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We interview American drag racing legend John Force

2 August 2015


We catch up with the biggest name in drag racing to find out what makes him tick, never giving up, and how he changed the highest profile form of drag racing on the planet

John Force is without a doubt the biggest name in drag racing — not only in America but in the entire world. If you’ve heard of drag racing, you’ve heard of John Force. Some would suggest that he is bigger than the sport of drag racing itself. He is a 16 times Funny Car champion, having won 134 national events. His TV interviews are a cross between an ad for his sponsors, a guy serious about winning championships, and a kid all hyped up on Mountain Dew, all mixed into one — sometimes they just don’t make any sense. His is the true fairytale story of the guy who lived in the trailer park with a dream of being a race car driver, who became the most successful driver in Funny Car history, and the owner of a multimillion-dollar racing operation.

With four John Force Racing (JFR) teams consisting of himself, his son-in-law, Robert Hight, and his youngest daughter, Courtney Force, all racing in funny cars, and his daughter Brittany in a top fuel dragster, things are certainly busy for John Force. With longtime sponsors Ford [20 years with JFR] and Castrol [30 years] departing at the end of 2014, and being replaced with Peak Antifreeze, Lucas Oil, and Chevrolet, this year sees a new era beginning for JFR.
Whilst running a multimillion-dollar operation, watching his family go down a drag strip at 320mph, and trying to continue his own on-track success, we wonder how the man must cope. What’s he like away from the camera, and is he as crazy as he comes across? 

As we meet for this interview during a busy race weekend, we are interested to see what John is really like. Seeing him on TV, you would almost think the interview would be fast paced without too much care. This was not to be — John was more than happy to take his time, and make sure everyone was comfortable, and really gave you the impression he was excited to talk to you and wanted to be there. Many times he asked whether we wanted a drink or something to eat.

In all of this, John was exactly that same excited, non-stop kind of guy that he comes across as on TV. His answers to simple questions often turned into stories, and more often than not those stories had absolutely no relevance to the question, but they sure were entertaining. John’s passion for the sport, his family, and his race team was glaringly obvious, and he was more than happy to talk about it.

John’s love and respect for the fans was also very evident. During the time we spent in the JFR compound, he shot over to the crowd rope any time he could to give an autograph or pose for a photo. It was very easy to see why John Force is the biggest name in drag racing, and why the crowd loves him. His personality is off the scale, while he keeps his respect for the racers, the sponsors, and the crowd who make him who he is.

Track set-up 

The set-up itself was more than impressive, with two trucks and trailers per team parked side by side and linked together, creating a truly mobile workshop. They have absolutely everything in there to rebuild a race car, from welders to lathes to clutch grinders and drills. There was even a complete spare car sitting up in the roof of the second trailer. They carry eight complete engines and sets of heads per car, as well as more parts to rebuild them than all our race cars combined in New Zealand. All the pairs of trailer units are identical, so it didn’t matter which of John’s teams you went to, you would still know where to find anything in each trailer. Up the front of the first truck in each team is the crew chief’s lounge, with four computer screens set up to display all the data downloaded from the race cars’ on-board computers. What surprised me most was that the computers of all four race teams were interlinked, so the crew chief for John’s car can look at Courtney’s data, the crew chief for Courtney’s car can look at Robert’s data, and so on. It’s part of what John calls his brains trust, and, while a particular crew chief is responsible for each car, it truly is a team effort.

In addition to the eight rigs for the race cars, there is also the conference/PR/lounge trailer, in which the teams’ managers and PR people go about their business, as well as a lounge area for the Force family. Now don’t forget the John Force Racing Road Show trailer, which promotes JFR and its sponsors at events — all up, you have 10 truck and trailer units at each meeting. That’s a serious fuel bill just to get the teams there!

