John Force never used the word “pivot.” But that’s what he did.
It’s the latest buzzword in the pandemic-disrupted business world. For Force, it was more than a concept. It was his ticket to survival.
The John Force Racing (JFR) boss faced the same crossroad as every other NHRA racer and team owner last spring, when coronavirus concerns caused the sanctioning body to suspend the season. Force vowed he would return when the sport did, even had his rigs refilled with fuel and still loaded from a fruitless trip to Gainesville, Fla., for the Gatornationals one year ago.
But when the season resumed in July, with four consecutive races within two miles of his shop at Brownsburg, Ind., those rigs sat. And they sat there through seven more events, until the team – minus Austin Prock’s dragster – headed back to Florida for preseason testing this month at Palm Beach International Raceway at Jupiter and the 2021 season-opener at Gainesville.
Because Force, the most garrulous and glib guy in drag racing, remained silent from last April until this February, no one knew for sure why this team wasn’t competing. Was it the fact the NHRA slashed purses not once but twice? Had sponsors gone away? Was Force afraid of the virus he decided simply to call “19”? Why did he park a team that boasted the sport’s most successful racer ever (Force), three-time and reigning Funny Car champion Robert Hight, 2019 NHRA top rookie Prock, and 2017 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, who owns the sport’s quickest and fastest laps?
He certainly wanted to be in the mix at the races. He tried, at a sacrificial price, to retain his employees – to the point he was ignoring his attorney’s pleading: “You’re insane. Shut it down quick.” Ultimately, his choice was clear: It didn’t make financial sense to run again in 2020.
“I looked at the stimulus. I was scared of it,” Force said, “because I haven’t made a loan in 30 years. I did that in my early days and got in trouble with bank loans, and I got so if I couldn’t afford to buy it and pay cash, I didn’t buy it. I just wouldn’t take a stimulus, but I had to make a call.
I’m re-thinking John Force Racing. I got to change it. I live it. I don’t want to retire. And I’m going to find a way to win. I’m not going to give up winning or there’s no reason to go racin’.
“I had to keep it right for the sponsors. John Force is nothing without his sponsors. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I had to salvage my operation.”
He told his sponsors (who include Peak/Old World Industries, AAA, Flav-R-Pac, and Chevrolet) that “when I come back, I want to come back at full pay. I want to come back into the fight, and I want to be able to win for you.” And he said, “We all agreed as a group [so] I could stay financially and keep it going.” Before he attended the March 5-7 PRO Winter Warm-up, he had two coronavirus vaccinations.
Force hasn’t fallen onto hard times entirely.
“I own all my buildings. I don’t have any debt, except credit cards that we pay monthly. I own properties in Indy. I just bought another 15 acres across the street (open land along Northfield Drive in Brownsburg) a year and a half ago – I haven’t built on it yet. I own properties in Tahoe. I own properties in California. I’m still hanging onto my apparel store. I’ve still got my museum [at Yorba Linda, Calif., on the same site as his original shop and the current John Force Entertainment],” he said.
“I had an $8 million payroll. How do you get rid of that? We’ve been working on it, trying to cut out fluff. I went from 100 employees to probably 50 – and I won’t go back to 100. My hospitality has two trailers. It’s going to be one,” Force said. “We had to scale back in every department but where we can still race. That is why we came, to race. We’re going to go after them [with] three cars and try to get our fourth one back and see where it goes. I don’t know – I might end up with two cars one day.
“I’m re-thinking John Force Racing,” he said. “I got to change it. I live it. I don’t want to retire. And I’m going to find a way to win. I’m not going to give up winning or there’s no reason to go racin’. If you can’t have the dream, don’t do it. Don’t mean you’ve got to win, but you’ve got to have the dream.”
To make his dream work, Force has had to do business in a fresh way. In the past, he expanded impressively, but he has learned to diversify his assets in ways that even has surprised himself.
