"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.