John Force Racing headquarters

Although John himself lives in Yorba Linda, California, his race teams are a 30-hour drive away on the other side of the country in Brownsburg, Indiana. This location is central to many of the stops on the NHRA tour, and also the home of many other Top Fuel teams. John’s 150,000 square foot facility houses all four race teams, a chassis shop, a paint/decal shop, a machine shop, a supercharger development room, a parts department, and, of course, the offices required to keep things ticking over. Each team pulls both its trucks inside the facility and sets them up side by side, just as they would at the racetrack. They maintain, rebuild, and repair the cars exactly as they would at the racetrack, working directly out of the trailers.

This facility allows almost every aspect of building a race car to be done in-house. The chassis shop builds all the JFR dragster and funny car chassis, and has in fact begun selling chassis to other teams. Everything is done in-house. All the pipes are bent, and all brackets are cut there, right down to tinning and mounting the bodies — it’s all done under the one roof at JFR. This continues through to the paint/decal shop, where straight carbon bodies are turned into the rolling billboards that keep the sponsors and fans happy. The machine shop alone is nothing short of amazing, and not used just to produce a few bits and pieces. At JFR they make their own blocks, heads, blowers, blower rotors, manifolds, main caps, flywheels — the list goes on and on. We’re still under the same roof. As for the supercharger development room, well, not too much information was given away about that one — some top secret projects, maybe?
JFR headquarters in Brownsburg is also home to the Eric Medlen tribute room, dedicated to the memory of JFR driver, who passed away in a testing accident driving the funny car he raced for JFR. Eric’s father, John Medlen, was the crew chief on the car at the time. The room houses Eric’s car, along with helmets, fire suits, and other memorabilia from Eric’s life and racing career.

There is also John’s personal racing museum, which includes bodies and cars that have special meaning for John or the team. This includes special tribute Rookie of the Year cars for three of his daughters, as well as Robert Hight and Mike Neff.

John Force Interview 

NZV8: After all these years, what keeps you so passionate about drag racing?

John Force: The need for speed! You know you wake up every day and when you win, even when you lose, the cheer of the crowd, the fans — they love it! Motorsport worldwide, it’s all about the car, the automobile. I always said NHRA took me away from my kids ’cause I was always on the road with them growing up, [but] they were always there in the summer, and now they’re all racing. Ashley took a few years off to have some kids — she won Indy two years in a row in Funny Car. The people like Castrol and Ford Auto Club; the list goes on, but they all put me here. Why would I want to leave? I love it!

You’ve won 16 championships; is that enough in your mind?

No! It’s never enough! Traxxas came on board with us two years ago, signed up with us. It’s [Traxxas is] a radio-controlled car, and they sell them worldwide. They came and took a chance with a girl [daughter Courtney] — they didn’t want the old man; they wanted this young girl, and she’s doing very well. I have been really fortunate, but we do it because we’re a family of racers. We lost Eric [Medlen] in 2007 in a crash, and it got me into the chassis business. I have a shop in California and a big shop here in Indy, where we build our own chassis. We build our own engines — everything: blocks, heads, blowers. And it [building parts in-house] was all about safety, because I crashed that same year after Eric. Broke my arms and legs. They said I would never walk again, let alone drive. I still don’t walk very good [He says this with a cheeky grin on his face] but I just love it! I’ve always said that when I go down, it will be at a racetrack.

What did it take to overcome your injuries?

Well, I went to rehab in Valor. I was in the hospital there for three months, in a cast for six to eight weeks. Rehab goes on to this day because when you’re my age, you don’t recover, so you keep on going to stay up with your kids.

When people worldwide think of drag racing, they think of you; how does that feel?

I went to Australia in 1974. I didn’t even have a licence; they didn’t know that [laughs] — I’m a good talker, I’m a storyteller, and, win or lose, I still have a story. Some drivers won’t do interviews if they lose; you know they’re mad. Perhaps that’s an even better interview, especially when you win often, like I do. But I’ve got my son-in-law, Robert Hight — married to my daughter Adria. She is chief financial officer of the company. Got her own record label and all that. She runs the money. Then, of course, Ashley runs John Force Entertainment, our TV studios. We produce our own movies and stuff, TV commercials and all that, so it’s not just me.

