John Force officially became a senior citizen on May 4.
But when it comes to the subject of being 65 years old — and the NHRA icon still getting behind the wheel of a Funny Car at speeds of 300-plus mph — Force has a simple message.
“Don't worry about my age, OK? I'll fight the battle,” Force said Saturday before the eighth annual Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk. “Leave that to me. Five years from now, I'll be here going on 70 and you'll see the same guy sitting here.”
Force, a record 16-time champion on the circuit, said everyone around him felt the need to point out that 65 was retirement age.
“They asked, 'well, are you going to go on forever?' Listen, I'm 65. I'm still sitting here,” Force said. “Do I look any different than last year? I ain't cute, but I was never cute. But my wife does love me. I was here at these tracks when my kids were little, and now my grandchildren are here. As long as the car does the running, and I have great eyesight and pretty good hearing ... bring em' on.”
As the most popular figure in the history of the sport, Force has also been able to stay one of the best. He won last season's title at the age of 64. But the legendary driver still has a lot left to do, especially when he comes to Norwalk.
Snapping the Norwalk drought
While the NHRA has made just seven prior stops at Norwalk on the national tour, Force was established as a fan favorite here decades ago. The grandstands were named in his honor at the annual Night Under Fire event back in 2000 when the old Norwalk Raceway was still an IHRA track.
But since moving up to the big leagues in 2007, Force is winless at Norwalk. And don't think for a minute he doesn't think about it.
“On the circuit, this is the only race I've never won,” he said. “Epping (New Hampshire) was a brand new race last year, and I've been to a couple finals there, but my daughter beat me. We keep getting those inaugurals, everywhere I go. I've won the Night under Fire, (teammate) Robert (Hight) and I ran in the final last year.
“I've got a lot of trophies from here,” Force added. “I know how to win this race, but we're going to run this in conditions at night, which I'm used to, but it don't apply to during the day on Sunday in the finals. But we're learning and building the data.”
Force looks at winning at Norwalk as a must-have, as opposed to being content with his already long list of accomplishments.
“I need to win this race,” he said. “My first-ever win for NHRA was in Montreal. My first win in the U.S. was in Columbus. So I know this area. I won my first AHRA race outside of Cleveland. So, I need to win this race, OK? But I've got a lot of years left.
“I'm under contract for five more years, and I'm going to continue to fight,” he added. “I'm going to win every race on the circuit, or I can't quit, that's the bottom line. But there's no reason I can't start here (today). The problem is, there's a lot of good competition. There's 16 good cars, and definitely 12 cars that can win this race. But I'm going after it.”
Embracing Norwalk and Sandusky
Despite his lack of success at Summit Motorsports Park on the NHRA circuit, Force, who has raced at hundreds of different tracks in his 35-plus years, doesn't hide his love for Norwalk — and Sandusky.
“Thank the Bader family and NHRA for a great race track,” Force said. “We've had awesome conditions, but the fans poured in and packed the place Friday night and there was a great Fourth of July fireworks show.
“We had a great time Friday night, staying there at that big Kalahari in Sandusky,” he added. “Just a great place for the teams to bring their families, and we bring our grandchildren and it's just a great place. And it's summer time in Sandusky. We love it.”
Force is looking for a new sponsor for his car beginning next season, as longtime sponsor Castrol GTX is refocusing its spending to increase investments in certain areas while reducing it in others. The veteran driver knew there was nowhere else but Norwalk to try and wow a potential sponsor.
“I'm chasing corporate America, I got a big sponsor out here with me this weekend,” he said. “I took him into the stands with a packed house with his kids, he was excited. Fireworks show … nobody on this circuit, I believe, promotes as good as Bill Bader. Just unbelievable. Bader brings the party. Boy, he's P.T. Barnum, I've said it for years. The dad (Bill Sr.) was the best, and he taught the kid.”
And of course, Force added, who can say no to the ice cream in the area.
“I love rolling into town here, and when I walked in the other night all the guys were hollering at me to get a glass of wine or a beer,” he said. “No, instead I went down with my grandkids and got me a big ol' ice cream cone — and that would kill anybody. And Bader just brought us a giant tub of it for my wife's birthday coming up. What a place.”
Force believes he can stay at the top because he lets the race car do the running, and he worries about the rest.
“I live in the gym, Sandusky and the Kalahari hotel has a great gym there,” he said. “My wife was in there today, I went back in there Friday night even though it was dead late. I'm going for 10 minutes, just to have the mindset. It's easy, I don't party like I used to.
“Alcohol is in moderations, not during race time,” Force added. “Don't drink beer, it's too easy to get a beer, just a little wine. I focus on winning. I've driven longer than anybody, and that's knowledge that nobody has, but I have. I know this race track better than anybody. And I have to take those odds of how good I am, and I know these tracks and know how to drive a Funny Car.”
After last season's title, Force entered Norwalk in third place, with Robert Hight in first place and daughter Courtney in sixth.
During Friday night's qualifying, Force posted a 4.03-second pass at 319.45 mph. He added a 4.01-second pass at 322.04 mph Saturday night, a new speed record at the track. That puts him in the No. 2 position entering today's championship rounds.
“All of my race cars were fast. Hell, I thought I was low with that 4.03. We could have ran faster and put it in the threes, but we're trying to get consistency with my car because it doesn't have it.
“It will run in the 300s, we did it earlier in the year and set the national record (324.12 on Feb. 7) — but we have no consistency — we're working on that,” he added. “Things are going real good, but my car started off strong and then it fell off.”
Force said he didn't use winning his 16th championship last year as a way to thumb his nose at those who poke at his age. Besides, he wants to be everyone's friend right now.
“I don't tell anybody to stick it, I'm up for the ESPYs right now,” he said of the popular ESPN awards show based off fan voting. “Everyone tells me, I've been to the ESPYs five times and never win. I've got more championships than anybody. Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson … I've got 16 of them, Jimmie's got six. But NASCAR is a different world, I don't make the comparison.
“But one of these days I'll win the ESPY's too,” Force added. “And if not, I'll just do a run on the stage like that guy did to that country singer (Taylor Swift), Kanye West or whatever … I'll go right up on stage and tell them 'I'm about to die and I still have more records than anybody, when you going to give it to me?' But they do what they do, it's based off the fan bases, and NASCAR is bigger than us. As long as I can stand there with them and get to walk the red carpet with my wife and kids, and if I don't win, so what, I'm being honored. And the real world knows the truth. And I love Jimmie and Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt. Love em all … but I love me the most.”