The 300-mph Burn Rate

Yorba Linda’s John Force rules the fast, dangerous, and wildly expensive world of professional drag racing. But with his $24 million-a-year overhead, how long can the aging motorsports superstar keep going?

It’s still a few hours before drag racing legend John Force will compete at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.  But as the 64-year-old Yorba Linda man makes his way through the autograph- and picture-seeking fans on the track’s fringes, he’s already clad in the bulky, uncomfortable-looking fireproof suit that drivers customarily don just before a race.

Mind you, it’s not that the 16-time National Hot Rod Association champion has an iota of apprehension even though, at an age when most professional athletes aren’t risking anything worse than writer’s cramp at autograph events, he’s preparing to climb into a funny car dragster and hurtle down a stretch of pavement at more than 300 mph. At that speed, a tire blowout can cause a car to flip and break apart, and cripple or kill the driver. But he’s not worried. He just likes wearing his racing gear. “It’s like a business suit to him,” his media-relations aide, Elon Werner, shouts over the roar of engines being tested nearby. Force has been known to wander into a restaurant wearing the suit emblazoned with the logo of Castrol, a motor-oil company that for years has been one of his main sponsors. 

Hes on his way to the track to participate in a promotional giveaway, in which fans vie for the chance to win a special-edition 2014 Mustang from Ford, another of his longtime backers. He chats amiably with the contestants, poses for pictures, and grins with the effusiveness of a man who hasn’t a care in the world. You’d never know that he has some gigantic worries on his mind, and not just those perilous few seconds when he’s roaring toward a finish line.

What’s on his mind is money—specifically, the amount of $24 million. That’s how much he must come up with annually to keep John Force Racing, a business with 110 employees at facilities in two states, rolling in the high-risk, uncertain-return world of professional motorsports. And it doesn’t help that two of his longtime mainstays, Castrol and Ford, are ending their relationships with him after the 2014 season.

“It’s a fight to keep this ship afloat,” says Force, who’ll win this afternoon’s event with ease. “So whether it’s a $50 deal or $50 million, I’m going after it.”

Drag racing—a loud, dangerous and thoroughly déclassé pastime that grew out of blue-collar backyard mechanics turning reworked old cars into speed machines—isn’t something you usually associate with Orange County, even though the first commercial drag strip in the country, the Santa Ana Drags, was established in 1950 on the county airport runway. But that’s just one of the reasons John Force stands out. During the past several decades, he has built one of the most remarkable, long-lived careers not just in racing, but in professional sports. 

While drag racers don’t have to dunk a basketball, steal bases, or survive the hydrodynamics of a killer wave, controlling and guiding a screaming, unstable vehicle loaded with fuel as energetic as TNT demands finely tuned reflexes, steely concentration, and the ability to withstand enormous physical forces. Its a young persons game. Yet, Force still performs at a championship level.

In February, for example, he won a record 139th-straight event, the  National Hot Rod Association’s Circle K Winternationals,  hitting 323.58 mph covering the 1,000 feet to the finish line in 3.965 seconds—the fastest time for a funny car since the NHRA switched to that distance in 2008. Think of it this way: Force’s feat is roughly the equivalent of former NFL great Terry Bradshaw, who is about the same age, stepping onto a football field and setting a record for touchdown passes. Matt Hagan, the driver who finished second, is 33 years his junior. 

“He made drag racing what it is today,” Hagan once told USA Today. “Everybody—Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock—they know who John Force is. That’s the guy you model yourself after.”

Force’s resilience is all the more remarkable when you consider the crippling injuries he suffered in the Sept. 23, 2007, crash at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas. He’d hit 315.34 mph when a rear tire exploded, breaking the car in half and flipping it. 

“I almost died,” he says. As it was, he required multiple operations for fractures, broken arms and legs, and skin grafts to fashion new fingertips for those that were burned. The doctors who put him back together worried that he might not be able to walk again,let alone climb into a dragster. “They told me, ‘You’re not going to come back,’ ” he recalls.