Besides yourself, who do you see as the most talented driver in Funny Car?

Not because he is my driver, but Robert Hight — he’s a natural. Robert was actually a trap shooter — he was going to go to the Olympics — and that’s why he is so good on the Christmas tree. And he chose to drive for me. He worked as a crew member for years [for JFR], then he married my daughter and we put him in the seat, and he was really good.
A guy that I really like — and there are a lot of guns out there — is Ron Capps. He’s excellent. Looks like Brad Pitt — he should be a movie star or a model — and I look like a truck driver, which I was and I still am. But there are a lot of good racers out there. Matt Hagan’s real good on the Christmas tree; he’s a good driver, but he ought to be a football player.

If you couldn’t compete in Nitro Funny Car, what category would you compete in?

If I’m going to blow up a motor that costs that much money, I want it in front of me where I can see it. Right now, I have two girls racing Funny Car. Like I said, Ashley won Indy [the US Nationals] two years in a row — I’ve never done that — and she finished second in points that year. Brittany and Courtney, first time we have had a top fuel dragster. But I’m probably going to stay here in Funny Car; it’s a moving billboard and I like that there’s a lot of room [for sponsor’s decals]. But the girls all drove Super Comp [8.90sec dragsters] and A-fuel [top alcohol dragsters]. They came up through the ranks, they got their college degrees — [their] mum required that. But Brittany and Courtney, they’re evolving as drivers. They’re pretty good, and their popularity is real good, because they’re women. Shirley [Muldowney] started it all, or at least was the first champion, and my girls will get there some day.

And Robert will be there to try and stop them?

Oh he loves it. He won’t talk to me this weekend [US Nationals]. He is behind me in the points, [and] he wants to leave here with the points lead going into the countdown. He loves me, and I love him, but when you have to race each other, you don’t want to get into that mode; you just want to keep doing your business.

What about Nascar or IndyCar?

I’ve been in IndyCar stuff in celebrity racers, I’ve been in Nascar in driving schools, [but] I’ve never driven in a race; I love it all, but no, this is what I do. [Looks out towards his funny car.]
Sponsorship obviously plays a huge part in drag racing and for JFR, and you obviously do a great job of it, with all the long-term sponsors you have had. What sets JFR apart from the others and makes it the marketing success that it is?

The people — the sponsors’ money allows me to hire the right people. Over the years, you go through people, but if you look around here [pointing to the employees], a lot of these guys have been here a long time. I build a brains trust, and they work together — that’s the key. We all share the winnings. Actually, I don’t take a penny, but everything that is won goes to the teams. I probably pay out 120 per cent; 20 per cent out of my pocket. That’s how you keep them working together.

Where do you see that state of the sport (NHRA) in America at the moment?

The economy is struggling, but nothing compared to Nascar and IndyCar, if you look in the stands. If you compare it, you don’t see it at our races, but we were never as big. But the economy will fix. I mean, there are worldwide problems — we know that; it’s a check in balance and drag racing is survival.

What does John Force do on a Saturday night when there is no racing or promotion on?

Racing’s what I do. I don’t golf; I don’t fish. Actually, I went fishing last Sunday [said quite proudly] with a sponsor and Robert [Hight], out on the ocean, but didn’t catch nothing. If anything, I spend time with my grandchildren, and my girls. I go to some IndyCar races with my daughter Courtney. She dates Graham Rahal, who drives IndyCar. I hate that; I wanted her to marry a drag racer [said jokingly]. I don’t hate it; he’s a nice kid! I’m a movie buff; I go to the movies a bit.
Any personal favourites?

