Commentary

John Force: Portrait of a father, husband and drag racing legend

What drives John Force? It's not the thrill of competition. It's not the side-by-side racing at breakneck speeds. It's the women in his life -- all six of them, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: September 30, 2008, 11:27 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

John Force, the most accomplished and decorated drag racer in history, a man who cheated death a year ago and came back to race again at age 59, and a person who tells you exactly what he thinks in the most colorful terms imaginable, has a little secret.

His life is dominated by women.

They tell him what to do, how to do it and when to do it. They tease him, they provoke him, they anger him, they scold him and, most importantly, they love him.

They are wife Laurie; daughters Adria, Ashley, Brittney and Courtney; and one spoiled granddaughter, Autumn.

"Dad wouldn't know what to do with himself if we weren't pestering him," Ashley said. "He'd be lost without us harassing him."

Drag racing is John's passion, but these six females are the foundation of his world, the people who give everything meaning for this iconic figure of racing.

They are with him constantly, something that wasn't true in the past.

Ashley, 25, is a drag racing star in her own right, becoming the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car event earlier this season.

She ranks fifth in the standings with three races remaining in the playoff for the 2008 championship. Ashley and John are two of the 10 Funny Car drivers who qualified for The Countdown to 1, the NHRA's name for its playoff.

Ashley's sisters Brittney, 22, and Courtney, 20, are also racing now, learning the ropes in an Alcohol dragster.

Adria, 38, is Force's daughter with his first wife, Lana. Adria is the chief financial officer of John Force Racing, overseeing the books for more than 100 employees and four race teams.

She is also the wife of JFR driver Robert Hight (another playoff contender) and the mother of their 4-year-old daughter, Autumn, the only girl her grandpa has who won't talk back to him. Not yet, anyway.

The leader of this pack is Laurie, Force's wife of 27 years and the woman who tries to keep some sense of normalcy amid this unusual mix of family ties and racing desires.

Laurie has watched John go from a struggling pedal pusher hoping to make ends meet to a 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion with a drag racing empire. She also has watched him become a much better father in recent years.

"John really was pretty clueless about his daughters for a long time,'' Laurie said. "If I was to pin him down and ask him to tell me all their middle names and when their birthdays are, he couldn't do it without a cheat sheet.

[+] EnlargeLaurie Force and John Force
Bill Stephens/ESPN.comJohn Force on his longtime confidante Laurie: "My wife loves me, but she doesn't like me."

"I told him once that for him to do parenting would be like me walking into the shop and saying, 'OK, I'm going to run the race teams now.' It would all go haywire. He was sort of in the same boat about the girls and their lives."

That changed dramatically in the past three years. Ashley graduated from Cal State Fullerton and let Dad know she wanted to pursue a career as a professional drag racer. Her younger sisters followed suit on that second part.

Soon after word got out about the daughter racers, a reality TV show was born. A&E's "Driving Force" was a cable success.

The theme of the show was Charlie's Angels in firesuits going head-to-head with a dysfunctional dad who's a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and A.J. Foyt.

It revolved around John's wacky and volatile personality, Ashley's progression into big-time drag racing, and Brittney's and Courtney's typical teenage bouts with Dad.

John is a constant show all by himself, talking as fast as he drives. He's always on edge and liable to go off on a expletive-filled explosion at any moment. For the girls, it's no big deal. Just Dad being Dad.

But he gave the show some classic funny moments with his off-the-cuff comments:

• "We're not the Osbournes, but we're not the Osmonds, either. I'm not sure what we are."
• "Each of these girls is more trouble than four race teams. I shake my head sometimes and say, 'What happened? I really wanted sons.'"
• "I live in a boathouse on the lake. Laurie lives in the big house with the girls. The real me isn't allowed in Laurie's house. My wife loves me, but she doesn't like me."

Laurie revealed on the show that John doesn't live in the same Yorba Linda, Calif., house she and the girls share. He lives down the street in a condo.

