Unless you’ve been living under a rock of late — and we wouldn’t blame you for avoiding the news like the plague at this point — then you’re no doubt aware of John Force Racing’s absence at last weekend’s E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis, the first NHRA national event since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Not only were Force, his teams, and his notable staff not in attendance — at a race taking place just two miles from his headquarters, mind you — but they did so without so much as an explanation. The official statement that so many anticipated as the days drew near and the entry deadline came and went was never issued, and the silence continues.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear a range of rumors: that Force hasn’t spoken to his team in four months and hasn’t even told them what’s going on; that he pulled his team together, explained the situation, and asked them to keep it confidential; that he chose to park his team out of concern for its safety; that everyone is furloughed; that only some people are furloughed; that he doesn’t want to race without fans; that he took issue with the reduced payouts. There are also rumors about each and every one of the four major sponsors, along with Chevrolet. Since many of these stories contradict the other, only some can reasonably be true, but nobody really knows, and if they do, they aren’t talking.
The only thing we do know for certain is that the winningest professional drag racer of all-time and unquestionably its biggest spectator draw, wasn’t at Lucas Oil Raceway….his crew chiefs weren’t there offering their services to other teams, and if any of his crewmembers were there working for other teams, we didn’t hear about it. Likewise, Force’s sprawling complex just down the road was as desolate as the subway system in New York City was during the height of the pandemic.
It was the first race Force himself had missed since 2008 when he returned from injuries he sustained in a crash the prior fall. His team as a whole had only missed one race in the previous three decades: the 2007 Spring Nationals in Houston, following the death of Eric Medlen.
And yet, last weekend’s race went off without a hitch.
The fields in both nitro categories were full and the racing was great, but admittedly, there was a sense that something was missing as you focused on the teams that were there and lost track of who wasn’t. Only when you brought it into conscious thought did you pinpoint what it was.
Which begs the question: could NHRA drag racing simply go on without John Force?
If the strongest of rumors are true, Force’s sponsors will be back next season — if not sooner — and all will be right with the world again. Even if they aren’t, we just can’t see John Force, of all people, going down on someone else’s terms and allowing a virus to defeat him. He’ll be back….but, he is 70 years old, and Father Time slows down for no one. Eventually, he will retire, but with his larger-than-life personality, he’d still remain a pivotal part of the sport even if not in the seat. Beyond adding four full-time teams to the tally, his presence will remain a draw.
But for at least the rest of 2020, it doesn’t appear there will be a John Force, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be there next February, either. Which again, leads us — and many — to ask whether the NHRA is in a position to thrive without him. Sure, the NHRA continued and prospered as it lost greats like Garlits, Glidden, Muldowney, and Prudhomme, but we’d argue those were different times, and as the NHRA finds itself in arguably its most challenging moment, it needs every car and every bit of star-power it can get. With all due respect to the veterans that are still out there and have a solid fanbase, they just aren’t the guys to carry the sport on their backs as Force, Garlits, Prudhomme, and others have in the past. And the reality is, there are fans who won’t come if John Force isn’t there.
Sound off in the comments and share your thoughts and opinions — you guys, the ticket-buyer, are ultimately who will decide John Force Racing’s worth to the NHRA…or anyone’s worth, for that matter.