John Force has 16 career NHRA Funny Car championships.
Force’s team, John Force Racing (JFR), owns 20, including a sweep of the NHRA’s top two series in 2017. Brittany Force, John’s daughter, won last year's Top Fuel dragsters title, becoming the second woman in history to do so. Robert Hight, Force’s son-in-law and president of JFR, claimed the Funny Car crown.
“We hired (crew chief) Jimmy Prock back, and we did really good in Topeka last year, we ran really well," Hight said. "You’ve got to have good teams to win championships.
"Getting the right people to work together, that was the key. These cars, you’ve got to have crew chiefs who understand how to make these things run good. If you don’t, you’re at a disadvantage.”
The point is, it’s not hard for Force, the California native and racing legend who turned 69 two weeks ago, and his team to find fond memories and significance at every stop on the NHRA schedule.
But Topeka’s Heartland Park, which hosts this weekend’s Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, is the spot of some significant Force family milestones.
Courtney Force’s 2014 Funny Car win there was the 100th NHRA victory by a woman.
And it’s where Hight, quite literally, got his start with JFR.
“Twenty-three years ago, I flew into here (Kansas City) and started with John Force Racing," Hight said. "And I’ve been here ever since. I got my license here in Funny Car. They hired me and I needed to show up here.”
As for Force, his 2008 victory at Heartland Park was his first after a 2007 crash at a race in Dallas that nearly took his life.
“A lot of memories here, and a lot of records,” Force said with his trademark grin. “If we get some cool air, we can set some national records.”
NHRA drag strips, like NASCAR tracks, each have their own personality.
“This surface is really good. It’s maybe the best racetrack in the country, to be honest with you,” Hight said. “We always seem to run really good here.
JFR has three victories so far this season: Courtney has won twice in Funny Car, and Brittany has a Top Fuel victory.
Both Hight and John Force are still looking for their first wins of 2018. The young season has been a painful one for the 69-year-old Force, especially.
“I’ve been burdened with engine problems. I’ve crashed three cars total. It’s been a bad season so far. I’ve been in the hospital twice, but that’s all part of it,” Force said.
Force built his drag-racing empire piloting machines that propel him from a standstill to greater than 300mph in less than four seconds.
The dangers are inherent. The vehicles' 10,000-horsepower engines are built to perform spectacularly ... and fail in the same fashion, often in a fireball.
Force doesn’t need to keep racing. It’s just hard to stop doing what you love most when it brought you everything you ever dreamed, and more.
“I’ve been very fortunate. PEAK (Motor Oil) is giving me a lifetime contract to drive as long as I want. As long as I’m competitive,” Force said. “I ain’t gonna last forever, but I’m going to stay out here because I love it.”
Force had a sleepless Wednesday night, thinking about Thursday’s jam-packed schedule.
“It was like, ‘Why am I stressed?’ Because you live this job stressed,” Force said. “I haven’t put a date on (retirement), but it’s coming. I’ll be 70 next year. Even though the car does the running for me and I work out in the gym, you can’t do it forever.”