NHRA’s John Force still not slowing down at 66

CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) — John Force zigs and zags his scooter through a long line of cars and people, slaloming at a cadence of full accelerator to power braking and back again.

He completes the circuit and throws his left hand into the air.

“Where are they?” he asks, banking around for another look.

Again Force weaves through the phalanx, missing impediments by millimeters, beep-beeping his way past pedestrians who dare step in front of a man who blasts his way to 300 mph on a four-wheeled rocket for a living.

Finally, Force finds what he’s looking for, lined up with all the other dragsters at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

“OK, let’s do this,” Force tells his crew, who are too focused on last-second adjustments under the flipped-up body of his Funny Car to look up.

A few minutes and 3.955 seconds later, Force is celebrating at the end of the 1,000-foot drag strip after adding to his probably-never-to-be-matched victories record.

No big surprise there. Racing a Funny Car faster than anyone else is what Force does best.

His 16 series championships are more than the next three drivers combined. His 143 victories are 98 more than anyone else. No one has appeared in as many finals as Force has lost (100).

But Force’s run doesn’t end at the finish line.

Race day for the Funny Car king is like a marathon broken up into a series of sprints.

There are sponsors to schmooze, team decisions to be made, adjustments in strategy and to the car for the next round.

He checks on his racing daughters, Courtney and Brittany, chats with team president/fellow driver/son-in-law Robert Hight. The grandkids, a constant in the John Force Racing pit area this day, get kisses on the head whenever he passes by.

Daughter Ashley, a four-time Funny Car winner who keeps up her racing certification in case she’s needed in a pinch, films it all while working as the team’s vice president.

And the fans. There’s always time for them.

Force uses any break in the schedule to work the ropes outside the pits, signing autographs, shaking hands, posing for photos and hamming it up with fans who line up 10 deep to get a glimpse or a coveted interaction with drag racing’s Pied Piper.

The man knows how to work a crowd, too, flashy his pearly upper teeth for every photo, dishing out signed hats — sometimes right off his head — and holding babies to get those Awwww! moments.

“He truly gets it,” NHRA President Peter Clifford said. “We’re blessed to have him as a driver.”

Team members, including his daughters, usually don’t refer to the 66-year-old as John, Mr. Force or dad.

He’s simply Force.

Not because he’s some rock star diva. Force just is what he is.

Naturally caffeinated — coffee or soda just make him wear out quicker — Force bounds around the complex, multitasking his roles of team owner, race-car driver, sport ambassador, entertainer and patriarch of drag racing’s first family.

“I’ll put John Force with anybody to get the best out of their team or their drivers,” Hight said. “Everything is always positive. You never believe you’re going to get beat.”

Force puts them in position by pulling the strings on a spider web of commitments that would make an event planner dizzy.

Before each round of last Sunday’s races, Force stalked the pit area like an energetic panther, looking for the next fire to put our or person to accommodate. He rarely has a moment of down time.

This is the way he likes it.

On a team filled with drivers and crew much younger than he is — all part of his design for the future of John Force Racing — he keeps up by never slowing down.

“I keep moving all day. That’s the key to it,” Force said. “People say, ‘You just love this.’ I do love it, but that ain’t why I run all the time. I do it to keep myself alive.”

And the promotional motion never ends.

Before last Sunday’s opening-round run against John Hale, Force held up a flat, hand-drawn character as his team strapped him into the car — just so a sponsor could take a photo of him with it.

After a thumbs-up, Force rolled up to the starting line and blistered Hale with a 322-mph takedown.

From his early days, when a bar conversation could turn into a meal or money for a set of tires, Force’s defining characteristic has always been the ability to sell himself and drive the car better than anyone else.

“Racing is what I do, but all the other stuff allows me to do it,” said Force, whose juggling act spans five decades.

It helps that Force enjoys all that other stuff.

After his first-round run, Force energized a group of sponsors with a rousing speech, then posed for a group photo with his fellow drivers before signing dozens of autographs. The next round was right around the corner, yet Force made his way through the crowd several times, making sure everyone had all the photos, autographs and face time they needed.

After Brittany won her semifinal race, setting up a showdown with Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel’s first all-female final since 1982, Force stopped by her team for a pep talk and a round of applause.

Force’s only true break came just before the finals, when he sat on a step and talked to his wife, Laurie, while wolfing down a cup of peaches. A few minutes later, he was racing off on his scooter, weaving through fans to the staging area for the final round.

“There’s really no one like him in any sport,” said Terry Blount, NHRA’s vice president of public relations and communications.

Force was spent after a four-round day ended with a loss to Tim Wilkerson. Brittany lost to Pritchett in the Top Fuel final, too, leaving a disappointed pall hanging over the JFR compound.

After taking care of a media obligation inside his RV, Force was summoned outside.

“I’ve got to go,” Force said. “There’s a guy out there who wants a photo.”

And with that, the Force was on the move again.

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