Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit with John and Courtney Force: May the Forces Be With You

Frontstretch provided live coverage of the NHRA Pep Boys Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., last month. During the weekend our Toni Montgomery and Mike Neff had the chance to sit down with NHRA Funny Car legend John Force as well as his daughter Courtney Force. Force talked about racing and winning at the age of 65, and told us a few of those patented John Force stories, bringing back memories of the old days in NHRA. Plus, as the father of four daughters, two of which are currently driving in Funny Car and Top Fuel, he talked about the rise of women in the racing world.

Even those who don’t follow NHRA drag racing know who John Force is. He is a legend in motorsports, not just drag racing, and is working on trying to win championship No. 17 this year. 

Toni Montgomery, Frontstretch: In NASCAR, when a driver hits 40, people start talking about retirement and “is he washed up,” but you are 65 and contending for your 17th championship. Drag racing lives on reflexes and reaction time. It seems a lot of the drivers here are 40 and up. What do you think is the difference?

John Force: At 40 we just start. First of all, we’re not like NASCAR or IndyCar where you gotta drive around for two or three hours. Yes, you have to have the reflexes of a young man, but if you train yourself – and I was in the gym last night and the night before and I’ll be there tonight, until I get too tired and when I go home, I feel like I’ve worked out too much, then I don’t work out, but it’s at least every other day. So I keep my mind sharp, stay in the race during the day, don’t get tired, and don’t think about retirement. If you retire you have to make sure you made enough money to keep eating!

So yeah, there’s a reason why. I knew a lot of the champions that quit 20 years ago. A lot retire in drag racing at 40 and 45. 65 is a push, but I do it because I’m good at it, and surround myself with good people, and train for it. I keep my mind sharp. Don’t party. Don’t mean you can’t have a beer or a glass of wine, but not a few days before the race. You’ve got to keep everything going for you.

Montgomery: What kinds of things do you do to keep yourself sharp, mind and body?

Force: Well, first of all, it’s like when you pick up a paper, they’ve always got little tests and things in the back of the paper to keep your mind sharp – what 10 things in this picture are different? – those type of things, because if you keep the mind thinking continually it’ll stay sharp. I think about everything because I’m a micromanager, so I don’t do puzzles in the paper, because I don’t have time, but I’m continually thinking. When I wake up, my old brain’s like a shark, never quits swimming, and I’m continually thinking, I’m staying in this game.

And it’s not just about how to drive a racecar. How to make the teams better, where my problems are on the team, personnel, whatever. Have I overspent anywhere financially? It’s like keeping a marriage together. If you don’t focus on it, it’ll go bad and you won’t even know it. You’ll think it’s OK. I’ve been there. You want to always stay on top of everything continually. My daughters as drivers, keeping them on top of things. “We’ve got to get out there and sign autographs!” That’s right, and I continue to tell you so you never forget and I never forget. But if you keep the mind active it will stay sharp no matter what the subject.

So I do that, and then physically I try to eat right. I’ll have a cheeseburger every now and then but I’m a salad guy and a fruit guy. I still got an old beer belly but I haven’t had a beer since the crash in ’07. If I have anything it’s a glass or two of wine, sometimes three, depending on if I just won the race! You just continually think. It’s what you do. You could sit somebody in this seat to do an interview with you, and that radio up there or those folks talking would make them where they couldn’t think, yet it’s not bothering me at all, is it? I can hear what they’re talking about and I can hear what he’s saying, and I watch everything he says (indicating Graham Rahal, boyfriend of daughter Courtney, and another reporter across the room). But some people would say, oh, can we turn that off? Can we do this alone? I juggle a lot of balls at the same time, and the only different deal is when go one day, it’ll be like that (snaps fingers). He was there and whoosh, he was gone! I made statements, you’re going to drop at the race track, well the race track is where I live. If I was a guy that went home every night I’d probably say I’d drop at home, but this is what I do, and love it, still love it.

Zmax Dragway Carolina Nationals John Force fan interaction 2014 Mike Neff 433
John Force is a legend in the sport but he still spends time with fans at the track. Credit: Mike Neff

Montgomery: So you are nowhere near the point where you don’t want to do this anymore?

