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Force Survives Texas, Lives To Talk About It

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 22 2011

John Force is a hall of fame Funny Car driver and hall of fame story-teller. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Fort Worth, Texas – Drag racing icon John Force said he felt “out of place” but certainly not out of words on the night he was honored as the 13th and latest inductee into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame.

“I’m really struggling with this,” Force said before the formal presentation ceremony in The Speedway Club at Texas Motor Speedway. “I feel…personally, I love Texas. Wasn’t born here but almost died here back in ’07 when I crashed. Spent two months in Baylor Hospital in rehab with broken arms and legs. So Texas has a lot of meaning to me.”

The 15-time/reigning NHRA Funny Car champion, Force became only the fourth drag racer inducted into this HOF in its eight-year history, joining fellow-champions Lee Shepherd (2004), Kenny Bernstein (2005) and Eddie Hill (2006).

“For me to be a part of that, I’m like a little kid,” said Force, who headlined a list of honorees including seven-time NASCAR champion and current Sprint Cup team-owner Richard Petty; five-time/reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, both of Hendrick Motorsports; Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch and veteran motorsports journalist Terry Blount.

A native and resident of California, Force nevertheless has recorded a number of career milestones in Texas. Force has scored 13 of his 132 career victories in Texas, including his 100th at Royal Purple Raceway (formerly Houston Raceway Park) in Baytown.

Despite his successes in the Lone Star State, Force’s career took a dramatic turn during the final day of eliminations at Billy Meyer’s all-concrete Texas Motorplex in Ennis in September 2007. Racing against Bernstein, a four-time Funny Car champion, Force was involved in a near-fatal accident that

John Force was a recent inductee to the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

began when a tire blew at speed. The chassis of Force’s car broke in half, leaving him with serious foot, leg, arm and upper body injuries.

After six hours of surgery in Dallas and several months of rehabilitation, Force returned for the 2008 season- opener as promised. Force struggled through a winless 2009 season but rebounded in 2010 to win six national events in 11 final-round appearances, including a pair of victories in the six-race Countdown to the Championship.

“Hell, I never thought I could win,” said Force, 61, and driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “I just wanted to do burnouts like (“Big Daddy” Don) Garlits and (Don “The Snake”) Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein and get to race with them. Run around the country…drove my own truck doing the whole deal. It was never about money to me. It was never about winning championships. I just wanted to be part of it, I love it that much.

“That’s why I’m going down swinging, even when I’m terrible. Then I’ll really be dangerous – when I get old and I can’t see. But I just love what I do. The safety now…Vince Lombardi always said winning’s everything. You never go against a real legend, but maybe he never lost a man on the playing field. Because I went home and I couldn’t even look at the trophies. I was in therapy for months, the whole family was, just to get us to go back.”

Force was referring to the death of protégé Eric Medlen, who died as the result of head injuries suffered in a crash while testing at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway in March 2007. With the backing of John Medlen, Eric’s father and crew chief, and Ford Motor Company, Force launched The Eric Medlen Project in an effort to re-design and improve cockpit safety in the Funny Car class.

“Now it makes sense why the Good Lord kept me around,” Force said, “and that’s to prove that the loss of a kid like Eric or Scott Kalitta and the others that we lost, we can move ahead. You know, we didn’t know what to do. I talked to NHRA, to (president) Tom Compton, but I went to Mike Helton over at NASCAR. And he said surround your driver with armor.

“I said, ‘The cars will be too heavy, they’ll be too expensive, they can’t win.’ Helton said, ‘You want to kill somebody else?’ No…so what we did was we did that. Surrounded the driver with armor and out of

A familiar sight for NHRA fans: John Force spends his weekends on four wheel and on two wheels. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

that Robert (Hight) won the championship in 2009, I won it in 2010. Better car, little bit heavier but not much, still performs and at the end of the day cost-effective and can still win. And you’re safe. Safety goes one-and-one with winning, or I don’t want to race no more.”

Hight is Force’s son-in-law on a John Force Racing team that includes daughter Ashley Force Hood, who is taking the 2011 season off while awaiting the birth of her first child. Meanwhile, Force is preparing to add daughter Courtney to JFR’s Funny Car lineup.

