Force looking to 101

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Two weeks ago at Houston Raceway Park, NHRA Funny Car Champion John Force made history becoming only the third driver in racing history to win 100 major motorsports events. Today at Bristol Dragway's MAC Tools Thunder Valley Nationals, his focus has changed to win No. 101.
   "I really love what I do," said the 52 year-old driver of the Castrol Ford. "I have a passion for these cars. You go through a transition of the love of what you do. I have a machine in my shop that costs more than my house. Try explaining that to your wife.
   "Investments from companies like Castrol, MAC Tools and Ford have allowed us to build a great program. During a period of the last ten years, a lot of guys have come and gone. Every week of our lives, we fight to keep that. The day after our 100th win, we were testing that Monday morning. That's how you stay in that top group."
   Force is also chasing a 10th consecutive Funny Car title and his 12th overall. He currently leads the 2002 Powerade championship standings by 83 points over second place Del Worsham. "It's pretty exciting times," said Force. "The competition is good and well funded. Every now and then someone gets with the program like the Worsham kid has. They have made a few mistakes that has knocked them out of some points, but they seem to have recovered and come right back.
   "John Force Racing is very lucky for some reason. The times we screw up, somebody screws up worst. I don't know why it is. Maybe, it's my clean living."
   While his record has no peers in the world of drag racing, major win No. 100 put Force in elite company along with NASCAR's Richard Petty and David Pearson as the only drivers in all of motorsports to accomplish the feat. Neither Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt, who topped an Associated Press list in 2000 as this country's greatest drivers, can lay claim to 100 wins.
   "I just did what I did, got my 100 and I'm proud of it," said Force. "You can't explain it. When I first started I just wanted to do a burnout like Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme. Next thing you know, you're trying to win a race. Then I wanted to win a National (event). Then, you want to win the championship. Then, you win 11 championships and you get 100 wins, you still can't believe it."
   Even win No. 100 doesn't compare to the thrill Force gets, setting on the start line waiting for the "Christmas Tree" to turn green. "My hype is before the race," explained Force. "Once I do it, it's like when I won my first championship. I was drained and couldn't get up. A guy told me it was like postpartum depression when a women has a baby.
   "She's all up for it and she goes through all this nine months and then she's depressed despite having a beautiful baby. What happens is that you are so used to being up, that when you win that's kind of what you go to. When I got 100, I was just glad it was over. That's a real stepping stone because when you're a driver and they let you in the board room, corporate America knows that I know how to win."
   Over the last few years, Force has been outspoken in the area of safety. "The thing with drag racing is you hit that throttle and you're hanging on for your life the next five seconds," remarked Force. "Pure stupidity led me down this road. Some of the junk I drove, it was amazing. I was on fire from California to Australia to New Jersey.
   "The things we did in the old days, you never thought about the drivers. One day I said to (crew chief) Austin Coil, 'We're spending all this money on technology to go fast. Have you ever thought about trying how to keep me alive?' He said, "Never, thought about it.' We went to having a parachute under the body, where if a fire blew the parachute off, I had another one. Then we came up with ejecting the body off the car, so fire wouldn't get you. There are so many things we have changed."
   Besides the wins, the one thing that has made Force stand out has been his commitment to the fans. In an era when many racing stars have limited their access, Force still makes it a point to spend time signing autographs. He stresses this to the drivers like Tony Pedrgeon, a hired gun on the No. 2 team in the Force Racing stable.
   Force told the story. "I said to Tony the other day when we were decaling cars, that I can't ever find you. He said, 'I was at the ropes all day, John signing autographs just like you told me to be with the fans.' That is the job, making those people love you.
   "They will buy the MAC Tools and the oil and the Mustangs and life will go on. If you think winning races is going to pay the bills, you're wrong. You take care of the media and the fans."
   Even the night of the 100th win, Force's postrace celebration at Outback Steakhouse in Houston saw him make time for a special fan. The gentleman, a local comp racer in the Houston area, got to hear his racing idol sing 'Happy Birthday' on a night when most of the racing world was toasting Force.
   The Yorba Linda, Calif. driver struggled the first several years of his career before becoming a consistent winner in the mid-80's. He credits the influence of his uncle, the late Don Beavers, a top drag racer on the West Coast for helping him persevere. Force also lists his prior occupation as a truck driver as a factor in becoming a success. Said Force, "I really think driving a truck, shifting gears, peeling tires and feeling spin in the snow, I think a lot of that has really helped me."
   With the milestone win now behind him, Force and company take part today in elimination rounds at Bristol Dragway to determine the 2000 champion of the MAC Tools Thunder Valley Nationals.