Force: No, I’m under contract for five more years! But you’ve got to have corporate America to pay the bills and that’s why I keep pitching it. I’ve made it clear, I love the fans, love the excitement, love the racing, love the travel, love being here with my wife and kids, and my grandkids are usually here. This is the first weekend they stayed home. They were on the road for five weeks and Ashley said, “Gotta go home Dad, gotta take the babies home,” because she’s out here filming. She drives also, but she runs John Force Entertainment, makes all the commercials, none of them are on in here right now, but out on our midway. And I’m a high energy guy. I came up through the Haight Ashbury generation and guys say, “Did you do drugs?” No, never did that, I was always on ‘kill. I didn’t need anything to get me up, don’t need it for a high. I live on a high.

So I’m just a natural high energy guy, which my doctor says, one day… you ain’t going to go forever. I said, “So what?” you know? It’s one of those situations. My uncle raced, Gene Beaver, they raced Funny Cars for years. They won the Supernationals, they did it all. But he was 67, and he was a crew chief. I’ll never forget coming in to the hotel, and he was in a hot steaming Jacuzzi, with two younger ladies, smoking and drinking a can of beer. I went in there and I said, “Beavs! The doctor, I was there,” because he went in and had a bypass. “He told you no more smoking and no more drinking!”

I didn’t think about the women, this guy’s too old, they just happened to be in there, whatever, and his answer was, “How about that!” He says, “I’m going to go down anyway, beer makes me enjoy life, cigarettes get me up, ah, the beautiful women… if it takes a few years off my life, well….”

I don’t look at it that way. I want to be around with my grandkids. That’s the first time I’ve ever told that story. I want to be around with my grandkids. His name was Gene Beaver and Condits, my cousins. Their race car was called the L.A. Hooker and it was famous in the early days on the Coca-Cola circuit. These were the guys that beat up on Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein. Kenny Bernstein drove for my uncle when they went to Australia.

So you can see that world was different. It wasn’t corporate America. Nobody had a sponsor. The “L.A. Hooker” was to sell t-shirts. That was just a t-shirt with a name and everybody said, “they’re cool” and they sold them like hotcakes. The Blue Max was a German fighter pilot award and Raymond Beadle out of Texas drove the Blue Max Funny Car [and went on to own a NASCAR team with Tim Richmond and later Rusty Wallace, with whom Beadle won the Winston Cup championship in 1989, as drivers] and he was probably the best at selling t-shirts. I was John “The Brute” Force, Brute Force.

For more on Gene Beaver and the “L.A. Hooker” click here.

Montgomery: Your operation is a family operation. You have the girls out here with you and Robert is part of your family too. What is it like, especially the competitive part of it, racing with your family?

Force: Well, number one, drag racing is a family sport, so it only made sense. My kids grew up in it. I’d go out to warm my car up and Courtney would be in the seat. I’d say, “Courtney, get out of there and your clothes are all dirty. Now Mom’s going to be mad!” Little swimming pools under the front of the trailer, little plastic pools from K-mart when it got hot, they could swim, and they lived out here. Did I ever think they’d want to race? Not a chance. I always had an A, B and C plan. I should’ve had a D plan. I got all those girls. I should have had a plan to get a boy. It didn’t work out.

For them to drive, it really turned out great, because if anything, it’s going to drive me longer to stay in the business, because I want to be with them. And then you have your ego that wants to be the best. First I wanted my children to see me do good because growing up, when I won everything, they didn’t know what that meant. And now they are finally old enough and know what they do and what I do, so I proved to them I could win.

Now I got grandchildren. Autumn is driving a Junior Dragster, she just turned 10, and she wants to drive because her dad Robert drives. His wife is my daughter Adria, who is the CFO of our company. Our whole family works in it. So, where else would you be? Would I be sitting home if I retired? My wife will be out here with our daughters and so will I, so if I get out of the car… that’s the easy part! Driving that car is the easy part, it’s four or five seconds. It’s the long days. I get up some times in the mornings like, “Oh man, please tell me that’s coffee from last night or wine.” What’s that pain?

