A YEAR TO RECHARGE, FORCE READY TO LIGHT UP DRAG RACING AGAIN
For John Force, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion, sitting out the 2020 season after the pandemic struck was nearly unbearable. However, his "unbearable" wasn't nearly as bad as his wife Laurie Force's.
"Laurie said, 'I can't take another round of this pandemic with you. It's painful.' "
And the truth is, Laurie wasn't the only victim of a somewhat idle Force.
"Well, let me tell you, the person that's most happy is Robert Hight," Force added. "Because he had to sit here with me every day, five, six days a week sometimes, on weekends, and go over this [crap] over and over, because that's how I remember. I go over everything. Repetition, repetition. He will be happy."
The truth is, maybe more than Laurie and Hight will be happy as the pandemic inspired Force in more ways than one.
"I've been training myself to try to be a better person," Force declared. "You've got to treat employees; you've got to treat your family better.
"I've changed my ways about having my mood swings where I jump up and get mad one day. People are going, 'Are you taking a pill? Because you're completely different. We never see you get angry at stuff [anymore], even when somebody gets in your face.' "
When the pandemic shut down drag racing March 12, 2020, the experience forced the most prolific drag racer in the sport to do a double-take on the only way he'd known life since 1979, his first year as a professional drag racer.
"I couldn't explain it to anybody unless you've lived it like I have for 40 years," Force said. "I had to do it for financial reasons. I couldn't make it. I reset my sponsors to come back, and I only had a few losses in sponsorship, but I survived it. I had to spend a lot of my own money to get us through, to keep my leads on, and I lost a few of them. But we're ready to go back.
"The hard part is, then you're thrown in the middle of a pandemic where your life has changed. You can't even go to the movies. The only satisfaction you got was watching racing and watching it on TV. And you find yourself rooting for the guys that are winning and the guys that are losing. You can't explain what it was like. It's gut-wrenching."
Force confirmed what he already knew; drag racing was the only way he knew how to make a living. And for the first time in four decades, he was out of work.
"I was starting to worry. I thought, 'Well, this is a pandemic making you feel this way,' " Force explained. "That everything's screwed up. Because you wake up and the things that you always did, you don't do anymore. And all of a sudden, that's good for about four months. Then all of a sudden it started being different. Like, 'Wait a minute. It's like you don't have any value if you don't race.' So what you learned from all this is how much you love it. How much you love the fans, how much you love the employees and the sponsors."
Force admits he wanted to call his myriad of sponsors, first to say how much he cared about them and appreciated them. However, there was another underlying reason.
"I love you because I got somebody to talk to," Force admitted.
Force also said he caught himself at times calling others than just those who signed his sponsor checks. If he couldn't reach Matt Hagan for a chat, he'd then reach out to Dickie Venables, Hagan's crew chief. He even reached out to Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence.
Tuesday, with the announcement of his return, the phone has been working in reverse and it's been his phone that's ringing off the hook.
"A lot of people knew it was going to happen, that we were coming back," Force said. "People would say, 'Thank you for coming back.'
"Racers would say, 'No, thank you for keeping it alive. I owe you.' "
Force understands some will question his decision based on self-preservation, and to use a current worn-out phrase, he says, "it is what it is."
"I ain't trying to put a deal on me that I'm a bad guy, I had no choice," Force explained. "I had to make that decision because contracts that I had written, a lot are in those contracts. And if you can't deliver, how can you expect that they go on just paying you? And they were paying me, but we worked through the end of the year. I spent some of my own money, we worked it out with them, and here we are."
In most sports, athletes make terrible fans. In the downtime, Force said he learned to be a fan, a view he hasn't been able to appreciate since 1979 fully.
"I watched the show from one end to the other," Force admitted. "A lot of drivers just go watch their category. No, I got many friends out there from motorcycle to Pro Stock, Top Fuel, Funny Car. But I've got friends in the Junior Dragsters and the Pro Mods and stuff. And so, I got to where I followed cars even if I didn't know the driver personally. I liked the car because of the way it raced. And I was excited.
"I was hurt that I wasn't in it, but at first, it was really hard, and then it got to where I got into the deal. I got into it like who was going to win? I became a fan."
The experience was refreshing, Force confirmed, but now fully vaccinated, he said it's time to get back to what he does best.
"I realized I've got to go back racing," Force said.
Force regrets his return will only be with three teams; two Funny Cars, and one Top Fueler. Austin Prock, the 2019 NHRA Rookie of the Year as a Top Fuel competitor, is sidelined for the time being, but will remain with the team alongside his father Jimmy and serving as a test driver.
"The Prock kid is still with me; he'll still be testing. I've got to stay in the seat for a while, but I'm going to try to bring that sponsor back," Force said. "I don't know if I can, so we'll see where it goes."
The time off helped Force recharge his batteries,
"Let me tell you what it did for me, and I ain't trying to kid nobody," Force explained. "I'm up there in years. But I was overweight, lost a lot of body muscle, and I was able to go into a workout deal every other day. I have a gym in my home, a big one. Every other day, I worked out two and a half, three hours. Because when you work all day, when you go to work at 7 a.m., and you work all day with Robert, you're stressed when you go home. So you go home, you follow the news to see where the country, where the pandemic's going; politics, all of that, you shouldn't watch. But I was able, and I went on Nutrisystem, I lost 25 pounds. I got people looking at me and saying, 'Are you sick? What's wrong with you?'
"No, I just lost weight. With the workouts, I was able to build my muscle back. I ain't saying that I'm like a young guy like Robert Hight or Austin Prock, but for me, I've gone back at least five years, if not 10.
"So I'm excited about it because I got the time to get myself in shape, and I couldn't; my lifestyle wouldn't allow it. And to be able to go on Nutrisystem, to be able to go on a workout deal for; at the end of this month, it'll be 12 months. And I have been religious and did not fail. Every other day, sometimes days in a row. And that doesn't make me Superman; that doesn't make me like Hagan or anybody, but it makes me where I can do my job into the future."
It's going to take some time for Force to get used to the new normal.
"I don't have 100 employees anymore," Force said. "I've probably got 60, 70 if I'm lucky. I lost people, but I kept all the leads, and I'm bringing people back. I don't even know the number until I get there. But what I was able to do, I said, 'If I can't win, then there's no reason to drag race.'
"Every driver that's out there believes they can win. If you can't believe that, then why do it? I want to be there with the fans. I can't wait until they open the gates and we pack them in again. But we only have to follow the pandemic to see what happens."