John Force is just like one of Dr. Seuss’ Whos down in Whoville.
They liked Christmas a lot.
John Force likes drag racing a lot.
The Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville did not like Christmas. He could not stand all the noise-noise-noise-noise. According to Dr. Seuss, no one quite knows the reason the Grinch hated the whole Christmas season: “It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be perhaps that his shoes were too tight.” Or, he wrote, “The most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
John Force has been accused of not having his head screwed on just right. Who knows about his shoes? But unlike the Grinch, no one ever would accuse Force of having a heart that was two sizes too small.
But Force has his Grinches, of sorts. He has family members who question why he continues to race through his considerable and understandable aches and pains. They wonder aloud why he doesn’t stop and enjoy his life. They actually aren’t Grinches. But it’s clear Force thinks that with their suggestions, they “got a wonderful, awful idea.”
Force has other Grinches. He has Father Time, he said. He has aches and pains. He has a racecar right now that can carry him to a 17th championship, but he has had ones that have turned on him, breaking apart and slamming him into a Dallas wall and into Kenny Bernstein, resulting in multiple career-ending and possibly crippling injuries. He has had engines detonate and cost him not only thousands and thousands of dollars but also another piece of his health each time. He lost Eric Medlen in 2007 to irreparable racing injuries. And then he has those other Grinches: regret, self-doubt, and fear. Those are real, and his raw emotions came spilling out Labor Day in his often-tearful and evidently therapeutic post-race interview.
I started and I didn’t know my kids. I don’t know my wife anymore. I just go down this road and do this stuff because it is the greatest sport in the world.
He just had earned his first U.S. Nationals Funny Car victory in 17 years, one that would pull him into a tie with Ed “The Ace” McCulloch with five on the NHRA’s grandest stage. But from the tone of his remarks, one would think he was spinning lyrics for a country-music song about lost love.
The unmatched 151-time winner lamented, “I should’ve retired 20 years ago for that quality of life. I should’ve walked away, and now I don’t even know how to walk away. I don’t know how to get off this train – but I got to. It’s coming. I don’t know when. If you’re waiting for me to tell you I’m quitting, I ain’t going to do that.
“But I’m trying to figure this out, where I’m going in life, because I know Father Time’s against me. It is pathetic. I come out here, and I ache and I hurt. It is getting tougher,” he said. “But I owe this sport for so much.”
Besides, Force does like all the noise-noise-noise-noise.
“I’ve got 151 victories. When do you walk out the door?” Force asked. “Someday I’ve got to go out that door. And I said two things: It’d sure be nice to win a championship. And it’d sure be nice to win Indy one more time. This race really meant a lot,” Force said.
“I just didn’t think I would get the chance again. I didn’t think I could get that good with the right team that supported me when I have failed so much,” he said. “Somebody up there liked me better on this day. I almost feel bad. How is an old piece of s— like me able to beat these kids?
“I’m going to run until I drop, because if I stop, I’ll die. And that is what I’m afraid of,” Force said.
That urge to retire comes in waves, he said. “Every time I think it is now, it passes. I thought about it in Seattle: ‘Just walk out.’ And I even said [after winning at Indianapolis], ‘If you [win] at Indy, walk out.’ But I couldn’t do it. I stood there and said, ‘You are going to have a heart attack. You are going to die here, like you always say.’ I don’t mean I want to die.”
Then that Grinch, guilt, crept in.
“I started and I didn’t know my kids. I don’t know my wife anymore,” Force said. “I just go down this road and do this stuff because it is the greatest sport in the world.”
But Force couldn’t stop worrying.
“I’m in the wrong generation. My window has passed. I don’t belong here anymore against these young guns. I’m not quitting, but it just ain’t making any sense,” he said.
“I go out here with these kids that want to win so bad, and I keep thinking, ‘Is there a plan for me?’ Racing is what I love to do,” he said, “but I have looked at different directions in life to go. I have a job to do, to raise money to keep this ship afloat for well over 120 employees. I am trying to figure out where I am going in life.
“I’m so lost,” Force said.
At that point, Little Cindy-Lou Who, who was not more than two, would have said in her tiny voice that sounded like the coo of a dove, “Why? Why are you taking away your joy? Why?”
Force would have had a ready answer: “I am just having an emotional day because I won Indy.”
