For legendary drag racer John Force, life is one big to-do list, a litany of tasks to be crossed off and replaced by ever more in a cycle that never ends. Crash? Just come back the next week. Can't this time because you have debilitating and potentially career-ending injuries? Make your recovery your new focus. Car's not running right? Just shake up a team that's been unchanged at the top for 25 years. Severe budget cuts? Simple: downsize. There's always an answer.
And it never stops. Slotted into his to-do list, alongside the endless responsibilities that occupy any team owner, are crises unique to John Force: groom one daughter to be Funny Car's next star; find sponsorship for a Top Fuel car for another daughter; and work with the suits on that upcoming biography, the new reality TV deal, and that movie studio that's going in down at the race shop.
Taking down Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan with just two races left in the NHRA Countdown was just another item for Force to write a line through – though this one was made infinitely harder by what had happened at the previous event. The Reading, Pa., race was a disaster of epic proportions for John Force Racing, with Robert Hight, Ashley Force Hood and, of much greater importance, Force himself out after one round.
Force never made it to the starting line. “When the clutch pedal falls off on the floor on the burnout, you're done,” he says. “Just about anything can happen and you can still half-ass some kind of a run, just in case the other guy red-lights or breaks something. But how the hell are you going to win if you can't even back up from the burnout?”
Hagan reached the final that day and, with the bonus points for resetting the national record in qualifying, earned more points than some winners do. Now Force was three rounds down, panic was setting in, and there was only one thing to do: have a meeting.
“I got on the phone leaving the track and started calling everybody,” Force remembers. He calls a lot of meetings. “I talk too much, I'm like a drill sergeant on these guys. Matter of fact, I just called every one of my crew chiefs and assistant crew chiefs this morning – and they're all on vacation. I do it all the time. Works on everybody except my wife.
“Anyway, we're all in this pub by the Philadelphia airport, and I told everyone that our strategy just changed. ‘We can't just wait for Hagan to fail,' I said, ‘because he won't. The lead's gone. We're not on defense anymore – there's no lead to protect.'”
Then Force, who hadn't won since June, swept the last two races, the Las Vegas Nationals and the NHRA Finals. He met Hagan in a Vegas final that he had to win, but Hagan still led the standings by almost two full rounds as they headed into the Finals in Pomona, Calif.
“From the final at Vegas, everything that possibly could have gone wrong went wrong for that kid,” Force says. “You really gotta hand it to him. We got to Pomona, and I didn't want to hear his name. I told everybody on the radio, ‘You do not cheer if he loses; you do not jump up and down.' 'Course, they did anyway.”
Hagan's engine let go just before the finish line in round one and he narrowly lost to number 13 qualifier Bob Tasca III, giving Force the opening he needed.
“It was the shot heard 'round the world,” Force says. “We figured Hagan would get to the final for sure. Why wouldn't he? He was in the last three. So I could win the race and still not win the championship, if he was the runner-up. I figured I could beat him, figured I could drive head to head with him, but if it didn't happen until the final round, it would be too late.”
Tasca made sure that didn't happen, but Force still had two rounds to go.
“There was pressure – a lot – but I know how to turn off the fear, the kind of fear that makes your knees knock,” Force says. “Learned it years ago.”
Eliminations that day made him appreciate, more than he has at any time since forming drag racing's first modern superteam in the mid 1990s, the value of teamwork.
“I ran last, every round,” he says. “Robert went first in the first round, then Ashley, then me. They were aggressive, and if they made it down through there, then we'd know that we could make it, too. When Robert's car smoked the tires, he got on the radio while he was still in the shutdown area and told us, ‘Choke it down, choke it down,' and we wouldn't have made it if he hadn't. Same thing second round – Ashley went first. If I spun the tires either time, it would have been all over.”
Instead, Force beat former teammate Gary Densham in round one and upstart Bob Bode in the quarterfinals, clinching the record-breaking 15th Funny Car championship of his career and taking the final step in his long journey back from a horrendous top-end crash in September 2007.
“I can never do anything more than this,” Force says. “I'll tell you how big this one is to me: The book about my life that's coming out soon ends right there at Pomona. It starts there, with me sitting on the starting line, then it's like I dream back to the start of my career, and then it ends up back at Pomona, 2010. This championship isn't about it being the 15th, another record. It's about being told, ‘It's over, you'll be walking with a cane the rest of your life, you'll never race again,' and so this means everything to me. Racing's been my whole life.”
It's a race with no finish line. Force has never really figured out his endgame. What's it going to take for him to quit one day? Who knows? That's always a thought for another day.
“I'm afraid that when I'm done driving, I won't be able to handle it,” he says. “What am I supposed to do, be like Marlon Brando and balloon up to 500 pounds and die? I'm ready for 2011 right now. I don't want no vacation – I'd race year 'round if I could. I only have so many years left, right? Five, then I'm probably done.
“People work all their lives, then they want to golf, they want a cabin in the hills? God bless 'em. This is my cabin in the hills, right here. I always want to be at the racetrack. I'm a guy who grew up living in a trailer park with five brothers and sisters, and I never wanted to be home – still don't. I'd stay out late, and I only went home to sleep. If I didn't have anything to do, I'd just drive around. I was always in my car. That's where I ate, where I kept my picture of my girlfriend, where I kept all my Playboys, where I belong.”
The Tuesday morning after the Finals, right when life couldn't get any better, Force was shocked to learn – in an e-mail – that Austin Coil, the greatest fuel crew chief of all time, was leaving his employ after 26 years.
“For whatever reason, he won't talk to me,” Force says, obviously hurt. “Nobody knows where he is. He said, ‘Force, please don't call me,' and I know why: I'd talk him out of it. So I'm leaving him alone. I walk by his office, and everything's gone. It ain't the same.”
This is a big one, probably the biggest ever, but for Force, it's just one more thing to cross off his to-do list that never ends.
Destiny Opens the Door
Bob Tasca III was both benefactor and beneficiary of JFR
Bob Tasca III was in two finals this year, but to him, his biggest round-win came in a first-round matchup with incoming points leader Matt Hagan at the NHRA Finals because that's the one that cleared the way for fellow Ford driver John Force's championship run.
“It was destiny,” Tasca says. “The racing gods wanted me and Hagan, first round. It was a lot of pressure, the biggest race of my career, but it's like John told me, ‘You gotta believe. Don't do anything different than you ever have; just believe you can do it,' and we opened the door for our sister car.”
The “One Ford” alliance forged in March between Tasca, Tim Wilkerson, Force, and Force team drivers Robert Hight and Ashley Force Hood has elevated all five. “It would be tough for a single-car team to compete,” Tasca says. “Wilkerson has his team, Force has his three, and we have ours, but we share chassis, body, clutch, aero and engine technology. But come Sunday, we're all out to beat each other. You can't take the fight out of a driver.”
Aboard the Quick Lane Ford Mustang tuned by Chris Cunningham, Tasca finished a career-high fifth in the standings and took his third career win.
“If all five teams weren't working together and working with Ford engineers, we wouldn't all have won races this year,” Tasca says. “You're chasing thousandths of a second. It's people and data that get you championships, and that's the only thing we're out here for.”