NHRA’s John Force tries to keep smiling, but it isn’t easy these days
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely serious, but sometimes the best coping mechanism can be humor.
For example, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force is going through such major withdrawal from being unable to go drag racing that he’s starting to look like he may need a handout.
Just before California’s governor shut the state down two weeks ago, Force walked into his local coffee shop for some java and doughnuts. The customer ahead of him saw Force desperately rifling through his pockets for some change.
“She was getting her change back, turned toward me and said, ‘Here, just keep this. Will that cover it (his bill)?’,” Force told NBCSports.com. “The lady behind the register said, ‘Do you know who this is? That’s John Force.’
“I told the lady I really wanted to thank her, the fact she didn’t know who I was, but she’d help anybody. She said, ‘You looked like you were in trouble, and I had that change.’ It was funny to see this woman was going to help me.
“I didn’t take the help, but I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ Then I stood outside the door when she walked out. She didn’t want to get close to me because when you look at me, I’m a little rough anyway. I look like I’m going to tip over.”
In a mostly melancholy 30-minute interview with NBCSports.com Friday, the winner of a record 151 NHRA national events started off as his typical comedic self but then grew quite somber because of the seriousness of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
First, a bit more humor:
Because the state mandate is limiting how much he can go to his shop in suburban Los Angeles, Force is trying to keep busy around his house. But for a guy who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes drag racing, Force is somewhat challenged when it comes to spending his time wisely.
Instead of planning for his next race, he admits his days are typically spent binge-watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show,” exercising, cutting his own grass (instead of a lawn service) and turning off unnecessary lights in and outside of his house.
“I had so many lights on outside that my house looked like an airport landing strip,” Force said. “That shows how stupid I am. So I’ve been turning all the lights off.”
He’s even hard at work on his waistline – and getting as little respect as the late Rodney Dangerfield.
“My wife said, ‘Now’s a good time to go on a diet, fatty,” Force said.
So Force is now on Nutrisystem, although he admits he keeps fighting the urge to eat eight of the company’s brownies for dinner. And always the hustler, Force is thinking about pitching Nutrisystem to become a sponsor of his four-car Funny Car and Top Fuel operation.
Force, who turns 71 on May 4, then abruptly turns very serious, perhaps more so than he ever has.
The COVID-19 pandemic has a seemingly fearless man who has endured countless fires and crashes, including one that almost killed him in 2007, truly scared for his family, his fans, his sport and the world as a whole.
“I’ve always been a motivated kind of guy, but this is probably the toughest boat I’ve ever been in,” Force said. “We don’t use the term ‘business as usual’ anymore. That ain’t a real word. Our No. 1 priority is to keep everyone healthy.
“It got real serious and now the grim reaper is knocking at our door, and I’ll fight that son of a bitch too. … We’re going to do what we have to do to stay well and healthy.”
Like most of his fellow NHRA team owners, Force has had to make some very tough business decisions because of the financial impact of the outbreak.
He admits he’s had to lay off some employees, furlough others without pay and cut hours to just 20 per week for others.
“I had to make the payroll I could afford,” he said. “I’m not kidding anyone, I made cuts. My people worked with me, or I would have had to close the doors.
“I’m doing whatever it takes to save my company. We went to everywhere we could cut to survive. I know my people. I want to apologize to them for all this rough stuff, what it’s doing to their families, their homes, their college funds. But we’re going to make it and put it back together as quick as I can.”
Force knows and understands that some of the employees he was forced to lay off, furlough or cut their hours are actively looking for other jobs.
“I told them, ‘Hey, make all the money you can while you can,’” Force said. Then he added with a half-humorous, half-serious tone: “While you’re at it, if they’d like a 16-time Funny Car champ to drive that concrete truck, I will be there.”
As painful as the job cuts have been, Force also knows he has several dozen employees still relying upon him. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.
“I don’t want people that look at me as a leader and be negative,” he said. “I can’t do that. I’m going to be positive. That demon is at the door, but I ain’t going to let him in. I just ain’t.
“I laid in a hospital bed with arms and legs broke, and they told me I was done. I was never even going to walk again. And I showed them. I came back, and I still won.”
For nearly a half-century, Force’s life has been chasing trophies and winner’s checks. While he laughs about not knowing what to do with himself, he once again turns serious about how the current pandemic is actually good for something: Making up for missed quality time with his family.
“Half of us are workaholics,” he said. “We work every day to feed our kids. We don’t get to see our kids or grandkids. We don’t get to enjoy our home. I bitch that I’ve been in my pool just once in the last year, why did I build it?
“But now you’ve got an opportunity to go home, turn off the switch, which is the hardest thing in the world for me. To turn my mind off. Sit on that couch and be with your children.
“You wish you could have done that for the last 10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years in my case, and now you can finally go home. I’m looking for anything that’s positive.”
Force also is trying to stay connected with his legions of fans. He recently spent a day filming videos and other content that will be parsed out on his social media channels as well as on John Force Racing’s website for the next few weeks.
“We want to show our sponsors we’re still alive, and we know there’s fans out there that need to be entertained,” he said. “We want to help people.”
Force then paused and said he wanted to impart a message, even chuckling when he referred to one of his rivals:
“I just want to say to all the racers and NHRA people, I miss you and love you guys, even though we fight all the time,” he said. “NHRA is going to be back. You’ve got to stay positive.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it, going 300 mph, fighting the fight. Hell, I even miss Hagan (fellow Funny Car driver and one of his biggest rivals, Matt Hagan). You don’t realize what you’ve got until you lose it.”
That’s why Force remains ever the optimist that the coronavirus eventually will pass, and life will return to some semblance of normalcy.
Not only does he want to get back to the drag strip as soon as possible, the NHRA’s No. 1 ambassador also wants the fans to return as well.
“You’ve got to be positive,” he said. “We are going to come back. NHRA will be back. Come out and buy a ticket and come watch what we love to do for you, and that’s to entertain you.
“But for now, the No. 1 priority is for everybody to stay well. That is most important.”