We accepted an invitation to John Force Racing’s shop during the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show. Having shown up a bit early, we nosed around the neighborhood—which also houses NHRA heavyweights Pedregon Racing and Force’s nemesis, Don Schumacher Racing. Aside from the six-foot-high signature on the building’s facade, the Force shop could look like any steel supplier instead of a horsepower warehouse, and the kitchen-clean inside shop could pass for a food distributor, but we know he’s cooking up racecars.
John Force’s crew had invited us to hear Courtney Force—John’s youngest daughter who races against him and JFR president Robert Hight in NHRA Funny Car—announce her new 2017 Funny Car sponsorship by Advance Auto Parts. Before the press conference even began, John Force—16-time champion and 147-time race winner—dashed around the shop, cowboy boots sounding on the pristine concrete, and asked who needed coffee.
Once the press conference started, John’s opened with a classic line: “I had a planned speech, but it all went to s—.” It’s the kind of candor that has marked his long racing career. Seldom lost for words, nor slowed by their disappearance, Force’s short statement touched on his age (He’s still winning at 67), the difficulty of running a race team (“We are nuts, all of us”), and finally that the announcement, and a couple of others in the pipeline, have renewed his vigor after a challenging decade that saw injury, financial instability caused by the 2008 economic downturn, and the untimely death of JFR driver Eric Medlen during testing.
The Advance Auto Parts sponsorship seemed to buoy the old racer and his daughter, both of whom are already chomping to race each other (and the rest of the NHRA Funny Car field) in 2017. After the press conference and photo opportunities, we caught up with Courtney Force and then John Force for a few moments while they made the press rounds.
Roadkill: What’s it like growing up in a racing family?
Courtney Force: It’s nuts, but it’s a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t want to grow up in a life that’s full of fast cars? I grew up around racing since I was in diapers, when I was in a winner’s circle with my dad. I’ve always had a really close bond with my dad at the racetrack and the crew guys and the team.
I always knew growing up that I wanted to be a Funny Car driver and I told my dad that he wasn’t allowed to retire until I got to race him. He always said he’d have retired a long time ago if his children weren’t in the sport so that’s pretty cool and pretty rare where we get to actually work along with and race our dad. It’s a lot of fun. Ashley, my sister, raced Funny Cars before she stepped out to have kids. My sister Brittany races the Monster Energy Top Fuel car. I race the Advance Auto Parts Funny Car and my brother-in-law is in the other funny car. My other brother-in-law is the crew chief on my car. It really is a family affair at John Force Racing.
RK: What’s it like racing your dad heads-up? Is there some extra rivalry there?
CF: Yes. It was a lot of fun my rookie season kind of messing with him because he was always so worried about me. Now, he’s not worried about me anymore, so I’ve got to take the mind games up a notch and mess with him more on the tree. He really was kicking my butt this season so I’m excited to get out there next season. I don’t feel bad anymore.
RK: Is it any different working for him?
CF: Sometimes, it’s hard for him to differentiate between being a dad and being a boss. I think that’s the hardest thing. We are traveling together every single week and going through the airport is like mayhem with him. Being out there racing against him and then going to my parents’ house for a barbecue, you know, it doesn’t end. I think it’s both great and can sometimes be negative because we butt heads since we’re so alike. More than anything, I think it’s a great thing working with family and having someone that you can trust and not be afraid to talk to about racing and not afraid to ask questions. It’s really cool to learn form him because he’s the most experienced guy out here and I think I’ve got a great teacher.
RK: Racing fans generally conceive of the notion that that racing is a great, glamorous affair. What’s it really like being on the road for 30 weeks a year?
CF: It’s exhausting, but I’ve got no complaints. I’m very lucky to be in a job where I get to race a 300 mile-per-hour car. At the same time, you’re also getting in a car that is a ticking time bomb. People see the glamorous side of it, we do get to travel a lot, but you are living out of a suitcase. You don’t really get to see your friends much. You miss weddings, birthdays, and all that stuff.