"He's impossible to live with," Laurie said. "No one could be a fraction as difficult as John is. It's even hard for John to put up with John."

Adria said that the family jokes about it but that there is a practical reason for the separate abodes.

"Dad is allergic to animals, and they have Persian cats and huskies at the house," she said. "He would have coughing spells and say, 'I'm getting rid of these pets,' then he would bring another one home to the girls."

For thousands of casual racing fans, the show revealed a personal side of Force the father -- zany at times, but clearly dedicated to his girls.

"It was fun while it lasted," Brittney said of the two-year experience of the weekly program.

The show had its drawbacks for Ashley: She went through her entire learning curve as a pro with TV cameras chronicling every part of it.

"There were times when I wanted to kill anybody who had anything to do with the show," Ashley said. "I don't know why I had such a hard time with it, other than it was one more thing to deal with my first year in Funny Car."

The show was sort of a modern version of "Father Knows Best," except no one listened to the father.

The show also had another effect.

"It made us all get closer," Courtney said. "And now we're with Dad at all the races, not just a few. Sometimes when we were little, we only saw him when he came home."

Force FamilyForce family They're not the Osbournes or the Osmonds. From left: Ashley, Brittney, Adria Hight, John holding granddaughter Autumn (Adria and Robert Hight's daughter), Courtney and wife Laurie in 2006.

'I thought my dad was invincible'
Courtney said she's closer to her father now because she thought she had lost him a year ago. After more than 30 years in drag racing, Force suffered the first serious injuries of his career in a crash at the Texas Motorplex during the O'Reilly Fall Nationals.

"Ever since I was little, I thought my dad was invincible," she said. "Nothing can hurt him, and nothing can happen to him. If the car would turn upside down, he would crawl out, and that was it. His car would catch on fire and Dad would always walk out of it and always was OK."

This time, Force couldn't walk away. His car exploded at the finish line and shot across the lane into Kenny Bernstein's car before slamming into the retaining wall, blowing the Funny Car body off the machine as pieces of the hot rod scattered on the track.

Force didn't move. Safety officials worked to pull him from the wreckage. He was immediately taken by helicopter to a Dallas hospital.

He suffered a compound fracture of his left ankle and deep cuts on his right knee, causing significant blood loss. His left wrist was dislocated and several fingers were broken and cut from his hand's dragging on the pavement.

This was a rare trip when Courtney and Brittney weren't there. Courtney was at home when she began hearing reports her father had been badly injured in a crash.

"Brittney and I couldn't go to that race because our college classes had started," Courtney said. "I looked up on my laptop to see how Dad and Ashley were doing in the race, and the first thing I saw was a headline that read, 'John Force airlifted to the hospital.'

"I just started crying. I couldn't breathe. I was shaking and screaming Brittney's name. She ran in to ask what's wrong, but I couldn't tell her. I didn't know if Dad was dead or alive. I couldn't bring myself to read the story.

[+] EnlargeJohn Force
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJohn Force nearly lost his life in a horrific 2007 crash at Texas Motorplex.

"I finally read one Internet report that said Dad had lost limbs. I've never been that scared. It was the worst day of my life."

At first, the girls couldn't reach their mom or Ashley.

"So I called every crew member that I knew their number," Brittney said. "No one answered. We waited for more than an hour."

Courtney and Brittney finally reached Laurie on her cell phone. She told them that their father was hurt pretty bad but that his injuries weren't life-threatening and he would be OK.

The girls flew to Dallas the next day and met Laurie and Ashley at the hospital.

John was heavily bandaged and in a lot of pain, but even in that situation, the girls said their dad still had his zany moments.

"We heard some good stories while Dad was on the morphine drip," Courtney said. "He would say there was a farm animal coming in the room and to get it out.

"Once, we were outside the room and we could hear him singing. We started laughing because he was singing the Camp Grenada song."

Brittney bought her dad a stuffed animal to keep on the hospital bed.