When you go away from racing after being there for 40 years, it was pretty tough on me. What kept me alive was working every day, living in the gym, and watching that TV show.
“We had a lot of things that we did, just because money was fallin’ out of the sky,” Force said. “It was easy – like anybody, I kept going. We evolved into that because we had money and someone said, ‘Hey, we’re having trouble getting blowers. Can we make a blower? You have that, then all of a sudden, I’m building everything – engine blocks and everything except cranks and rods and pistons. And then, in the middle of that, we lost Eric [Medlen, who died from injuries incurred in a 2007 testing accident at Gainesville]. That’s when I got in the chassis business. Then everybody wants a different paint job, [so] I got in the paint business. I got too big for my britches. And now I’ve got to look at what I can salvage. I’ll try to keep the chassis shop, the paint shop, all of it. We made so many parts that we could run for a year [before replenishing them].”
What’s new for him is forming partnerships outside of drag racing and even outside of motorsports altogether. One new client is Wayne Taylor Racing, whose teams compete in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the North America Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series (and who happen to be headquartered across the street from JFR at Brownsburg). JFR manufactures parts for the operation that features IndyCar stars Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi, along with Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque.
“I’m going to look at NASCAR and IndyCar,” Force said. “I’m going to open that door to outside business. That world’s comin’. That’s the direction I’m going to go. I’m going to put it out there pretty soon. I’ve got chassis shops, machine shops, paint shops…I’ve got everything that can do full service. I don’t know how to make IndyCar parts and chassis. I don’t know how to make NASCAR’s [equipment]. But the deal’s open. If anybody wants to come there and have us build it, that door’s going to open.”
One company that’s based just up Interstate 65, at Lebanon, Ind., is American Ultraviolet, which designs and manufactures a broad array of germicidal disinfection products (or, in Force’s vernacular, “ultraviolet lights that are supposed to help with germs”). JFR has machined parts for the company and has developed a shared workforce with it.
“They hired about 10 of my employees that I had on half-time,” Force said. “They’d work at my shop, then they’d go to work for them, building stuff” for use in the health-care, food and beverage, and HVAC industries, among others.
But Force’s primary interest is in winning races and championships.
“The pandemic is going to go away,” he said. “In 1918, they had a pandemic. That was back when the world was crazy and we didn’t have the medical and the doctors we have now. Yet in two years, the pandemic was gone – with no cure. They just got it like getting the common cold. Everybody got immunity, and it was gone. But I had to be here if [the sport] came back.”
Besides, he said, he had been “embarrassed” to be missing at the final nine races of 2020.
“When you go away from racing after being there for 40 years, it was pretty tough on me. What kept me alive was working every day, living in the gym, and watching that TV show [the FOX broadcast of the drag races he was missing] every time it came on. I cheered guys that I used to fight with and argue with, I cheered ’em all on,” Force said.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the man whose organization has earned 21 series crowns and who himself has 16 of those and 151 event victories.
“I sat in all the PRO meetings. I talked to [Don] Schumacher and [Steve] Torrence and Alan Johnson more than I ever have in the last five or 10 years. NHRA’s trying to bend everything and make it work for the racers. But we’ve got to put people back in the stands. We need the fans back, and it’ll come in time. When this pandemic breaks, and it’ll be gone here, we’re going to be OK. And I want to be there to be a part of it. I want to help,” Force, 71, said.
In a shout-out to 2020 champions, he said, “Torrence, [Matt] Hagan, all you guys, God bless you. I love you. Thank you for carrying the ball. I’m sorry we weren’t there. I want to be out there with all them people I argued with, because you realize how much you really love ’em. [Tim] Wilkerson, [Bob] Tasca, Cruz [Pedregon] . . . everything you all did…Tommy Johnson…God bless all of you. Thank you.
“I wasn’t there to help or my drivers weren’t there to help. I went with the best decision that would guarantee us coming back. But we’ll be back now,” Force said, “and we’ll help all we can.”