We were in Montreal last week, Elon (Werner, public relations for John Force Racing) will tell you this, I left the race track and we went for two days straight. We were exhausted. Eight in the morning, eight at night, but it ain’t like you just go sign autographs. I live with the fans so I talk all day long. Hurt my vocal chords. Called my doctor on it, gotta get in, check my throat. He says, “No John, you’re talking too much. You can’t go for days full throttle.” I went back to the restaurant to eat, got out of the car, we started going in to the restaurant, I said, “Elon, come out here!” He walks out and says, “What’s up?” I said, “I’ve got this pain in my chest. It’s scaring me. Watch me and if I go down, call an ambulance.” He says, “What?” and I dropped down and start doing push-ups. I did 50 push-ups, I stood up and I said, “Well, pain’s still there but it didn’t get worse.” That means the pain, if you’re having a heart attack, my uncle Beaver I told you about? He was my mentor. He taught me everything and one day we’re standing there and he was arguing with somebody and he said, “Excuse me one minute” and he turned around and he ran down to the end of the block. And he ran back.

I said, “What the hell was that?” He said, “I thought I was having a heart attack.” He always said the worry about the heart attack, to worry about it was worse. You lay in bed at night thinking and you really stress yourself and if you’re having it and you run down the street, you’ll accelerate it because it’s going to happen anyway. So in the process of that, I got down and did push-ups, got up, let’s go have some wine. We went in.

Montgomery: We are entering the six-race Countdown. Do you approach these races any differently than you approach any other race?

Force: More focus. More concentration on the teams. You start off the season, you want to start off good, so you focus on every employee, the crew chief, making sure they’ve got plenty of parts, everybody is sleeping, everybody’s personal problems are OK. Families can upset a team and you’ll never know it. A lead guy can be upset over his kid’s sake. Then when you kind of get into the groove you back down and you try to enjoy it.

But when you get down near the Countdown you fight for that top position, which I took the lead at Brainerd and then kept it at Indy and won the Traxxas shootout, lost in the final at Indy to DeJoria. Girl’s a great driver. I love the girls. People said you seemed more excited because she won. I was excited because a female won and under pressure it shows women can do the job. And so can my girls. I really enjoy seeing someone excel and not fail under pressure, even if they had to whoop me, and I’m the best. And she whooped me.

When you get in the Countdown, now you gotta focus for six races. Every point that you can earn in qualifying, every point, every qualifying run, every round and win, it’s everything and you gotta live it every day and make yourself sick, because if you take it for granted, two races will go by and you’ll be out. We’re living every round.

Montgomery: You seem to be a big champion of the lady drivers out there.

Force: Well, just because we’re in a sport where half our crowd, you know it’s a family sport so it’s husbands and wives. Used to be in the old days a big majority was men and the women were there because they had to be and now with the children and what we have to offer it’s mixed. I ain’t saying it’s 50/50. Is there a number on men to women ratio? (He’s given an answer of 70/30) 70/30? Well, it was less than that back when I started. You think it’s 70/30? Well, who brings all the kids? Dad?

But the point is I know because years ago, about 10 years back, Castrol came and they said, “We’re going to start packaging oil differently.” That’s why they were interested in my daughters. OK, well, what are you going to do different? Well, women walk into a Walmart and they want to buy a case of oil, it’s too heavy to carry. So they are putting them in smaller, lighter packages and so they can give it as a gift with a little car in it, a Castrol car like we drive.

So I saw them changing because women are not just staying home having babies and doing laundry. Women are doing all that too plus taking the kids to school and then going on to corporate America. Hell, now the men are starting to stay home! So the world’s adapting and if you went back 20 years, I never hardly ever had an interview with a woman, now we see the women all the time. The board room at Castrol had one woman in it 28 years ago when I went there, now you go in there, there’s two men and 16 women. It’s all changed. Women are hungry. They want those jobs. They don’t want to rely on the men. The world’s changing. Hell, they just approved them to vote just a few months ago, didn’t they? (laughs)

Mike Neff, Frontstretch: Along the lines of the women, we see them as the drivers but we don’t see them on the crews. Why do you think it is that we’re not seeing more women coming up through crews yet?

