John Force back, better than ever

John Force didn't win a race in 2009, the first time in 23 years the Funny Car legend failed to claim a victory in an NHRA event. He was 60 years old, two years removed from a crash that mangled his legs and three years past his 14th championship run.

Robert Hight, Force's son-in-law, won three times en route to the 2009 Funny Car title. Ashley Force Hood, Force's daughter, won twice and finished second to Hight.

His John Force Racing teammates were on top of the NHRA world. Force wasn't even close.

Every sign pointed to one seemingly clear conclusion: This was the end of the line for the old man.

"It was my worst season in 20 years," Force said. "But I had come back too far to end it that way. I knew I had changed my life and I was close to getting back to winning."

Halfway through the 2010 season, Force leads the standings with four victories and six final-round appearances heading to the Northwest Nationals this weekend at Seattle. He has a chance to become the oldest champion in NHRA history at 61. Warren Johnson was 58 when he won the Pro Stock title in 2001.

A 15th championship for Force, something that looked impossible a year ago, just might happen.

"I can't guarantee I will win the championship," Force said. "But I can guarantee you I'll be in the fight."

He is back in the game, back after two years of struggling and only one victory, back after major downsizing because of reduced funding.

He talked at length about how he did it earlier this week while on a family holiday at Lake Tahoe over the July 4 weekend.

"For 25 years out here, I never really had to think about it," he said. "It was just natural for me. But after 2007, it wasn't the same."

Force had never suffered a serious injury until the accident on Sept. 23, 2007, at Ennis, Texas, when his car collided with Kenny Bernstein's machine.

Force's left ankle was shattered in five places. He had finger tips sawed off. His left knee was fractured with deep lacerations that caused a dangerous loss of blood. His left wrist was almost destroyed. He was 58 years old.

"Doctors said I wouldn't drive again, but they could teach me to walk again," Force said. "They told me racing was an impossibility. That was the wrong thing to say to me."

Or maybe the right thing. It was motivation for Force to prove them wrong, but people around him had their doubts he would drive the iconic Castrol Ford Mustang again.

"Castrol and Ford people came to the hospital and said maybe I should think about retiring," Force said. "They wanted me to find a young kid to put in the seat. I told them I could still do this. I could come back. I don't know if they believed me, but they stuck with me and I'm extremely grateful for that."

Even some of Force's family doubted he could do it. Hood, who always thought of her dad as indestructible when she was growing up, saw him as vulnerable for the first time.

"There was a time in the hospital where I didn't think he would drive again," she said. "Seeing him so broken up, it was hard to imagine him racing a car, especially with all the things we were hearing from the doctors.

"But even then I thought, 'If he can get in the car again, anything is possible from there.'"

Force was back in the Funny Car in 2008, but he wasn't the Force everyone knew.

"I wasn't really ready," he said. "I could hardly get in and out of the car. My wife had to put my legs up on the bed at night."

Laurie, Force's wife of 30 years, is the rock of stability in his life.

"My wife sat in that hospital room and never left," Force said. "After all the years of hell I put her through, she was there for me. Heck, we lived apart for 14 years because I drove her crazy. But seeing her there every day showed me she really loved me.

"And she didn't take pity on me. I lived life running around and pounding down alcohol, not realizing I was in trouble. Laurie told me, 'You can't live like a rock star anymore, John. But if there is anyone in the world who can fight through this mess, it's you.' She was right."

Force changed his ways. He quit drinking and started working out, something he never had done in his life.

"That was the biggest surprise of it all," Hood said. "When we were doing the reality show ["Driving Force" in 2006], we took him to the gym once as a big joke. Now he practically lives in that same gym. He knows every trainer there.

"He was really successful for a lot of years without doing those things, but that wasn't possible anymore. It was about discipline. It's really unusual to see someone change from one end of the spectrum to the other as much as he has."

Force changed after the accident, but he said the crash wasn't the beginning of his downfall. It started six months earlier when driver Eric Medlen was killed in a testing accident in Gainesville, Fla.

Medlen drove for JFR and was the son of John Medlen, one of the team's crew chiefs at the time. Force had known Eric since he was a boy.

"It crushed me," Force said. "I was racing, but I wasn't really racing. My mind was elsewhere. I thought about Eric, I thought about my kids being out here and wanting them to be safe and then I crashed."

John was focused and determined when he returned, but his body wouldn't do what his head told it to do.

"I couldn't do anything right in the car," Force said. "I couldn't steer in the groove. I couldn't pull the brake handle. I was terrible.

"I couldn't help my crew chiefs. I couldn't feel the clutch. I later learned from my trainers at the gym that I had lost all muscle memory. It took me over two years to get back to where I was."

By the end of last season, Force said he felt he was driving well, but the car wasn't performing at a winning level.

JFR also was going through a major financial transition and lost Old Spice as the sponsor on Mike Neff's car. Ford was going through its own troubles and had to cut back its support.

"Ford guys came to me and said they had to make cuts," Force said. "They were cutting everything 30 percent across the board. I understood totally. I had a $22 million budget, but I had to cut $5 million out of that."

Force eliminated Neff's car and went back to a three-car team. But Neff, who was a NHRA crew chief before driving for Force, was added to the brain trust on Force's team that includes veterans Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly.

Mike Neff John still is the best driver out there, and I'm not saying that because he's my boss. He's so smooth, he knows how to use his tires and his reactions time are as good as anyone out there.

-- Mike Neff

"Neff kind of brought us all back from the grave," Force said. "I told Coil and Bernie, 'Look guys. We aren't getting any younger. We're old dogs on the couch. We need some fresh blood.' We needed a young guy to do the footwork. That was Neff."

Neff and most of his crew went to work on Force's car.

"We all knew each other and worked well with each other," Neff said. "We got up to speed fast because every guy knew what he was expected to contribute. The main thing was just a little different approach and being a little more aggressive."

Neff said his two years in the driver's seat made him a better tuner.

"In a lot of ways it was the last piece of the puzzle for me," Neff said. "Before I drove, there were times when the driver would tell me something about the car and I had no idea what he meant. I couldn't relate. Now to know it from the driver's side makes a big difference."

As someone who has been at the wheel of a Funny Car traveling at more than 300 mph, Neff said Force isn't giving himself enough credit.

"John still is the best driver out there, and I'm not saying that because he's my boss," Neff said "He's so smooth, he knows how to use his tires and his reactions time are as good as anyone out there."

Hood said she never has been prouder of her father than she is now.

"Some bad things happened to him, things you never want to see in your life," she said. "It changed him. I think he is more determined now than he ever has been. A really good thing came out of a really bad accident."

Four months ago, Force signed a new five-year deal with Ford that will keep him in the car until he's 65.

But age is just a number to Force. For the first time in a while, he feels young again.

"For a while there, I lost the magic," Force said. "But I got my life back, my health back and everything back. With my family and my team, I found my way through it. Man, it feels good."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.