823 seconds, the fifth-quickest run of qualifying - the crowd erupts in the biggest cheer of the day.
"He has a little bit of magic in him," says Ron Capps, who has twice finished second to Force in the Funny Car championship. "He dreams of something, and then he makes it happen. He's probably the best guy who ever put on a pair of Funny Car boots."
The new chassis is the hobbyhorse Force has been riding all weekend. In dozens of interviews and conversations, he's explained to everybody who'll listen that he embarked on what he dubbed the Eric Medlen Project last fall, and he developed the chassis in collaboration with Ford and with the input of safety experts. Not that he has a canned speech on the subject - or on any subject, for that matter. "Sometimes," Ashley Force says, "you'll ask him something, and when he gets finished twenty minutes later, you can't even remember what the question was." But certain talking points resurface time and time again: "I dumped $2 million of my own money on the project." "I basically spent my retirement." "We've got to start saving lives in this sport." "I said, 'If I can't make the car safer, I'll quit.' " "My whole life is about safety now."
Shaker-rig tests and computer simulations have shown that the new chassis is stronger than the old one. But racetrack performance is still an open question as Force stages for his first elimination run on Sunday. In the left lane is Tony Pedregon, who ended Force's ten-consecutive-championship streak in 2003. Pedregon red-lights, but Force doesn't realize it, and they make a thrilling side-by-side pass. At half-track, Pedregon's engine explodes, transforming his car into a spectacular fireball. After tagging both walls, Pedregon vaults from the roof hatch with his gloves smoldering and his firesuit shredded by the heat. Even so, Force upstages him by blasting beyond the notoriously short shutdown area. When his car is beached, he has to be helped out and half-carried to the pavement.
Round Two pits Force against Gary Scelzi, who beat him for the Funny Car championship in 2005. Scelzi's car breaks, and Force wins easily, but he burns down the motor during his pass, so his crew has to change engines before the semifinals. This time he lines up against his teammate, Hight. Since a team car is guaranteed to win the race, Coil can afford to be more aggressive in his tune-up in an effort to post the lowest elapsed time of the round, which entitles a driver to lane choice in the final. Force cuts a good light but immediately smokes the tires, and that's all she wrote.
Force rides back to the paddock with Coil. The instant he opens the door of the tow vehicle, he's asked for a postmortem. For several seconds, he remains seated, shoulders slumped, back turned, uncharacteristically silent. But when he finally turns around, the brilliant smile is back on his face, and he's once again preaching the gospel according to Force: "My son-in-law's in the finals. All four of our cars are in the points. I'm tired, and my leg's sore, but my heart has never felt stronger. We proved that our new cars are competitive even though they're heavier. Today was about racing, but tomorrow, we get back to safety."
Force clomps off to sign some autographs, looking worn down and vulnerable. Like the man said, he's not Superman. The little engine that could is more like it.