Force: Well, first of all, the statement was there are women in our stands. They’ve got to have somebody to cheer for so why wouldn’t you want drivers? And the minute my girls said, “We want to drive,” phew – you know what I mean? I’m ready, if that’s where you want to go. We put them through the process since they were 16. Ashley started at 16 with Frank Hawley’s driving school and then she went to Super Comp, they did have Junior Dragster, but she was 16, she wasn’t 8. Then she went on to college and then she went to A-fuel, they all got their four year degrees and then moved on to the Pros for a year testing before I ever put them in the seat of the car.

So they had seven years in the seat of a car, but one car was 170 mph, the next one was 270, and then of course to the Pros. So we brought them up right. But why not as mechanics? There are some women out here that are working on teams. It’s a tough road. It ain’t like football where the women would have to shower with the men, but it’s where, even in this business, they could share a room. They could share traveling. There’s a lot of women truck drivers. When I drove trucks back in the ’60s when I got out of high school, there wasn’t any women driving trucks. Then it became sleeper teams with husbands and wives, found they could do it and a family could double the money and then it went on to women doing their own thing. So why not in racing?

It’s starting to happen now. There’s women out here. There’s no lead tuners that I know of but Kim LaHaie was a gal, she could tune the car. Her and her husband retired a few years back. There’s women doing clutches, women working on the cars so that’s kind of where we’re at. Now the women in the racing teams run the companies. They run the marketing, everything that we do. There’s women in our media team, there’s women in hospitality at some locations where we have more hospitality, down at my midways, lot of women down there, whether they’re overseeing it or passing out fliers. It’s coming and we can’t stop it and don’t want to stop it.

Montgomery: And the women are not just out there driving, but out there winning.

Force: Exactly. And I’m loving that. And so if I was to jump up and go off on that girl because she beat me, and I don’t do that if a male driver beats me. I just said, “Hey, way to go, kiddo,” and gave her a hug because DeJoria’s a sweetheart. I know her dad, he was so happy, he was jumping up and down, and I also know she was proud for her dad and he was proud for her so why would I want to get stupid even if I was to hurt that because when my kid wins, I want everybody to cheer that.

The women work hard. I ain’t saying they work harder than the men, but they work as hard and they put up with a lot of crap. Shirley put up with the most. In the early days the men didn’t want them here, you know? They didn’t want the women in NASCAR, but Danica’s there. What are you doing to do about it? Angelle’s on her way back. I saw her today. She says, “I’m coming back.”

Toni Montgomery and Mike Neff also had the chance to speak with Courtney Force at the Carolina Nationals. Courtney currently sits third in Funny Car points with two events remaining, behind her father and points leader Matt Hagan. She’s been one of the faces of diversity for the NHRA, scoring the coveted special Wally for the 100th victory by a female in NHRA’s professional categories, and while she understands her impact, there’s also a sense that Force sees herself as just another driver on the track.

Montgomery: You are now officially the winningest female driver in Funny Car history. What do you think about having that title?

Courtney Force: It’s pretty cool. I’m definitely proud of my team. I owe it to my guys who work hard on my Traxxas car, because of my sponsors and everything, I really owe it to everyone that put all the effort into this. It’s definitely cool. It’s an honor for sure. I always looked at my sister’s career highlights and hers was getting four wins, my sister Ashley when she raced in the Funny Car category, so that was always kind of my personal goal was to reach four wins. When we reached five, I didn’t realize what it really meant, in making me the winningest in Funny Car history. It was a pretty big shock and definitely cool but to me it’s just another win under my belt and striving for many more.

NHRA 2014 4 Wides Courtney Force
Courtney Force took the record from older sister Ashley for the most wins in Funny Car by a female driver. Credit: Toni Montgomery.

Montgomery: You got that 100th win too so you got to take home the special Wally, too.