“Courtney said, ‘Dad, I can be like Ashley,’^” Force said. “She is. We set her on fire at Vegas testing. But she’s OK. She’s learning the ropes. She’s already run quick enough to license. She ran 4.29/300 mph down in Florida a month and a-half ago in testing. But she’s not ready. She needs a lot of seat time. She’s driven in Super Comp for two years and two years in A Fuel. But this Funny Car’s a different animal. It can hurt you and we’ve got to teach her right.

“We’ve got her in the best car we can build engineered by the Ford guys and I know she’s safe in it. Because that’s the car that saved my life, or I wouldn’t be here. If we hadn’t lost Eric – the saddest thing that’s happened in my whole career – that kid saved my life from what we learned from his crash. And even though I crashed (six) months later I had no head damage from the changes we made to the cockpit, the roll cage. And then my crash we took it to the next level. We got good hot rods now.”

Petty, meanwhile, accepted his latest lifetime achievement award with a combination of relief and reminiscence. With the financial turmoil surrounding Richard Petty Motorsports’ Ford team in his rearview, Petty was presented the Bruton Smith Legend Award during a ceremony attended by over 600 fans, team members and media.

And while Force admitted that his role model as far as dealing with fans always has been Petty, King Richard was hard-pressed to say what he’s meant to stock car racing.

“I don’t have a clue, man,” said Petty, 73, who was introduced by son Kyle. “In other words, I can’t stand here and say what everybody thinks about what we’ve done for the sport. That’s going to be up

Richard Petty is still The King. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

to each individual, to say OK, he done this or he done that…how important was he to the racing? I can’t say how important I was. I’ll say one thing _ racing was very important to me. And I can say that, because that’s what’s gotten me through all these years.”

As noted, Petty is pleased to have a sense of normalcy restored at RPM. Petty teamed with Medallion Financial and DGB Investments last November to form a two-car team featuring A.J. Allmendinger in the No. 43 Valvoline Ford Fusion and Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9 Stanley Ford.

“Even though everything’s confused, it’s more relaxed,” Petty said of his revamped organization. “We got a better foundation, OK? And I know the foundation is pretty good. Last year, and in fact the past couple three years, has not been that steady. It’s one of the deals that we feel like with the team we’ve got something to build off and it’s going to be steady. So we got to work hard.

“It’s got a long way to go. So from that standpoint I think that every race they run it gives them a bit more confidence in what’s going on. They got confidence in the front office, too, that they’re going to have their job next week. And that helps, also.”

Petty also paid homage to family scion Lee Petty, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s second class next month in Charlotte N.C. King Richard was a member of the inaugural class in 2010.

“In my mind, he (Lee) should have went in before I did because he was there before any of the rest of us was there,” King Richard said. “I mean, he should have went in with that crowd, especially with (NASCAR founder) Big Bill (France) because they started all together. Bill started racing and daddy decided that’s what he wanted to do so he jumps in there and helps Bill and helps himself, too. He was a building block way before I come along.

“I think he meant (so much to NASCAR) from the standpoint of the family deal, because basically when he started running it was a pretty wild deal. Mother always went to the races, she scored the car for him, and my brother and myself always went. He was the only family man there for a lot of years. And then everybody seen, OK, this can be a family sport. Now, maybe it’s not the same way as far as a family, but it’s still a family sport compared to a lot of other sports.”

Johnson was honored as TMS’ Sportsman of the Year; Gordon was cited as recipient of the Maj. Gen. Thomas Sadler Award for his charitable work; Hamlin was recognized as TMS Racer of the Year for his sweep of both Cup events in 2010; Busch’s record fifth consecutive Nationwide Series win was voted the Top Moment of the 2010 season and Blount of espn.com was honored as winner of the Excellence in Motorsports Journalism award.

The other previous HOF enshrines are A.J. Foyt Jr. and Johnny Rutherford (2003), Terry Labonte (2004), Jim Hall (2005), Mark Martin and Jim McElreath (2007), Bobby Labonte and Smith (2008) and Joe Gibbs (2009).

During his remarks, Petty thanked the guests for their contributions to Speedway Children’s Charities, which has raised more than $7.5-million in funding to help non-profit organizations in four North Texas counties.

– John Force can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 22 2011
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