But Force wasn’t ready to quit. He had mechanics modify his car with special controls so he could drive it, even with his right arm and fingers in a cast. Additionally, he explains, “I changed my lifestyle. Instead of two hours a day at the bar, I started spending two hours a day in the gym.” He installed strength and cardio equipment in his  sprawling Yorba Linda home,  and gradually built up his body enough so it could withstand racing’s physical stresses. “As hard as I work out, if I was 30, I’d look like a bodybuilder.” 

Force coped with his brush with death in part through humor, which didn’t always sit well with his family. As daughter Ashley told the Orlando Sentinel in 2008, she once saw her still-convalescing father offer a running comic commentary while watching a tape of the near fatal crash. She had to leave the room to cry. When she returned, Force apologized, saying: “The only way I know how to deal with it is to make a joke of it.”

Ashley, 32, a former drag racer who took a break to have a family and run the Force team’s media operations, is one of three daughters who followed their father into what essentially is the Force family business.  Brittany, 28, and Courtney, 26, also are rising stars. (A fourth daughter from his first marriage, Adria, 45, is the Force company’s chief financial officer and married to Force team driver Robert Hight.) 

“We’ve been lucky to have one of the best teachers out there,” Ashley says. “He’s taught us everything from driving the car to working with fans and doing the media events. But I never try to compare us. Nobody will ever fill his shoes.”

Brittany says her father’s success isn’t just due to his driving skill. “It takes a different sort of person to be able to balance it all,” she says. “You can be a fantastic driver, but if your media interviews are boring, or if you don’t promote your sponsors, or if you don’t go out and interact with the fans, you probably won’t be as popular as the guy who doesn’t run as well, but does all those things. Dad’s been able to figure out how to do well at all of it.”

Force has mastered the art of using his eccentric wit and high-octane loquaciousness—“Sometimes he goes off and never comes back,” Brittany laughs—to ingratiate himself with racing’s fan base. He’s the sort of guy who will tease bikers in Harley-Davidson jackets and tattoos, asking them if they rode in on Suzukis, or jokingly admonish a kid for whom he’s signed a hat not to sell it on eBay. As he told the Associated Press in 2010: “If you lose that one fan, you’ll lose another and pretty soon you just accept losing. You can’t do that. It took me 33 years to build my fan base and I ain’t going to get lazy now.”

Force’s racing longevity isovershadowed by his skill as a manager and entrepreneur, one who has tenaciously survived in an expensive, high-risk industry in which racing teams increasingly must invest in complex technology to stay competitive. His operation, based in a gleaming white Yorba Linda building that once was a luxury car dealership, includes trailers that house a portable machine shop and a bank of computer screens that one staff member uses on race day to measure minute changes in temperature and humidity, variables that affect the fuel mixture. Force and his racing team—including daughters Brittany and Courtney—must haul that equipment with them from track to track. And they employ teams of mechanics that continually rebuild their cars after each race, honing their performance to achieve that fraction-of-a-second edge that can make the difference between a champion and an also-ran. To make his nationwide operation more efficient, Force now owns a second, even larger auto shop in “Racer’s Alley” in Indiana, where many motor sports teams have their shops.

As he once explained in an interview with a fan website, each single run down the track costs about $8,000 in parts and crew labor, and the expenses for a weekend of racing can run into the mid-six figures. That’s not including the test runs and other work his team does prior to a race. 

But even as top drag racers find themselves spending more and more to compete in a volatile economy, it has become increasingly tough to find and keep corporate sponsors to pick up the tab. In the space of a few weeks last summer, Ford and Castrol both announced they would end their support of his racing team after this season.

It wasn’t personal; Castrol was looking to cut expenses, while Ford decided to put its money behind another funny car driver, Bob Tasca III, whose grandfather was a Ford dealer.With his cash flow drying up, Force found himself scrambling to find new deals. It was an ignominious fate for one of motor sports’ biggest names, the equivalent of LeBron James getting canned by Nike and Samsung.