Force: Yeah, that was pretty cool. That was another exciting thing. It’s kind of cool that the two wins that our Traxxas team has had this season have been such huge wins in our sport, not just for me personally. It’s definitely exciting. It’s an honor to have my name on the list of 100 females, alongside my sister and so many other names, legends in our sport. Being able to get that 100th win for females and to have two Wallys at the end of the day was an exciting win for me for sure.

Montgomery: Is it extra bragging rights because you passed your sister?

Force: I know. I heard her and I thought maybe that will get her to come back and defend her name out here. She’s accomplished so much in this sport but I owe it to my guys who really got me there. I was hoping maybe if I got a fifth win and passed her, maybe that will encourage her to get back out here to steal it back.

Montgomery: Speaking of stealing it back, you are also just two wins ahead of Alexis. She’s out there now and she’s tearing things up too. Is there any kind of friendly competition between the two of you?

Force: No, I don’t think so. I just went up and told her how excited I was for her to get that win at Indy. That was a huge win. I texted her after and told her, “Your name has gone down in the history books. I’m so jealous! You did such a great job.” She had a good car all weekend and she’s really stepped up this season. Her car and team has really made a big turn this year. I’m proud of her. I’m excited for her.

Obviously at the end of the day I’m the one that wants to get the win for myself and my team but it is cool to watch her and see her succeed as well. We’re always supporting the females in the sport so it’s exciting but we both are out here to get wins for ourselves and our teams and our sponsors so at the end of the day that’s what we’re both striving for.

Montgomery: You race on a team with your whole family so talk about what that’s like. All four of you are in the Countdown and three of you are in the same division so you are competing against each other for the Funny Car championship.

Force: You’ve got to beat the best to be the best. That’s the line I’m going after because it’s tough. They are two of the toughest guys in Funny Car right now. They’re one and two in the points so they are the ones that my team is going after. They’re the ones to beat right now. They’ve got great cars and everyone is going after them. At the end of the day all of us are just fighting to get that trophy for our entire team. If any of our cars got it we’d be happy but individually we want to be the team that gets it.

Montgomery: That’s exactly what Robert Hight said. Driving the Funny Car, how much of it is just manhandling that thing, or maybe I should say wrestling it down the track? Maybe manhandle isn’t the best word.

Force: That’s what my dad always said. That’s exactly what he told me, “You’ve got to learn how to manhandle the car,” before going in to Funny Car, during my whole training process before going in to the pros. But I think it’s different on different tracks and different runs. You’re manhandling it a little bit harder when it drops a hole because you have so much more horsepower and everything just shoving that much more in one direction, making it not even. You’re kind of countersteering it. I’m driving the car sideways through the finish line and that’s not a typical run but it makes it harder when you drop a hole or you’re spinning the tires or you smoke the tires on the hit.

There’s so many things that go into it. Pedaling the car is definitely up to the driver, if they can get it down to the other end. There’s a lot of factors but manhandling it, you definitely have got to be prepared in the time you need to. Sometimes I don’t even think we realize how hard we’re handling these cars. They’re 10,000-horsepower cars and we’re launching at four Gs and negative Gs when we hit the parachutes. It’s funny, I’ll watch an on-board camera from one of the drivers and you’ll see them driving it like this and it’s such a fast run you don’t even realize that you’re doing it. Your instinct kind of kicks in.

Montgomery: Do you approach the Countdown races any differently than you approach the other races in the season?

Force: Definitely a lot harder. You approach it with aggressiveness. You can’t make mistakes and you’ve got to make every round count. Like yesterday, we were excited, we picked up three bonus points in Q1 being the quickest car out there. Q2 we pushed it a little too hard and stumbled down a few spots. That’s kind of the name of the game. You’ve got to really make every run count out here if you to move up the ladder, and definitely going rounds on race day. You definitely approach it hard. You want to be on the top half of the field going in to race day. All those factors line up. You definitely want to have a good head start when you’re going in to the Countdown.

Montgomery: When you go out and visit with your fans, do you find you have maybe a lot of young girls who come up to you who look up to you as a role model?

