The first car John Force owned was a 1960 Ford Fairlane.
He was a 14-year-old, and the scent of gasoline was like oxygen.
The original motor was a six cylinder. He replaced it with a four-speed .350 police interceptor.
“You had your girlfriend’s picture in the car, your football helmet and your schoolbooks because that’s where you lived,” Force said.
He was the son of a truck driver, Bill, and a cook, Betty. Before the cars fully consumed him, he did the same things. They raised their three boys and one girl in a small trailer in California.
The car was Force’s way out.
“When you grow up in a trailer house with five brothers and sisters and you sleep in bunkbeds with your brother’s toes in your nose, your car was a way of life,” Force said.
“Wasn’t no room in the trailer,” Force said. “You went there late at night to go to sleep. So a car, you’re always on the road. You’re always on the move.’’
Eventually, wheels would take him everywhere. From his days as a truck driver, telling stories at every rest stop to present day as the most recognizable face of National Hot Rod Association drag racing. He caught the bug in 1974 when he went to Australia with his uncle Gene Bever, a racer, and got his first opportunity to get behind the wheel.
“My dad thought I was crazy,” Force said. “Why do you take a perfectly good car out there and blow it up. But I never understood golf. Why do you hit a ball and then go after it?”
It’s been in him ever since. He’s a 15-time Funny Car Champion. His 135 wins are more than anyone else the sport has seen. He has become drag racing’s brand name.
“I’ve been real lucky,” said Force, now 64. “Wish I had another 30 years to go, but I don’t.”
But he sees the sport changing. There’s more money, more exposure, more popularity.
The drivers are younger. Whenever Blake Alexander, the 24-year-old Virginian with the golden blond hair, pulls up next to him, he sees a little bit of himself.
Force says to his wife, “He was me 30 years ago.”
His wife, in turn, will say, “No, he was you 50 years ago — and you weren’t as cute.”
Three of his daughters — Ashley, Courtney, and Brittany — are all drivers. The other, Adria, is CFO of John Force Racing.
The cars are more powerful, the technology’s far more advanced. Motors are exotic and explosive. There was a time when they ran 230 miles per hour. Now it’s up to 330.
“I remember when I ran on a $100,000 with Castrol 29 years ago, now I run on a $4 million budget,” Force said. “So you can see the change, and I’ve survived the change.”
He will be in Epping, N.H., this weekend when the NHRA roars into the New England Dragway for its first event in New England.
“We’ve been working on this a number of years, but really the last 10 years we decided we had to see if we could make this happen,” said New England Dragway general manager Joe Lombardo. “It’s really a heavy tourism-based economy up there and they know this will bring in a ton of fans. The economic impact in the area is going to be somewhere between $10 million and $15 million. So it’s a good deal for everybody.
“We knew that there was a pent-up demand because we’ve been doing this since 1966 and people would always say, ‘When are you going to go ahead and bring the NHRA in, when are you going to get guys like John Force and Tony Schumacher in. And we’d say, ‘We’re working on it, it has to make financial sense. Now it does.”
The sport has its quirks. But the atmosphere is infectious.
“It’s a great show, the fire, the ground-shaking,” Force said. “If you haven’t experienced it, it still gives me the chills.”
Long before Shawn Langdon became one of the elite Top Fuel drivers, he was a childhood fan, going to the racetrack, getting autographs, and hanging the drivers’ trading cards on his wall.
“I’d be a pain in the butt for my mom, because she’d have to replace the drywall every week when I’d go and tear them back down,” Langdon said.
He got his start racing junior dragsters with his father, even though when they started they didn’t even have a trailer to put the car in.
“We just put it in the back of our truck and we’d take it to the races,’’ Langdon said. “Now, 18 years later, I’m out at the track with a top-notch team and we’ve got our own chef that’s making us food. It’s a whole different side of things.”
Racing had long been in Bob Tasca III’s bloodlines. His grandfather Bob Tasca Sr. was a driver before opening Tasca Ford in Cranston, R.I. Now, as vice president Tasca Ford, his family name has been synonymous with Ford Motor company in New England for years.
“I was just fascinated with the stories,” Tasca said. “My grandfather was done racing before I was born. Just as a kid growing up, I was excited and got a chance to meet John Force. I traveled the country with him quite a bit and learned the business of drag racing.”