Force handled the loss of his sponsors with the aplomb you’d expect of a man already portrayed as a comic book character and a  7-inch plastic action figure.  (“John Force is the man in NHRA Funny Car drag racing,” the box explains.)As Force told USA Today: “For the first time since I got into this sport, I’m a free agent. Let’s see if my name can keep my businesses alive.” 

In short order, he signed a deal with the marketing firm JMI to find new sponsors, and brought in the Los Angeles-based public relations powerhouse Rogers and Cowan to get him more media exposure. 

He’s even angling to reboot the family’s 2006-07 reality TV series, “Driving Force.” He chose to end the show in part because of his grief after one of his drivers, budding 33-year-old star Eric Medlen, died in a track-test accident just before the Season 2 premiere, and in part because he didn’t like being followed by cameras from morning till night. 

“They’d take a scene and move it,” Force recalls. “Like when I was yelling at my dog, they’d make it look like I was yelling at my daughter. I didn’t like that. We could have been the Kardashians, but I don’t know if I want to be the Kardashians.” This time, he hopes to make the show more about the struggle to survive economically in the racing business, and to focus it more on his daughters. As this article went to press, he was still looking for a deal. 

But even with a likeable flamboyance that makes him a natural in front of the camera, Force isn’t going to just rely on his glamorous-looking offspring. Last fall, in a TV commercial he did with Courtney and Brittany for System 51 car wax, Force displayed a comedic flair, sprawling over the hood of a car and tossing his hair like a swimsuit model. “My dad can be such a ham at times,” daughter Ashley told AutoWeek

These days, Force—who doesn’t have an email address or use the texting function on his phone—is trying to figure out social media. Courtney says, “I try to get him to tweet, but he can’t say anything in less than 140 characters.” 

Force’s tenacious will to survive probably has something to do with his hardscrabble upbringing. He grew up living in a trailer, the son of a truck driver who roamed between Bell Gardens and the Oregon border in the quest for work. As a toddler, in the days before the Salk and Sabin vaccines, he contracted polio. “I went through a lot of pain, and scalding hot baths to keep the circulation going,” he recalls. He survived, and even with a leg weakened by the virus, managed to quarterback his high school team, which lost 27 straight games.

“I wasn’t that good, but I loved wearing a helmet,” he jokes. “My uncle said, ‘You should drive a race car.’ ” 

He did, and drag-racing became his passion. He married young, got divorced, married again. He worked at whatever job he could find—driving trucks, working at an auto-parts store, frying burgers at Denny’s—while trying to break into the big time at places such as the now-defunct Orange County International Raceway in Irvine. In the 1970s and ’80s, Force roamed the circuit, a perennial also-ran who was one step ahead of financial ruin. “When it would rain out, I’d call whoever we were renting from, and tell them the rent was going to be a week late,” Force recalls. He once had to leave a supercharger with an employee at a Red Roof Inn in Columbus, Ohio, as collateral, because he couldn’t pay the bill until he got his prize money from a race.

The years on the road, and the single-minded obsession it took to survive as a racer, took a toll on his family, he says. “I didn’t know my own kids. Mom stayed with them. I didn’t have the money to fly home.” As his wife Laurie once explained to ESPN: “John was pretty clueless about his daughters for a long time. If I was to pin him down and ask him to tell me all their middle names and when their birthdays are, he couldn’t do it without a cheat sheet.” Force lamented in 2002 that he would give back his wins and championships “if I could just have a chance to know my kids, because those years are gone. I’ll never get ’em again.”

That all changed in the mid-2000s, after Ashley graduated from Cal State Fullerton and wanted to pursue a racing career. She was followed by Brittany and Courtney. Unlike, say, golf or tennis, drag racing doesn’t have a separate women’s competition; instead, both sexes compete for the same prizes. Which isn’t to say the Forces aren’t above capitalizing on their feminine glamour, as evidenced by Courtney’s artfully posed nude photos in the 2013  “Body Issue” of ESPN: The Magazine.  That spread wasn’t nearly as shocking as the pictures of her father ’s battered physique the magazine published in 2011 with the article “The Body You Don’t Want,” which showed the injuries he suffered in 2007. 