As weepy and overly sentimental as he was in the media center, before the television cameras at the top end just minutes earlier, he was inspirational and animated, almost as manic as he was Aug. 4 when he finally recorded his 150th victory at Seattle.
He looked into the lens and told people to “get off that couch” and find their passion and act on it. “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re too old,” he said.
I go out here with these kids that want to win so bad, and I keep thinking, ‘Is there a plan for me?’ Racing is what I love to do, but I have looked at different directions in life to go.
Later, he said, “If you knew the letters that I get…I’m no preacher. I can’t save or cure the sick, but people write me all the time. So I yelled out for people to get off that couch. I’ve seen so many people who are tired, people younger than me, who give up because they’ve been told by the system that it is over. Well, this is a big moment for me. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too old. Get out there. Walk. Stay alive and keep moving.”
Despite his doubts and his insecurities, or maybe because of them, Force said, “I’m going to keep going – but something ain’t making sense. I’m going to go ’til I drop.”
He’ll begin the Countdown second to teammate Robert Hight.
So how is Force like all the Whos down in Whoville?
Well, when the Grinch swooped into Whoville and swiped all their possessions while the Whos “were a-snooze,” he was proud, thinking he had stopped Christmas from coming. After all, he had loaded his sled with “their presents, the ribbons, the wrappings, the tags, and the tinsel, the trimmings, the trappings.”
And sometimes, drag racing fans are disappointed that the U.S. Nationals isn’t as shiny as it used to be – and that Lucas Oil Raceway isn’t like the still-gleaming-new Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, where the NFL’s Colts play their home games. Cities across America have razed historic arenas and venues and replaced them – at massive burdens to the taxpayers – with fancy new ones that come with modern amenities. By comparison, Lucas Oil Raceway, which opened in 1960, looks tired. Its parking lots are pitted with potholes and cracks. Sportsman racers this year took it on the chin again because of rain earlier in the week that kept them form being able to park their haulers as scheduled. Their side of the racetrack is not paved. Its cinder-block tower – which officials repeatedly, for years, have promised to replace – is shabby and more than a bit inadequate.
The U.S. Nationals no longer hosts a Bud Shootout, Skoal Showdown, or Traxxas Shootout. Budweiser, Skoal, and Traxxas no longer are involved with the NHRA. Many days these past few years, the massive grandstands are sparsely filled.
I thought about it in Seattle: ‘Just walk out.’ And I even said [after winning at Indianapolis], ‘If you [win] at Indy, walk out.’ But I couldn’t do it. I stood there and said, ‘You are going to have a heart attack. You are going to die here, like you always say.
Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, who spent some of his most triumphant and poignant moments at this storied racetrack, said the U.S. Nationals “put me on the map and put [Don] Garlits and Shirley [Muldowney] and [Bob] Glidden on the map. In today’s world, does it put you on the map? Mmm – I don’t think so. That’s just being honest. There are so many other great races. I think most racers want to win the U.S. Nationals, even though it’s not the nicest or biggest or prettiest racetrack they go to. It’s still the most prestigious drag race – but I don’t think it’ll put anybody on the map anymore.”
Time, elevated expectations, the disappearance of ABC’s popular “Wide World of Sports” that showcased this race, the absence of high-stakes bonus races, and outside activities that tug on fans’ entertainment loyalty are the Grinches.
But John Force still has the passion. The Indianapolis racetrack might not be new or fancy. But he didn’t care. He won the U.S. Nationals for a fifth time, and he cried. The man wept. He almost considered quitting because he had done, in his mind, something absolutely marvelous there, reached the pinnacle of his sport. His heart grew two sizes that day – and it already was as big as the 267-acre property.
So despite his hand-wringing, Force showed everyone that The Joy of Drag Racing came without ribbons or tags or packages, boxes, or bags. Like the Grinch’s, Force’s “puzzler was sore,” alright, but he knew without a doubt that The Joy of Drag Racing doesn’t come from a store. It means a little bit more. It isn’t about tinsel and trappings. It doesn’t matter what the dragstrip looks like. It’s there, and John Force conquered it once again.
He was proud. He was overcome with emotion and filled with satisfaction, which the Grinches of anxiety and panic and remorse tried to steal. But no matter how the Countdown shakes out – and Force is seeded second at the outset – at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles in November, John Force himself will carve the roast beast.