But, you get to be on the road and you find new family with your teammates and it’s a lot of fun getting to see new places, driving these races cars, celebrating in the winner’s circle, and I guess the actual glamour side is the banquets we get to do at the end of the year. It definitely has its ups and downs when you do a season. It wears you down when you do four [weekends] in a row.
RK: You mentioned that the car is a “ticking time bomb.” Is that something that’s always in the back of your mind, the danger element or do you block that out?
CF: It’s always in the back of your mind. My dad says, “The day you stop being afraid of the car is the day you’re gonna get hurt.” You start feeling comfortable and then you get a real quick reality check when it explodes in your lap. You’re always on your toes. You always need to be prepared in one of these cars. Anything can happen. If it drops a cylinder, you need to be ready to countersteer to get it off the wall and back on the center line.
RK: Not many people—the percentage is basically zero—get to go 300 mph. Is there any time to appreciate what the sensation of that is like or are you too busy?
CF: It’s weird. When you’re in the car and you’re doing it, you kind of get used to it because you’re doing it every weekend, your physical routine and your mental routine. It’s when I take a step back and watch it on TV or see a run and I’m like, “I can’t believe I get behind the wheel of that car. I am crazy and so are the rest of these guys out here competing.” It is a little strange when you take those two seconds to kind of think about what you’re doing. It is a crazy sport.
RK: What is it like to go from driving a race car to running the business?
JF: Well, I’ve run in this business for 50 years. I started professionally in ‘74 when I went to Australia. I trained the people around me: Dean Antonelli and his wife Kelly, they run Indy. Robert and I are out in California, we run that side. Robert runs the race car business overlooking all of that. Then I’ve built the marketing part with Steve Cole. I have my own TV production company, Ashley heads that.
We chase money continually, but it’s been a tough chase. It’s been the toughest 10 years of my racing career. Losing Eric, that hurt. It’s a heartbreaker. That’s enough to make you quit. His dad, John, is back with me now. Then I got hurt and the economy hit. I lost the Castrol and Ford. Then Chevrolet picked us up, of course. So here we are, putting the band back together. The people from the early days like Austin Coil still help me. We’re friends and you build that relationship.
RK: You started drag racing when you were a teenager…
JF: Oh, high school.
RK: What was your first car?
JF: My first car was a ‘54 Chevy. It was a four-door with a six-cylinder motor in it. I put a big Cadillac [V8] in it. But I grew up—My dad was a truck driver, my mom was a cook at Denny’s—I grew up traveling up and down the coast of California picking berries. My dad logged and he hauled cattle. I lived in buses and trailer houses; I grew up in a trailer house, never lived in a regular house.
So for me, when you sleep with three brothers and sisters in one room in bunk beds and your brother’s toes in your nose, the minute you’re old enough, you get a car. I had tickets from the local police department when I was 14. I carried my girlfriend’s picture in my car, my football helmet, and my school books—and my Playboy magazines under the seat—That was my bedroom. Cars have been a way of life for me. It’s all I know. So I come out here—[motions to race car haulers]—and I live in the biggest trailer court, know what I mean? Ain’t nothing changed for me.
RK: What was your first drag car then?
JF: The first car I actually had…I had Corvettes, but anything I ever competed in? I had a front-engine dragster. Nobody knows I ever drove a dragster. I drove Fuel Altereds, that was probably my first race car. I always said, “If you can drive a Fuel Altered, you can drive anything.” I bought the old Beaver Hunter car and crashed it.
But my first car was in 1974 and that was the original Brute Force. I took it to Australia, sponsored by Wally Thor’s School of Trucking. I was a truck driver and I gave speeches at driving schools and talked. And that’s how I started. I started in Chevrolet so even though I won championships with Pontiac and Oldsmobile for General Motors, I ended up with Ford but I’m back.
RK: Living in a bus and driving Chevys…What’s it like to be a father and a team boss and competing against [Courtney and Robert Hight]?
JF: You wear different hats. You gotta be an owner and make them do their job. And you want to beat them on the track and Courtney, she’s hell. She won’t talk to me for a week when I beat her. And then, of course, you’re a dad. You worry about her getting hurt and you live with that.