As an NHRA driver himself, though, he’s never had the chance to race in front of his home crowd.
“I’m excited because it’ll be one of the very few places that people aren’t going to say that I talk funny,” Tasca said. “I don’t know if I’m more excited about the chances of winning or that I feel like I’m home.
“I say to all my friends, I get to drive 300 miles per hour everywhere except for where I live. Now I get to go 300 at home. So, I’m looking forward to it.”
Blake Alexander wanted to drive so badly he simultaneously launched his drag racing career while attending Radford University in Virginia.
“I started driving a car for a guy in California and would take red-eyes back and get into class and finish up class and take a nap for 24 hours,” he said.
Most of the drivers climbed the ladder, rung by rung, from super-comp to alcohol class. Bob Hight, though came to Force’s team in 1995, not to drive the car, but to work on it.
“They threw me right into his car on a Monday, and said, ‘See what you can do.’ ’’
He understood the science behind the car, the extreme conditions the engine went through burning nitromethene to make 8,000 horsepower. He would watch in awe as the eight-man crew went to work. At the same time, he was waiting — hoping — for the door to open as a driver. What Force noticed most about Hight was his attention to detail, but it went beyond just the car. Hight was a skilled trapshooter. His eyes were highly trained.
“He was going to go to the Olympics,” Force said. “He had an eye for shooting. That’s the difference of a driver.’’
At the time, Force’s eyes were playing tricks on him. Costly tricks, whenever he would look at the Christmas tree — the electronic lights used to start the race.
“That Christmas tree is the difference between winning and losing,” Force said. “You’ve got to react to that Christmas tree. That race is won and lost right there on that starting line.
“When I was struggling with the Christmas tree, [Hight] taught me how they teach him in shooting, how to find the focus in the center and that really helped me a lot and I was a veteran. I knew that he had an eye as a driver.”
In 2009, Hight won his first Funny Car world championship. In his eight-year career, he’s won 27 races.
“I believe in knowing what the car’s doing and knowing how to build one and knowing everything about it has helped me learn to drive it,” Hight said. “Without being able to work my way up, that was my only chance.’’
When she was young, Brittany Force did things a lot of girls do. She was a cheerleader in high school. But she had her father’s blood pumping through her.
“I loved coming out to the drag races with my dad,” she said.
She watched older sister Ashley run the Castrol funny car, moving through the ranks from super-comp to alcohol fuel, then to funny car.
“Watching her make those transitions from each car is when I decided, you know, ‘I think I want to try super-comp,’ ” she said.
She dipped her toes in, got her license, but when the time came, she decided to pave her own path. Everyone else in the family had raced funny cars. She chose to race top fuel.
“The name Force has always been funny cars and I thought it would be exciting to do something a little different. We’ve never had a top-fuel dragster. So I thought it was something new and exciting.
“I never thought I’d be driving one of these cars. It’s crazy now, knowing that I’m out here competing now in a top-fuel car.’’
But it’s the life that’s chosen them. In 2007, when John Force crashed into another car, leaving him with a broken ankle, lacerated knee, fractured wrist, and hand injuries, it was a frightening glimpse of every racer’s mortality. Just three months prior, funny car driver Eric Medlen died after suffering head injuries during a test session in Gainesville, Fla.
“Doctors and everybody told [Force] he’d probably walk again, but he’ll never drive again,” Brittany said. “The one thing I learned from my dad is if you believe you can do something and you are determined to get it done, you can accomplish anything. I watched him in the gym every single day, going through therapy and he got back in his racecar.”
Last week, when he pushed his Mustang to a 4.148-second run at 305.29 miles per hour at Bristol Dragway to earn his 135th career victory, he was euphoric.
He didn’t look like the seasoned 64-year-old. He looked like the teenager, driving his first Ford.
“That’s one question people always ask me, ‘Is your dad really like that 24/7?’ ” Brittany said. “And the answer is yes. He is that energetic 24/7, all the time, every day. That’s dad’s personality. If he were quiet more than two minutes, something would be wrong. He loves drag racing, he loves being out here, he loves meeting all the fans and I think they love that energy and the fans give him that energy back.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.