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.