SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE: As the NHRA enters its final two-race run, Funny Car driver John Force is gunning for an unprecedented 15th title. Each of his finals victories extends a career wins mark that currently stands at 130. In other words, we're soaring in the Wayne Gretzky/Cy Young/Richard Petty stratosphere of records. "I don't care if you're talking Super Bowls or Pop Warner titles," says "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, drag racing's elder statesman. "It's a lot of damn championships. He's only behind who, the Yankees and the Celtics?"
This is no farewell lap, either. Force recently re-upped with Ford for four more years -- after which he'll be 65. He's 14 years older than Jamie Moyer, 20 years past Brett Favre (whom Force,
a former juco QB himself, calls "an inspiring kid"). What makes his longevity significant is his own calculation that he should've been "burned up or ripped apart at least 50 times."
There was the explosion at Memphis in 1992, so violent he claimed he "saw Elvis at 1,000 feet." And the crash three autumns ago in Dallas -- six months after team member Eric Medlen's fatal wreck -- that tore his dragster in half and shattered his hands, feet and left ankle. What followed was a lengthy rehab stint filled with pleas for retirement from his four daughters, three of whom are racers. For a while he did hesitate, survival instincts beating out bravado. But the pull of the strip was too great, and he returned that winter.
At first, the performance wasn't there, and in a sagging economy neither was the money. Force admits he rushed his comeback to save the team, to give sponsors the superstar they'd signed with, damaged or not. He won only once in 2008, the season fellow racer Scott Kalitta died during quals, and went 0-for-'09, his first winless season since the Reagan years.
But this year the fire is back. And that's good for his place in the standings, even if it is bad for his welfare. When The Mag first approached Force's handlers to do a story for next year, they answered helpfully: "He may not live that long." Fact is, Force may be safer racing. He recently fell out of his motorcoach door, nearly ran over himself with his own rental car and wants to turn a workout invite from the Cowboys into an advice-giving session for Tony Romo. "That would go over great, right?" says daughter and teammate Ashley Force Hood, with an eye roll. "He's so jacked up we're not entirely sure how long it'll be before he kills himself."
In mid-September, in the downtime at the Carolinas Nationals, Force is indeed jacked up, pointing with fingers stained dark by four decades' worth of engine lubricants. "Look at this hot rod!" With his other arm, he slams his cup of Dunkin' Donuts Turbo coffee (which he clearly does not need) so hard onto the counter that it pops off the lid and knocks his ball cap askew, revealing gray hair. Force is sitting -- no wait, now he's standing -- in the living room of his well-worn motorcoach, sending all eyes in the direction of the race car being reassembled outside. He says: "You think it's just a hot rod? It's not. That's my time machine."
Actually, the 10-foot-long, one-ton Mustang Funny Car isn't exactly what H.G. Wells envisioned. This is a nitromethane-gulping beast that produces 10 times the horsepower
of a NASCAR Cup car and 40 times that of your commuter ride. It
reaches 100 mph in 0.8 of a second. Every 1,000-foot run rides a razor between internal combustion and external detonation.
"My kids, my friends, my fans, my poor wife -- I know what they're thinking: Get out of that hot rod, old man!" Force says. "But it's the opposite. This may kill me, but when I wrap my legs around that 8,000-hp engine for four seconds down that strip, I'm a kid again."
He gestures out the window once more, a weathered hand hovering just beneath a cabinet packed with trophies, painkillers and bills to pay. The smile vanishes, and he grows quiet for a beat. The crew outside fires up the engine to the applause of fans who have gathered around the tent. Above the muffled roar, you can almost hear their hero's heartbeat slow as he takes a deep breath. Sighing, he speaks to none but himself: "A time machine."