In a sprawling second-floor office lined floor-to-ceiling with his trophies, Force leans back in his chair and dreams, not of more victories, but of new ways to leverage his fame to keep his business going. He’s a one-man entrepreneur’s convention, jumping from book and movie deals to apparel licensing, racing museums, and theme restaurants. “Everything we do is to create businesses.”

Force’s early years of struggling, in which he coaxed a local Chevy dealer to give him a $150 sponsorship so he and his family could avoid eviction, conditioned him to compulsively capitalize on every conceivable source of income. Early on, he scrambled after five-figure deals from Wendy’s and Pepsi that barely kept him in fresh tires. After winning his first championship in 1990, he signed his first big contract, a $300,000 deal with Action Collectibles, a maker of model cars and other race memorabilia. That money enabled him to get out of the gas station where he worked on his cars and buy a small building of his own. 

As he won more and attracted richer deals, he acquired his present facility. He eventually opened the even larger Indiana shop. “I’ve got 110 employees, some I still don’t know the names of,” he says. 

In recent years, the struggling economy has made Force up his game. Daughter Ashley heads John Force Entertainment, a division based in a studio at headquarters that produces videos to promote the team and its sponsors. He rents out an upstairs room, which contains part of his collection of race cars and a restored antique school bus, as a party and event space. “In a couple of days, I can make enough to pay the taxes on the place,” he says. He stages elaborate road shows for his sponsors’ products, using trailers full of his dragsters to attract crowds. “We go to the Super Bowl,” he says. “We go to state fairs, to museums, to car shows.” He rents out space in his Indiana facility to other racing teams, and his tenants include Chip Ganassi, the former Indy car driver who now is a team owner. Force and his family even have a stage act. “People want to see the 300-mph family,” he says.

For all of his fame as a racer, though, Force’s lifestyle is frugal compared to those of many pro athletes. True, he does have a 22,000-square-foot mansion with a swimming pool, which he built on 24 Yorba Linda acres that used to be a piece of the historic Travis family ranch, not far from the racing team’s headquarters. But even its opulence is utilitarian; Force designed it so that if he fell on hard times after the end of his racing career, he could convert it into a bed-and-breakfast. 

“We could move to the back of the house, and offer guests the chance to meet John Force and come to his car museum,” he says. “A guy once said to me, ‘You must throw some big parties up there.’ ” But other than inviting his grandchildren to go swimming and having a get-together for his racing team, he’s never thrown a party. He owns a second house in Lake Tahoe, but only has time to visit maybe twice a year. 

While Force is full of bonhomie when he’s moving among the admiring throngs at racetracks, he professes to being a loner. “Those are fans,” he says. “They love you and buy your products. But you don’t really know them.” He doesn’t have an entourage, or celebrity buddies. When he needs company, he’ll stop by a local self-serve laundry to chat with a worker there with whom he’s struck up a casual friendship, or with the owners of his favorite doughnut shop. “I can’t tell you their names,” he admits. “But I can walk in and get free doughnuts.” When he dines out, it’s at the Canyon Inn, a Yorba Linda sports bar, or Keno’s, a pancake house in Anaheim Hills, where “they’ve known me for 20 years, and don’t look at me as a celebrity.” 

Force has said he won’t announce any new sponsorships until this fall, after the 2014 season is completed, so that he won’t take attention away from Ford and Castrol as they wind down their relationship with him. 

All the while, as he pursues an unprecedented 17th NHRA championship, the inevitable question remains: How long can Force keep at it? While the idea of a septuagenarian drag racer boggles the mind, would anyone be surprised if he tries to hang on that long? He knows he ought to cash out and retire, but he loves driving too much to stop. As he’s written in a blog post on his website: “I know I can still drive these hot rods. I’ll know when it’s time, and it ain’t time yet.”  

Web Exclusives! For "The Collectible John Force", click here. For a chart comparing the Fast Force daughters, click here.

Photo Illustration by Sean Teegarden
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.