How Fear Finally Caught Up with NHRA Legend John Force

After more than 70 years on Earth—with more than 40 of those years as a drag racer—John Force thought he knew himself pretty well.

That was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The winningest drag racer in NHRA Camping World Drag Racing history, with 151 national event wins and 16 Funny Car championships, Force has crashed, been on fire, slid down a dragstrip upside down and came close to dying in the worst wreck of his career back in 2007.

Along the way, Force became one of the toughest competitors the sport has ever seen. While he’s used a few choice four-letter words in his life, one four-letter word was not in his vocabulary: F-E-A-R.

How many times have we heard Force utter the phrase, “No fear!”

Yet the pandemic was a whole different opponent, unlike any Force has faced in his racing career. At his age (he’ll turn 72 in May), he was in the prime demographic of those most susceptible to not only get the virus, but also to suffer the most.

Even die.

And that scared the absolute crap out of him, a fear that remains to this day, even after undergoing two vaccine shots that he hopes will keep him immune if the virus once again flares back up in the coming weeks and months. The fear of contracting COVID also did something unexpected that the fast-moving, almost hyperkinetic Force never, ever experienced in all his years of racing: it slowed him down.

In the one year that he was sidelined due to the pandemic, Force not only learned a lot about himself that he never knew, it also prompted him to make changes in his life that he never thought he would.

In short, John Force was forced to stop and smell the roses of life, and he’s emerged almost an entirely different person as the 2021 NHRA season begins this weekend at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

“The pandemic put a fear in me at my age that I could get sick, and with all the scares, you look at a lot of stuff differently,” Force told Autoweek. “Probably the thing I learned most is in all these years of racing, taking in millions of dollars and always saying there was never enough money, always complaining, always crying, always growing, every day was seven days a week, you know, around the clock, how to get the money, how to make it.

“And as much as it looked like I was enjoying it, winning became everything. It even took priority over the family.”

COVID did to Force what nothing else could. From the time he climbed out of his race car last February after the Phoenix race, until he climbed back into it for the first time this past weekend at the PRO preseason test in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the first time in his life, drag racing took a back seat to everything else.

The only thing that mattered was his family. And he spent the last year not only growing closer to his wife and children, but also to his sons-in-law and especially his grandchildren, including the most recent addition to the family, granddaughter Harlan Ann, born in November to daughter Courtney and son-in-law Graham Rahal.

In a sense, Force almost had to reacquaint himself with his family. Sure, he shepherded daughters Ashley, Brittany and Courtney to follow in his footsteps as a racer. He worked out million-dollar sponsorships on behalf of those kids. He built out John Force Racing with son-in-law and racing teammate Robert Hight, who is president of JFR.

But Force came to realize he really didn’t know his family as well as he thought he did, and the pandemic finally gave him that opportunity to get to know everyone much better – and without being centered around drag racing.

“When the family started racing, I took priority to focus on that (but) I didn’t really get to know them,” Force admitted. “So I stopped here for a year. I know them but just a lot of things that you don’t say to your children and I’ve said a lot (since the pandemic began). Now I think they’re all worried about me, like ‘Boy, Dad’s saying stuff he never said before.’”

The new-found appreciation for family, life and everything that makes it also extended to sponsorship. When Force decided to shut down all his teams primarily due to the virus, he also became introspective and got to know his sponsors as more than just walking, talking wallets that funded all of his racing operations.

“I had a sponsor the other day say, ‘Wow, it’s like you’re a different guy.'”

“I got a wakeup call to the appreciation of sponsors, the money they spent for the return,” Force said. “I had a sponsor the other day say, ‘Wow, it’s like you’re a different guy.’

“No, let’s be honest, I took you for granted. I just assumed you paid and you got everything we delivered, we won championships, we pitched the gospel, we sold product. You owe more than that, you owe that they gave you an opportunity. And I ain’t saying I ever let them down, but I’m going to give them more. So is Robert, so is Brittany.

“When I go out there this time, I’m going to pitch the gospel and I’m not just going to go through the ritual, I’m going to write it from the heart. When I talk about a sponsor, I’m going to visualize their faces and the people that allowed me to be here, because after 40 years, I took it for granted.

“So if there’s anything that happened to me is, I grew up. I grew up as a person, inside and out, that I now look at the world different. And instead of waking up, like, ‘Oh, man, another day, I’ve gotta make this work, I’ve gotta find another buck,’ it’s like ‘You’ve got enough here to make this work, John. Get out there and enjoy life before it’s over. And that’s what I’m gonna do.

“I know that I have to wake up and say, ‘Oh, bad attitude today, let’s get rid of that. Let’s get back in the good attitude, that you’re alive and you’re well and go on to the races. You got everything you ever dreamed of and you’re healthy.’ And that’s what I’ve learned. I’ve learned I grew up.

“I was just a crazy kid out of high school at 16-17 years old, dreaming of racing. And I went down that road for 40 years and I never looked back. I thought this was what it was all about. And I missed it (during the pandemic). I missed the look on people’s faces, the opponent when you beat him, the opponent when he beats you. I missed all of that. I got a second chance here and I’m not going to miss it.”

Force and his teams were in Gainesville last March, preparing for the Gatornationals, when NHRA pulled the plug on the season due to the virus. Now, Force and Co. are back at Gainesville, picking up where they essentially left off.

“We flew down here to Gainesville last year, and we were turned around, we never got to our hotels,” Force said. “The world’s changed, a lot of things are different, how you go about business. I’ve got to change John Force Racing, restructure it. I got real big, I needed to pull that back to a degree but never to get in the way of winning. That’s what we’re really all about. Owning Force American Made machine shops, chassis shops, paint shops, still got it all.

“I’ve done a lot of winning down here in Gainesville, and been on fire down here too. But just to be here is very important.

“We’re still financially stable. But we’re like everybody, we’re watching where the pandemic’s going. Just to be back in the saddle, it feels good to be in the race car. I’m overwhelmed with it. I’m trying to focus, but I’m really excited. The car comes easy to me. But just being back here is what’s important.

“(Like) I’ve always said about Tiger Woods, you’ve got to go into the zone, you’ve got to turn the switch off and that mainly comes from crashes that broke your arms and legs and put you in the hospital for months. You think, ‘Oh God, that could happen again.’ You’ve got to turn that switch off. Your mind needs to be focused on what you’ve been trained to do, driving that car over the last 40 years. And if you start to let fear get in it, you’re history. Nope, I don’t allow that.

“I know the ritual. Like I’ve always said, I could do it blindfolded. I wouldn’t kid you, if I had fears, I’d tell you, but I don’t. My fear is more of not getting back in the car and not getting a second chance. I needed to go back. I didn’t want it just to end at Gainesville last year. And here it is starting back again at Gainesville.”

And with it, a whole new John Force, too.

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