The closest John Force ever came to getting all shook up was in 1992, when his funny car exploded into flames during a pass in Memphis. Instead of hitting the brakes and bailing out, Force rode on, slammed into a wall at 270 mph and barreled into a sandpit at the end of the track Crawling out of the wreckage unhurt, fire suit smoking, he proclaimed, "I just saw him!"
"You saw God?" somebody said.
"God? No, the King! I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet."
In the year's since emerging from that hunka-hunka-burnin' nitro, this turbocharged motor-mouth has established himself as a Force to be reckoned with. Although he lost in the first round of Monday's eliminations at the National Hot Rod Association U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Force has eight wins this year and 78 in his career, just seven shy of pro-stocker Bob Glidden's NHRA record. With only six races left, Force has a commanding lead in the standings and is poised to win his seventh straight Winston Funny Car season championship, which would be his ninth in the 1990s.
Owner of the funny car marks for speed (324.05 mph) and elapsed time (4.787 seconds) for the standard quarter-mile drag strip, the 50-year-old ex-trucker known as Brute Force is a figure in motion. Perhaps because he subsists on coffee and chocolate-peanut butter cups, he always seems to be hysterically on. "I'm just regular folk," he says. "Other regular folk relate to that"
Which explains why the Force field encircling his trailer is often 10 fans deep. "I always wanted an Elvis following," says Force, who has never met a hand he didn't shake. "When I leave the building for good, I want my fans to drop by the funeral home and see me."
Force never tires of telling folks how childhood polio left him with one leg slightly shorter than the other; how the disability kept him from joining the Los Angeles sheriff's department ("That and the fact that I flunked the inkblot test"); how his first funny car was bought partly with cash raised by selling the organ his first wife, Lana, had won on Let's Make a Deal; and how, to make gas money, he did everything from dressing up as a tree for a car dealership promotion to donning a gingham dress and red wig in an appearance at a hamburger joint.
In those early days Force shared motel rooms with his mechanics, sometimes six to a room. They lived strictly off prize money, which wasn't much: In his first 12 years he never finished better than second. Change came when he teamed with crew chief Austin Coil in 1985. In '87 he won his first race; in '90, his first title. Today, with a brisk collectibles business, a slick newsletter and his own museum and retail store in Yorba Linda, Calif., Force is a successful cottage industry. His next project: Turn an eight-acre tract (purchased for $2 million) next to the museum into "the Graceland of drag racing," complete with a hotel, a steak house and maybe even a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. "We'll serve banana-and-peanut-butter sandwiches," he says Forcefully. "That was Elvis's favorite."