"But he thought it was a pumpkin and it scared him, so he made us turn it around," Brittney said. "He said it was looking at him funny. And he was dead serious."

Force's injuries were serious enough that some people wondered whether his legendary career was over. After all, he was 58 and not in the best shape. But Force wanted to race the next event, which surprised his two P.R. reps, Dave Densmore and Elon Werner.

"Dave and I sent out a release that he might not race at Richmond [two weeks later]," Werner said. "John was furious. He called us in to his hospital room and said, 'Why are you turning on me? Haven't I been good to you guys?'"

Both of Force's legs were in bad shape, but that didn't stop him from standing.

"It was so apparent that he wanted to know he was capable of getting out of the bed and standing up," Werner said. "The doctors told him he couldn't put any weight on his left leg. They would get him on the side of the bed and prop him up. I would make suggestions on how he could get around, and he would say, "Are you a f---ing doctor? Did you go to medical school?' So I just gave up."

Force didn't race again in 2007, but he was back in the car for the start of the 2008 season.

"I knew he would be back in the car as soon as he could," Brittney said. "He said he wanted to be back for the first race [of 2008]. The doctors told him no way. We all did, too. But Dad was so committed to getting back. He went to the gym and worked out four hours every day."

Bernstein knew Force would return, but the incident at the Texas Motorplex persuaded Bernstein to retire for good. The six-time NHRA champion had come out of retirement in 2007 to race in Funny Car, but the crash with his old rival changed him.

"I think it changed both of us," Bernstein said. "It made John understand that he wasn't above getting hurt, or worse. The fact is no one is invincible in these cars.

"Now his daughter is out there in a Funny Car. And my son [Brandon] is in the Top Fuel dragster. Sometimes you question whether you should have put your foot down and just said, 'No way.'"

Tragedy times two
Force's crash and injuries were not the most difficult moment of the 2007 season for him and his team. That came in March when JFR driver Eric Medlen died of injuries he suffered in a practice session accident in Gainesville, Fla.

Force was devastated. He had seen death before at NHRA events, and dozens of serious injuries over the years, but no one that close to him in racing had lost his life.

For the first time in his career, winning wasn't the top priority. He ordered his four-car team to skip the next event in Houston, even though Hight was leading the standings at the time.

World According to Force
Want to know what 14-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force is thinking these days? Well, all you have to do is ask him. Terry Blount

Force and his entire brain trust worked with the NHRA at improving the safety of the cars.

"Safety was the No. 1 thing for me," Force said. "It was all we cared about and all we thought about for a long time after Eric died."

Ashley, who was competing in her rookie season, escaped injury in a scary accident at Seattle in July. Conflicting thoughts haunted Force: Had he done the right thing in allowing Ashley to race?

"For a long time, I came to the racetrack wondering if somebody close to me was going to die again,'' Force said. "I got to where I was thinking that week after week. My heart wasn't there because I didn't feel we were safe."

That feeling intensified three months ago when Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Englishtown, N.J.

Force and other top drivers persuaded the NHRA to shorten the distance of a race from a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet after Kalitta's death. The change gives drivers a longer run-off area in which to slow down and will stay in place through the end of this season while an investigation into other safety changes is ongoing.

'I ain't had a beer since this accident'
Force is seventh in the Funny Car standings, 193 points behind leader Tim Wilkerson. Force's chances of winning his 15th championship this season are slim. He said his focus on safety had a detrimental effect on his racing.

"You can't stay ahead of the game doing that because you don't concentrate on getting better and faster," he said. "Now I put them both on the same level, winning and safety. It's an exciting time for me.

"I know I should have been killed. But now I still have that fight and fire at 59 years old. We aren't the car we used to be, but I can still do this. I ain't had a beer since this accident. We're going to be OK."

Notice he said "we're," not "I'm." Force thinks of things in terms of the family because the family is out there with him all the time. And he feels responsible. Ashley is trying to win the championship, as is Robert Hight, John's son-in-law and the father of his granddaughter.

