A Force to be reckoned with: John Force still on top of racing world

John Force won his first race 51 years ago as a high school junior with his mom’s Buick Wildcat. This weekend, he will try to win his 149th career race as he competes in the 20th annual NHRA Route 66 -Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet.

“I live it, I love it,” Force said.

Force, 68, is no stranger to the track. He has three victories in 24 races there, the most recent in 2006, and has reached the finals eight times. He also has been the top qualifier six times at the track.

“It’s a big opportunity for us to come up here and shine, and we want to beat the competition,” Force said. “They’re tough — the toughest I’ve ever seen — but John Force Racing is tough. We get it, we work together, we’re one family and we’re coming here to win.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: NHRA drag racer John Force looks on during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Force’s 148 victories are a record in NHRA, as are his 1,276 elimination-round wins and his 155 top qualifying spots. But Force hasn’t always been this successful.

He went through years of struggles early in his career. He was known for his “long, smoky burnouts” and his inability to win.

“I just started early, starved to death for 10 years,” he said. “I was the perennial bridesmaid they called me. I went to nine finals rounds, or 11 and I couldn’t even win.”

He overcame polio as a child and ran out of money a few times in his career.

“If it wasn’t polio, if it wasn’t poverty in the family, living out of the back of a dump truck and picking berries up and down the coast of California,” Force said. “But it was the way of life.”

Force changed his lifestyle following a crash in 2007.

Force wasn’t deterred.

“My dad taught me to never give up,” he said. “Better get used to it, life’s tough out there.”

In 2007, his career shifted. In March, Eric Medlen, a racer for John Force Racing, was killed after crashing during a test run in Florida. In September, Force crashed during a race in Dallas, breaking multiple bones in his arms and legs. He was airlifted to a hospital, where doctors told him there was a chance he would not race again.

But again, Force wasn’t deterred. He changed his lifestyle.

“When I crashed on ’07, I was like a lot of people. I partied a lot, stayed up half the night, celebrated when you win,” Force said. “When I crashed and broke my arms and legs, it was a wake-up call. I work out now, I keep myself in shape, my motion mainly, and because I’m 68 years old.”

Force exercises every other day to make sure his body doesn’t get stiff when he races. He is seventh in Funny Car points standings and has reached third this year. His most recent NHRA victory came in March in Gainesville, Florida.

Despite his age, Force shows no signs of slowing. It’s as though each time he races, he’s that high school junior again, piloting his mom’s Buick Wildcat.

“As long as I keep my mind sharp, I’m going to drive a long time,” Force said. “I’m never going to say never, I’ve got to quit someday. But I love it. And when I get in that car, I’m young again.”

Follow me on Twitter @elankane15.

Email: ekane@suntimes.com

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