Yeah, I surfed my whole life, growing up, up and down the beaches of California. The year Jaws came out — ’74, I think — I was in Australia; saw the great white at Great Barrier Reef, and I ain’t been in the water since! I love Jurassic Park. I love a lot of sport movies — I could go on and on. I own my own movie theatre: 70 seat, big-screen theatre. We really built it for screening commercials and stuff.

From a driver’s point of view, how are the cars now, compared with the cars when you first started driving?

The chassis hadn’t changed in 30 years, and that’s how we lost Eric [Medlen]. With the power [that they are now making], the chassis couldn’t keep up. Tyres, a lot of things, were changing, so I got in the chassis business. So, with Ford, we built the three-rail [typical Funny Car chassis, until that point, were based on a two-rail design], and every one said it would be too heavy, it would be too expensive; they said it couldn’t win. But we proved them wrong. Now we have redesigned the two-rail. That’s our new car this year; it’s safer, and it’s better.
Have you had much contact with Austin Coil since he left JFR?

Greatest tuner of all time! He walked out the door. We had won the championship; he said, “Don’t call me, I will call you.” He made me who I am today. I found the money; he found the tune-up. He [Austin] said, “You have been talking me into what I should do for 30 years, and, if I listen to you, you’ll talk me into it again. I’m going on vacation.” And he never came back. He was the king; he won more races than me.

So the big question is: when are you bringing the cars down to New Zealand?

I would love to do that! When he went there a number of years ago, my uncle said it was beautiful. Because of the scheduling, I was down in Qatar last year. They wanted me to go there and race, [so] I went down and had a look at the facilities. I was only there a few days. Robert and I went down. But what I am looking at is my career. In five years, I’m probably gonna re-evaluate if I’m going to stay in the seat. I’m older than both of you put together [looking at his NZV8 interviewers]. I want to do a tour; I want to go to Japan, Australia, England. I want to go to these places, and New Zealand will be on that list. Dubai will be on it, too; they’re building a new racetrack.
How much does John Force know about the set up and running of these cars?

Well, in the early days, I did bottom end, I did the heads, I did the clutch. I even tried tuning, [but] I wasn’t very good — I set myself on fire. But it’s evolved. I understand the car; I’m like Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. I mean, I don’t know much about it, but if it does anything weird, I’ll shut it off. 

They’ll [the crew] go, “What happened?” 

“I heard something in the valvetrain,” I’ll say. 

“Well, how can you hear that with all the noise, John?” 

“Well, I sit between the noise; the noise goes that way.” [pointing away over his shoulders]

One time, I said it sounded like a lifter, like a pushrod jumped off a rocker. The crew pulled it apart and there it was. They said that’s impossible.

I said, “No, I heard a clink, and there is only a few things that make a noise like that.”

Because I’ve heard it stick the valve, when a pushrods jumps it’ll make a certain sound, and if the motor’s running, you just have to hear it. So I’ve found some things. Last week we were warming the car up. I kept hearing a “dink dink dink”. I shut the car off. Again, the crew asked “What’s wrong?” 

“Something in the driveshaft” — and, sure enough, the pin had come out of the driveshaft, and a bit of it was hitting [the chassis] when it went around, and I heard it. I’m crazy, not stupid.

What advice do you have for racers trying to make a name for themselves in this sport?

Get an education. Make sure you get through high school, get through college. We live in a computer age. I still have a cellphone you dial on. People who do my social media stuff won’t let me have a smartphone; that’s why I don’t have no numbers, as I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong. But do it because you love it! Anybody who loves anything enough — you’ll make it. And you’re gonna have the crossroads where it’s over, but don’t let it stop you; keep going. Whether you’re a writer, or a crew chief, or a driver, or you want to be President. If you want it bad enough, go after it, and never give up, but do it because you love it; don’t do it for the money, don’t do it for the fame, but I will say do it for the cheer of the crowd.
Thank you for your time, John.

No problem. Now, if you get hungry, go down there and see the chef. Tell him you’ll write about him. And thank you. 

Images: Morice McMillin