It isn't really about John anymore. Bernstein can relate. He and Brandon's mom divorced when Brandon was a toddler. Kenny moved from Dallas to Southern California and didn't see Brandon much.

Now Brandon drives the Budweiser Top Fuel dragster his father made famous. He and Brandon are closer than they've ever been, so he understands how Force feels closer now to his daughters.

"Both John and I were fighting for our racing lives in those early years," Bernstein said. "We didn't have much time for anything else.

"It was worse for me because I got divorced and Brandon and I grew apart. Now we've come full circle. It's the same for John. Our kids are a huge part of our lives, and we understand them now and what makes them tick."

Brandon broke his back in his rookie season, forcing Kenny to come out of retirement and drive the dragster until Brandon was able to return. So Bernstein also understands the feeling of having a child in danger.

"To be honest, I think that feeling is stronger for a father if it's his daughter," Bernstein said. "Don't get me wrong, Ashley is as good as anyone out here, but I mean from a father's perspective, it's harder to reconcile it with a daughter than it is with a son."

Following in their father's footsteps
Courtney and Brittney also might make it to the pro ranks soon. It's up to them.

Brittney is close to getting her degree in English from Cal State Fullerton.

"I want to be a middle school or high school English teacher," Brittney said. "I'm having fun with the racing. When I first climbed in the A-Fuel dragster, it was pretty scary, but I enjoy it now I'm having fun with it. I don't really know yet where I stand on the future in racing."

Courtney, who attends Santiago Canyon College in Orange, Calif., has no doubts about her future.

"I want to get my bachelor's in communications, but I want to continue racing," she said. "I already tried to think of another job I would do, but my sisters all say they don't see me doing anything but racing.

"I think I've always wanted to do this. When I was in elementary school, I would draw pictures of Funny Cars and pictures of me racing my dad in a Funny Car. I always wanted to grow up and race my dad."

In the beginning …
Adria had a much different experience growing up than that of her younger half-sisters. Adria was 20 when her dad won his first championship. But she was with him on the road long before the successful years came along.

"My first summer tour with him was when I finished sixth grade," Adria said. "He was against it at first, saying the road with a bunch of guys was no place for a young girl. He was very protective in his own strange way."

It was one truck and one car in those days. Adria's best memory is one John probably wishes she wouldn't tell.

John Force Family
John Force RacingAshley, Courtney, Laurie, John and Brittney strike a pose at the 2007 NHRA Banquet.

"He catnapped a few minutes sometimes on the road and told me drive," she said. "I sat on his lap, and he told me to steer the truck straight and wake him up if anything happened."

Thankfully, it never did.

"We were driving to match races all over the place," Adria said. "I thought it was the coolest thing, and I appreciate it more now than I did then. I really enjoyed being with him and meeting new people.

"Sometimes I would stay up late with him and we'd go shopping at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was just our way of life. That's all we knew."

A part-time schedule was all Force could afford to race the first five years of his career. He didn't race full time until 1983.

"It was a totally different mentality in those days," Adria said. "I don't think Dad was intending to become something big. That's just what he did.

"He wasn't shooting for the stars. We were just having fun and trying to pay the bills. That was a struggle, but Dad never wanted to be in debt. There were times when the crew guys worked for free until Dad could pay them back. But even in those days, Dad was always helping others before he helped himself."

Force's first victory didn't come until 1987, in his 74th NHRA event. By that time, Adria was running the business.

"I started working for him when we were using the old accounting ledgers with the green pads. It was a one-person office -- me. I told Dad, 'This won't work. I need a computer and a fax machine.'"

Her father's first championship came in 1990. He won 10 consecutive Funny Car titles from 1993 to 2002.

"The success came slowly out of hard work," Adria said. "We started winning, and we never took it for granted, riding that wave all through the 1990s."

Force Racing has a $10 million facility in suburban Indianapolis, but the team headquarters remains in Yorba Linda, the shop that opened in 1990.