Force: Definitely. There’s a lot of young girls that come up and say, “I want to be a race car driver just like you,” and “I’ve watched you on TV” and it’s exciting to think that you can have an influence on a kid at such a young age just by watching you hold up a Wally at the end of the day on TV on ESPN. It’s a cool feeling. It’s a little surreal to think that you could be changing a kid’s life and their decision of the path they want to go down just because of what you do. It’s kind of cool and exciting. It’s a lot of fun and if you can influence someone to do something like that then I think we’ve definitely done our job.

Montgomery: I notice that Graham is here and his season is over now so he gets to come to more of your races. He’s in IndyCar, you’re in NHRA. You both race, but it’s completely different. You also both have crazy schedules that keep you frequently in different places.

Force: It’s a challenge, flying to different places and our schedules, trying to figure out where they’re overlapping, making it out to each other’s races because we want to be there to support each other. It makes it tough, but it’s fun. It’s the first time that I’ve really met someone that has so many common interests with me. I’ve dated people back home and it’s kind of nice that I have someone who can come out here and support me at races and has kind of a bizarre job as well to allow him to travel so much to come out and vice versa. The coolest thing is that we both understand what we’re going through. We kind of had the same type of childhood. His dad out there racing, my dad out there racing. It’s kind of funny comparing stories and realizing how similar our lives have been. It’s kind of cool. It’s a lot of fun having him out here and being able to talk racing to someone, have someone actually be able to understand it.

Obviously it is two different types of series. A lot of the time I’m still figuring out what the heck he’s doing out there. It’s just kind of fun to learn from each other. We’ve been able to talk belts and helmets and safety, little stuff like that that I’ve never really been able to talk to anyone else about. It makes for an interesting relationship.

Neff: Why Funny Car instead of Top Fuel?

Force: Because Dad did Funny Car. That’s what I always wanted to do as a kid. When I started off in a Super Comp dragster and then a Top Alcohol dragster, those were always the things that were to get me to Funny Car. Dad always said that the cockpit, everything inside, the routine is the closest to a Funny Car and that’s kind of what we learned from the other drivers. That’s why Ashley did it, that’s why Brittany did it, that’s why I did it. Brittany wanted to stick to Top Alcohol dragster. She wanted to stay with it and compete competitively there. We were both in college. We finished college but I wanted to go and switch to Funny Car because that’s just what I wanted. It was always exciting to watch and Dad was always on fire every weekend but they were just the coolest cars. You had to put so much work into driving one of these Funny Cars. They are so unpredictable, so fast and they don’t always want to go straight all the time so it really is a challenge, and an exciting challenge for not only the teams and the crew chiefs but the drivers as well. Nothing against the dragsters. They are going a little bit faster than we are but I see that it’s a lot more to handle in a Funny Car at times when the motor’s right in front of you. You can kind of see all the action and we have bodies that can blow off.

There’s a lot of different little aspects. At least in a Top Fuel, if it blows up behind you, you’re not feeling all the heat and you’re not dealing with a bunch of flames in your face. It’s a little bit different. It’s funny, I’ll get out of the car and I got mad at Brittany, I said, “Your makeup is perfect!” I get out of the car and I’m black. I actually took a picture. I got back from a run and I was in the lounge and I just took a picture of my face and sent it to Brittany. Literally my face was a shade of gray because of the clutch and everything is right in front of you. I get to be a part of all of it and I don’t mind getting dirty so I love it.

Neff: I’m curious, for getting down the track, do some drivers like to launch harder than others or is it all pretty much about getting the car down the track?

Force: It’s about just adapting. When the cars launch, you don’t really want to set it up any softer than any of the others, otherwise they’re going to outrun you so you set these cars up to the extreme every run.

Neff: When you’re driving road courses or ovals you can set a car up for a certain feel but when you’re launching in three or four seconds I don’t know if there’s a lot of feel in that.

Force: The only thing you can do sometimes is slow down the clutch or mess with the timing system if there’s a spot in the track that’s a little bit harder for the cars to go over and they go up in smoke a lot of times in certain lanes at certain tracks.

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