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John Force was 14 years old when he first met John Law. It was the summer of '63, and Force was minding his own business, cruising down dusty Firestone Boulevard in Downey, Calif., at, oh, about 60 mph, when he noticed the flashing lights in his rearview mirror.
"I think I was in a school zone," says Force, who racked up 24 speeding tickets before his 18th birthday. "I'll never forget that '55 Chevy. It had a Cadillac motor. Man, that baby could fly."
The lead-footed boy became a lead-footed man, the best-ever drag racer in the Funny Car division, perhaps in any division. Today, Force, 44, collects trophies instead of tickets. With 11 wins this season, he has knocked Don Prudhomme out of the record book and has locked up his third Funny Car national championship in four years.
Force broke into drag racing 19 years ago after a brief career as a long-distance truck driver. His father, Willy, had hauled cattle to John Wayne's ranch in Arizona and hay for the Barnum and Bailey Circus during the '20s. John Force's assignments weren't so glamorous. And he didn't get much excitement from driving an 18-wheeler. "I've just always had a fever for race cars," he says.
For 12 years Force was the perennial bridesmaid, finishing no higher than second in any national drag racing competition. To raise money so that he could remain on the drag racing circuit, he did TV commercials for Wally Thor's School of Trucking in Los Angeles. Evidently, Thor never got a look at his spokesman's ticket collection.
On the blacktop ribbons where speeding is legal, Force finally figured out how to succeed. He won his first National Hot Rod Association ( NHRA) event in 1986 and now seems determined to make up for lost time. Just about every weekend he straps himself into the cockpit of the Castrol GTX Olds AA Fuel Funny Car, a snub-nosed, fiberglass-bodied, nitro-methane-guzzling rocket on wheels. When he hits the throttle, the car hurtles toward the finish line, a quarter of a mile away, at speeds approaching 300 mph. He has crashed and burned as many as four times in a season, yet a slogan stenciled on his helmet proclaims NO FEAR.
"A good fire always makes me happy," he says, with a chuckle. "When I climb out of a race car that's standing on its roof, on fire, and my face is all black and people think I'm burned, well, you may think I'm nuts, but it's a glorious feeling."
With his go-for-broke attitude, it is no wonder that Force won the national championship two years in a row, before losing it last year to 30-year-old Cruz Pedregon, one of a host of drivers in their 20's and 30's who have challenged his reign. "I said, Lord, give me something to motivate me," Force says. "Instead of motivation, he gave me aggravation. He gave me Cruz."
While Force has already beat out Pedregon for the 1993 title, he won't celebrate until after the season's last race (Oct. 31 in Pomona, Calif.). "It's like shooting pool or playing cards," he says. "To be the best, the magic just has to be with you."
Some people might call it the Force.