Smith vs. Force a real highlight show
CONCORD, N.C. -- Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith was holding court in the media center of what he fondly calls "the Bellagio of drag strips" on Tuesday, when a very distinctive voice approached from behind.
"Can I sit with the boss for just a minute?" 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force bellowed.
Smith threw back his arms and tossed out an, "Oh my goodness!"
Force tossed out a Tiger Woods joke.
What happened next was worthy of admission. Arguably the most outspoken voice of NASCAR and easily the most outspoken voice of the NHRA must have used every ounce of oxygen in the room one-upping each other with one-liners, some of which left those of us hanging on speechless.
Much can't be repeated in print. You're right. No fair to tease.
But if you knew these two, you'd understand that some words, "orgasm," for example, to start this conversation, often come up for shock value when they're playing to a somewhat captive audience.
"Is that a bad word?" Force asked after Smith delivered it. "Then I'm in big trouble."
We all had come to zMax Dragway to watch Force take on Sprint Cup stars Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan of Roush Fenway Racing in Ford Mustangs, to see what happens when the worlds of the NHRA and NASCAR collide and get a jump on this weekend's Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.
That too was worthy of admission, with Biffle nipping Kenseth -- yes, Force lost in the second round, much to his chagrin -- in the finale of the elimination event.
Smith versus Force was an unexpected bonus.
Nothing against the Roush stars. They each have great personalities in their own special ways and can be quite funny at times.
But watching those two do their thing makes you wonder: What would it be like if NASCAR had a champion like Force? Would he increase attendance from fans that would come just to hear what he says or see what he does? Would he boost television ratings?
You certainly couldn't call him boring or vanilla like many do five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, which by the way is a misconception if you don't know him.
"Ain't got anybody that stupid they can find," Force said of his potential NASCAR clone.
He's probably right. Did you know Force once dressed in a red wig and dress like the Wendy's restaurant character to complete a sponsorship deal? Can't picture Jeff Gordon or even Tony Stewart going that far.
Tim Richmond had a little Force in him before he died. Judge for yourself with this quote for former Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jimmy Johnson, who died in 2008, in an excerpt from a book written by the late David Poole:
"Tim shows up about a half-hour late. He walks in and he's got on this big old fur coat and after-ski boots with fur around the tops, ugly looking things. Under that, he has on a T-shirt that said something like "Eat More Posse" and a pair of jogging shorts that were cut up the side. Tim goes and sits at the head of the table and throws his leg up on the table. Everything just fell out. Rick and Harry and I were saying, 'Oh, my God!'"
Two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip has some Force in him. Have you seen the way he shakes his booty in those NAPA commercials? He even has his own stand-up routine that has taken him to big stages in Kansas City, Ontario and Las Vegas.
But nobody in all of motorsports entertains like 61-year-old Force.
Nobody comes close.
"I don't know if there is another John force anywhere in the universe," Kenseth said.
Kenseth is NASCAR's version of the anti-Force. He's funny in a quiet, dry kind of way, like this: "[Force] is always the life of the party no matter what. I can't imagine him with five Crowns in him."
In case you missed it, Kenseth is sponsored by Crown Royal.
OK, you're laughing inside.
As Kenseth talked beside his car, Force stood 25 feet away -- and you could hear every word he was saying just as clearly as those coming from the 2004 Cup champion.
That's the thing about Force. Even if he's not saying something funny, he's drawing attention because he's deafeningly loud. Can you imagine a conversation between Force and soft-spoken NASCAR president Mike Helton in the back of the hauler?
It would never be private because we'd hear every word through the truck walls.
"They couldn't stand up to this," Smith said of Helton and company.
Force takes shots at everyone. He even fired one at Smith's son, Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith, for being a "teetotaler and religious man" -- everything his dad isn't.
Marcus immediately began asking if this was on the record. Bruton turned and said, "I may decide to run for benevolent dictator."
His initials are B.S., you know.
Smith isn't as loud as Force. His words come at you like machine gun fire, while Force is like a sonic blaster. On this day, Smith shot down any plans to change Bristol Motor Speedway back to the way it was before 2007, despite the small crowd two weeks ago; pumped the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky Motor Speedway as the biggest event of the season; and ripped Concord city officials for not paying him more than $4 million in taxes he said he believes is owed.
The latter he did by first asking Force to quiet down -- not an easy thing to do -- so he could explain.
"A lot of times in the middle of the night I'll wake up screaming because I didn't [move the track out of the county]," said Smith, who in 2007 threatened to move Charlotte Motor Speedway when the city council balked at him building a drag strip in the area. "They are not nice people."
Force managed to get his two cents in on that one, too.
"You know where the whole four-lane concept came from?" he said of zMax Dragway. "The city wouldn't give Bruton enough road so he just built four of them right out there."
But back to what NASCAR would be like if it had a character in the forefront like Force, instead one in the background like Smith.
"I should try and do that and see what happens," Biffle said. "I'll either get some fans or everybody will laugh at me. One of the two."
Likely the latter, although Biffle, like Kenseth, has his funny moments, such as when asked if beating Force was the biggest accomplishment of his career.
"Absolutely," he deadpanned as he proudly held the 3-foot trophy. "I wouldn't mind beating the five-time champion [Jimmie Johnson], but I went way past that. I went straight to the 15-time champion."
Unfortunately, you couldn't take Force down the street to Charlotte Motor Speedway and have him school the Roush drivers like they schooled him in his backyard.
"That might be scary," Biffle said.
I wouldn't mind beating the five-time champion [Jimmie Johnson], but I went way past that. I went straight to the 15-time champion.” -- Greg Biffle on beating John Force
"For all of us," Biffle said. "The thing about an oval track, I wouldn't say it's more dangerous, but you can wreck a lot easier there. Here, you can spin the tires or miss a shift. Over there, you make a mistake and "
And if Force had been talented enough to come to NASCAR, you can bet Smith would have helped him make the transition a long time ago.
But Force is spending a lot of time around NASCAR these days. He's taken the John Force Racing Road Show, a carnival-like caravan, to several Cup events to promote his team and the NHRA this season.
He spent all day Tuesday helping Smith promote his upcoming event at zMax April 14-17. Much of that time was spent telling Smith stories, such as the day he was informed the 84-year-old multi-billionaire had to have coffee at 6:30.
"I said, 'In the evening?'" Force recalled. "They said, 'No, in the morning.' I went down there and there were five dancing girls standing there with him. I thought to myself, 'Now I know how he got out of bed.'"
So did everyone around the table.
We came to get a little four-wide thunder and get a head start on Martinsville.
Instead, we got a Smith and Force explosion that will ring in our ears for quite some time.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.