"And we spent every penny we had to build it," Adria said.

Adria doesn't attend as many races as she used to, electing to stay home with Autumn while her husband, father and sister all race. She met Robert when he was a clutch specialist on John's car.

Adria is the one who talked her dad into giving her husband a chance to drive after Tony Pedregon left the team. The Hights live in the same neighborhood as the Forces.

Because Ashley was the oldest of John and Laurie's daughters, she often confided in Adria as her older sister.

"Ashley would come to my house a lot when she was a teenager, and we'd talk," Adria said. "We had a lot of fun together despite the age gap."

Wedding bells for Ashley
Ashley is getting married after the season ends. Her fiancé, Danny Hood, was a crew member for another organization before Force hired him at JFR this season. Maybe Dad just wanted to keep a closer eye on him.

Ashley remembers her dad coming home from races and trying to show his authority by being overprotective and too strict.

"I was the most straight-laced kid in California," she said. "I never drank, never smoked, never cut class. And my girlfriends were all the good kids who went to church and didn't party. We were the only three girls in Orange County who never did anything wrong.

"We made friends with some guys who also were church-going guys. We would meet them at Starbucks. It wasn't like we were meeting at some underground punk rock club. But Dad was sure we were doing drugs at Starbucks. I got grounded and had to be home at 8:30. I'm still a little traumatized by that."

[+] EnlargeAshley Force
Courtesy of NHRAThe rising star of the Force family? Daughter Ashley, who made history in April when she defeated her superstar father in the Funny Car final at the Summit Racing Southern Nationals.

Laurie said that John often overreacted with the girls because he hadn't been around much.

"He would come in and say, 'OK. I'm going to be the parent now.' It didn't work. It was either too extreme or too lenient," she said.

"The girls would be fighting, and I would tell him I can't make them stop. So he would go to them and say, 'I'll give you each $20 if you'll stop fighting.' Then he would come to me and say, 'See, they're fine.'"

Courtney just laughs now when she thinks about some of her father's overprotective ways.

"I went to the beach a couple of years ago,'' she said. "Dad said, 'You know you have to be careful. It can suck you under. It's called undertow. And there's sharks out there. They can eat you.' I would go, 'Dad, I'm 20. I've been to the beach before.'"

Brittney said her father often changed his mind on safety issues with the girls.

"Dad bought us a trampoline four times," she said. "He would watch us on it one day and then take it away, saying we were going to break our necks. He would make up some story about how he read an article in the paper how a kid fell off one and died. But then he would get another one."

Courtney said the irony of her father's worries is that he's the only one who ever got hurt.

"We went on a skiing vacation, and Dad was warning us about getting on and off a ski lift," she said. "No problem. So I get on the ski lift, but Dad's not there. I'm looking around going, 'Where's Dad?'

"The chair had come by and hit him in the knees and knocked him over. He started to get up and it hit him in the head and he's face down in the snow. They had to shut down the ski lift and put it in reverse to get Dad out of the snow."

Laurie didn't have to see it to know what happened.

"Ashley and I were already at the top when they stopped the ski lift," Laurie said. "I looked at Ashley and said, 'I bet that's for your dad.'"

But Laurie's favorite story of John's strictness involved crossing the street.

"We live in a cul-de-sac," she said. "To this day, none of the girls have been given permission from John to cross the street. If they wanted to go to a house on the other side of the street, they had to walk around the cul-de-sac."

Laurie said John has learned one important lesson: Being there for the girls is the most important thing.

"His career is so all-consuming," Laurie said. "He used to think, 'They're fine. I don't need to do anything.' But having them around all the time made him realize how much they needed him."

Courtney has seen her dad go through a lot of tough times in the past 18 months. And she knows a lot more about him because of it.

"We learned through all this that Dad just wants to make us happy and keep us safe," she said. "That's the top priority for him. But really, deep down, I guess we've always known that."

And the girls still walk around the cul-de-sac, even when Dad's not there to watch.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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