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Brute Force

This Good Ol' Boy May Be Ornery at Times, but His Attitude and Passion to Succeed Have Made Him One of Racing's Greatest

April 05, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Force is fired up.

The office of the world's most recognizable drag racer is a flurry of activity, voices raised, everyone trying to be heard. And Force is in the middle, typically getting in the last word.

Right now, Force would like to stick his cowboy boots through the phone and kick his attorney's you-know-what. He's passionate, but is he mean? Some in this loyal extended family think so. Force calls it intensity, but the line is blurry.

"I get wound up, but I ain't mean," Force says defensively. "That's what it takes to win 11 championships. You have to live it every day.

"That's probably what made me a success."

And what a success he is. Force is at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the SummitRacing.com Nationals this weekend, trying to put away the 100th national event funny car win in his National Hot Rod Assn. career. It will put him in rarefied air with the likes of Winston Cup drivers Richard Petty, who had 200 wins, and David Pearson, who had 105.

By comparison, A.J. Foyt won 79 times, the late Dale Earnhardt 76 times and Mario Andretti 65.

But Force is restless for any number of reasons. There's a snag in a land development deal. He could sell some stock at a huge profit, but he's balking because it's a sponsor that has shown faith in him. He doesn't like the location of a decal on the transporter truck. He's trying to determine if he really did talk to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith that morning or whether someone was playing a hoax.

And one other thing. He lost in the first round of his most recent race, the Gatornationals, when he failed to make a weekend pass under five seconds for the first time in years. Three weeks between races have been too long for someone who is unsure if he can ever be a guy who finishes second, third or fourth every week.

"If I was ever motivated going into a race ..." Force says before jumping back and forth between thoughts, topics and stream of consciousness as he is prone to do. "I know they talked about [winning the 100th in] Gainesville, but I had so many irons in the fire--I was filming commercials for [series sponsor] Powerade and I lost my focus and we lost the first round--well, the car dropped a cylinder and we just got outrun [by Dean Skuza]--but I really wasn't in the game."

He'll drive his Castrol-sponsored Mustang in Vegas with, appropriately, an Elvis Presley theme for Force, a huge Elvis fan. He has won at every track on the schedule except this one, and it will be the first national event for Force's daughter, Ashley, 19, driving a supercomp dragster.

It's a special week that could get a lot more special.

"If the track's good, we can run with the power boys because we are the power boys, and if the track's loose, I can drive with the best," Force says, not exaggerating the truth. "I want to get it over with. I want to do it because my daughter's going to be there, and now that she's driving, she'll know what it means to win because she's been trying to win. I want to do it because I want to stand up there with all the guys and say we did it as a team."

The team concept is very important to Force. A homage to Vince Lombardi hangs on his office wall, and he insists his three funny car teams--with drivers Tony Pedregon, who won in Gainesville, and Gary Densham, who set the national speed record in the season opener--share their bonuses evenly; he doesn't want one of his crew dogging it if Pedregon needs a part from the Force trailer.

Since 1993, Force has won 78 times in 190 events (41%), and been second 33 times (17%). He has won the series championship 11 times, including the last nine.

He credits three entities for getting him here. His parents, Harold and Betty, supported him in the early years with all the money they had--which wasn't much. His cousin, Gene Beaver, affectionately called "Uncle Beavs"--whose ashes are in a small trophy in Force's office--sold Force a Vega funny car and taught him the ropes when he had no license, no money and no clue. And Austin Coil became Force's crew chief in 1985 on one condition.

"Coil said if I'm going to work for you, you have to agree to let me teach you how to drive," Force says. "That's when he put a throttle stop on the car. That's when we ran Odessa, El Paso, every [bad track] across the country and I said, 'Why are we running all these junk racetracks? They don't pay enough money.' He said because if you can learn to run on every track in the country, when you get to those national events when it rains, you'll be able to go right down a slick road.

"That's what I tell my daughter, anyone can win on a good track; can you win on a bad track?"

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