No Reason To Quit: Driver John Force Still Racing Full Throttle Force has been drag racing professionally since 1974. The 65-year-old has gone from blowing up his 10,000-horsepower engines to winning championships, and he has all the scars to prove it.
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No Reason To Quit: Driver John Force Still Racing Full Throttle

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No Reason To Quit: Driver John Force Still Racing Full Throttle

No Reason To Quit: Driver John Force Still Racing Full Throttle

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Boy, it's been an exciting World Cup so far. But I know a lot of Americans don't get that excited about the beautiful game. Often you have to wait a while for some scoring action. If you're one of those impatient types, it's OK. For you, we have a world-class sport that's fast - and loud.


RATH: If the sound of that nitro-methane supercharged engine makes you go all wobbly, the National Hot Rod Association has the sport for you. Top fuel dragsters, known as Funny Cars, accelerate to over 300 miles per hour. Each race lasts just four seconds.

This weekend, race day is in Joliet, Illinois. As NPR's Daniel Hajek reports, the driver to beat has been competing for 40 years.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: If you have ever wondered what it's like to fire up the engine of a 10,000 horsepower Top Fuel Funny Car, just ask John Force.

JOHN FORCE: It'll blow your ear sockets off.

HAJEK: He's 65 years old and still in the driver's seat.

J. FORCE: When you hit that throttle, you'd think an H-bomb just went off. The motor just roars. When that car leaves, you're talking 4 to 5 G's, space shuttle. It can shake you so hard it can knock you out. You get to the lights, foot off that gas, shut that engine off, parachutes are on.




J. FORCE: And on a good day, you blaze down through there. It's a good day win or lose - better if you win. But if you're alive at the the other end, it's a good day.

HAJEK: For as long as John Force can remember, he's had a love for cars. He would sneak out of his families cramped, beat-up trailer home just to sit in his mom's red Buick Wildcat.

J. FORCE: The car became your bedroom. You carried your girlfriend's picture on the dash, you know, your football helmet in the back seat, your schoolbooks. At the end of the day, cars were a way of life.

HAJEK: The only thing better than sitting in that Buick was racing it.

J. FORCE: That was the first car I ever went down a racetrack in. And my dad was madder than hell.

HAJEK: But racing was in his blood. And by 1974, he made a career out of it, working on his car out of his brother's garage.

J. FORCE: There'd be nights we slept on the shop floor all night long and get up in the morning and go right back to work to fix the car.

HAJEK: And they'd use junk parts. That's all they could afford. On race day engines would blow and oil would spill.

LAURIE FORCE: The first race I saw him - his car was a ball of fire and his eyebrows were singed off.

HAJEK: That Laurie Force, John's wife.

L. FORCE: Even I looked at him and said maybe you should find something else to do (laughing). I did not really have faith in him. I mean, he was truly that bad.

HAJEK: But Force convinced her to stick around. She even worked on his crew, mixing fuel and packing the car's parachutes. She remembers for nine long seasons Force didn't win a single event.

L. FORCE: I don't think any of us knew what we were doing.

HAJEK: Then in 1986, Force signed a $5,000 contract with Castro Oil and everything changed. He started winning. Old ESPN interviews show him climbing out of his car, face covered in soot, hugging his crew.


J. FORCE: Ah God we did it. Are you [bleep] me? I didn't even think it. I didn't - huh? Oh [bleep]. [Bleep]. We did it. We did it. That's all that matters. I didn't even believe it. About 1,000 foot, she started nosing over, I thought what a hunk, it ain't going to happen. We did it.

HAJEK: From Montreal to Indianapolis, Force was unstoppable.


J. FORCE: I said put her in the sand. But I never thought she had dug in. That baby dipped on me, hooked the nose and what a ride.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: John Force, consistently the best interview in drag racing.

HAJEK: Force had a new crew chief, started setting national records and went on to win an unprecedented 16 world championships. Even his rivals respected his tenacity. Drivers like Cruz Pedragon.

CRUZ PEDRAGON: Oh, absolutely we've been rivals.

HAJEK: Pedragon recalls his rookie year in 1992, when he actually beat Force.

PEDRAGON: He was like the boxer on the ropes, bloody and one last gasp of hope. He just threw a flurry and was missing like crazy but he was giving it his all, you know?

HAJEK: Pedragon says that was especially true the day Force rolled his car on its roof, trying to get to the finish line. Post race ESPN interviews show Force's frustration.


J. FORCE: This damn thing ain't over yet. But I'm starting to wonder about it. I'm starting to get plenty pissed but we're not down on this damn title.

HAJEK: It was a high-intensity rivalry but Force kept it lighthearted. He had a nickname for Pedragon's McDonald's sponsored car.

J. FORCE: I called it the hamburger stand from hell.

HAJEK: Despite the jokes, drag racing is dangerous. That's the nature of the sport. Force says you never forget the close calls.

J. FORCE: Motor explodes, body can fly. Fire can come up in the cockpit. I've been known to scream a time or two out of fear. Anything can go wrong.

HAJEK: But nothing could prepare him for the race against Kenny Bernstein in Dallas back in 2007. They hit the throttle and at 315 miles per hour, Force's rear tire explodes.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: And John - whoa, whoa, whoa, big crash. John, there's a problem with his car. He comes across. He hits Bernstein. Both cars continue on. John's car is torn well up.

HAJEK: You can hear it in the voices of Paul Paige and Mike Dunn on ESPN. This was the worst crash of Force's career. Laurie Force says doctors didn't know if her husband would be able to walk again.

L. FORCE: In all the years of his racing, I don't recall him ever having to go to the hospital. I knew he'd had concussion. I knew he'd rolled over, caught on fire, you know, all kinds of stuff. But he was always OK until that day.

HAJEK: Force broke all four limbs and burned his hands. After countless surgeries and months of intense rehab, he miraculously returned to the track.

J. FORCE: I was driving with casts on my arms and legs. When I got back in the car, I wanted back in that bad. I should get out at my age, people say. No reason for me to quit. This is what I do.

HAJEK: And he's made it into a family business. All three of his daughters race too. His youngest, 26-year-old Courtney Force, won her 100th race last month, a first for a female in the sport. As for John Force, he's faster than ever. Last month, he shattered the national record in Topeka, Kansas - 318.84 miles per hour in 4.021 seconds. Daniel Hajek, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, fails to make the distinction between Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars. They are two separate classes of drag racing. John Force races in the Funny Car class. Additionally, the audio, as did the Web version previously, incorrectly says that Courtney Force won her 100th race in May. Force's win, in Topeka, Kan., was the 100th victory by a female driver in the National Hot Road Association, but it was not her 100th.]

RATH: This is NPR News.

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