HAZELWOOD: Norwalk is the perfect place for Force after 150th win

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Aug 8, 2019 at 9:52 PM

If anyone deserved a week off from getting in an NHRA Funny Car, it’s John Force.

On Sunday, the 70-year old Force looked completely overwhelmed by emotions, and physically exhausted. Of course he had just won his 150th win — a milestone in the sport of drag racing. The Mello Yello Series is idle this weekend after a grueling three-week stretch that included stops in Colorado, California and Washington.

But despite his age and schedule, Force isn’t relaxing with his historic victory from the Pacific Nationals in Kent, Wash., near Seattle. Instead, he’s coming clear back across the country to Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk — just to participate in a match racing exhibition.

Why enjoy a much-needed week off when you can interact with some of his most loyal fans in the pit area? It’s who Force is, when it comes right down to it.

Long before Bill Bader Jr.’s dragstrip became an NHRA track, Force has been a regular at the Night Under Fire event. The single-day event has been the biggest of the year for four-plus decades at Summit, and the place will again be jam-packed this Saturday.

In 2000, prior to the Night Under Fire festivities, a portion of the grandstands at the dragstrip was named in Force’s honor. As you drive by or to the track from Norwalk city limits, you can see the likeness of Force atop the seating to greet you.

That’s been up for nearly 20 years, and it was eight years before Force ever raced an NHRA event in Norwalk. Of course when you offer to promote the event in its early days by riding in a coffin, one can understand why John Force is a huge deal in Norwalk.

Nobody loves telling stories — and quite frankly, nobody does it better — than Force. One of his favorites is his first-ever Night Under Fire, when the event was just getting off the ground under Bill Bader Sr.

When he first began dominating the Funny Car scene, Force had a theme called, “The Nightmare continues …” as he laid waste to any and all comers.

Bader Sr. decided one way to sell Force’s first-ever appearance was to have him pop out of a coffin, which was driven down the track in a hearse by fellow driver Dean Skuza, and exclaim, ‘I’m your worst nightmare.’

Seemed simple enough. Except at the last minute, Force started to get cold feet about being shut in a coffin. Bader Sr. eventually talked him into it, but also gave Force a live mic — to this day probably never the wisest of moves.

When Skuza began to drive down the track, the coffin shut, and everyone in attendance heard Force let out a loud grunt over the public address system.

As the story goes, Bader Jr., then working for his dad, was interviewing Skuza, who perfectly executed the line, ‘I’m here to bury John Force.’

That was John’s cue to barrel out of the coffin with hist ‘worst nightmare’ line. Instead, Force said the first thing that came to his mind, which was, ‘It’s amazing what I do for $50,000!’

It was classic Force. But the crowd roared its collective approval, anyway. He eventually got in his Funny Car for a burnout, but also burned out his engine in doing so.

A man of his word, Force vowed he’d have the engine fixed in a couple of hours. He made a pass down the track and was victorious, but inclement weather started to roll in.

Force wanted to make another pass down the track for Bader Sr. and the fans, but the shrewd owner simply told him to forget the car and just sign autographs for the fans.

He sat on the track and did so … until 2 a.m. Force has been coming back to the Night Under Fire ever since, and has always gone out of his way to accommodate the Bader family and the Norwalk area fans.

In the years following the first Summit Nationals in 2007, Force always got the question when he was going to win the ‘big race’ at Norwalk. After seven failed attempts, that Wally trophy came to fruition in 2014 — also his 140th career win.

His interview immediately out of the car was per usual, epic. Speaking faster than the car speed itself, he proclaimed he had finally won P.T. Barnum’s race — his nickname for Bader Jr., because Force maintains he’s the best showman in the industry.

And that trophy and signature yellow winner’s circle hat from the Norwalk win? It’s never left the Maple City. The 18-inch tall, 12-pound Wally trophy sits proudly in Bader’s office at the track — a gift of appreciation from Force immediately after the win.

This past Sunday, Force gave maybe his best interview yet — and that’s saying something — highlighted by a few words that aren’t for live television. He immediately apologized, but anyone who has heard him talk over the years understood his emotion. Every word at all times is pure passion and adrenaline.

When the interview was over, Force, at age 70, could be seen running across the dragstrip. He the scaled a five-foot chainlink fence, and awkwardly fell to the ground.

Where was he even going? He got up and kept going to the grandstand, where he was pulled into the front row by waiting fans. Force then stood and raised both arms and let out a yell as the crowd swarmed him.

He simply wanted to celebrate with the fans — in the stands.

On top of being the most successful driver in the history of the sport — no one else has more than 97 wins — Force will always be considered a man of the people. As Bader Jr. once told me, it’s because Force has always been the same guy.

He’s still the same guy who grew up battling polio in poverty in a trailer park in Yorba Linda, Calif. He’s the same guy who went from driving a semi truck for a living to a Funny Car at 300-plus mph.

“John just loves driving a race car,” Bader Jr. said. “The business side of it he probably doesn’t enjoy that much. He just wants to get in his hot rod, go fast, blow stuff up, win some races and then go talk about it with the fans and sign autographs.”

When you look at his rags to riches story, Force really is the American dream.

At the most recent Summit Nationals in June, the area was besieged by record rainfall in the days and weeks leading up to the event. People who had built their summer and entire year around camping out at the track for the three days suddenly didn’t have a place to put their campers.

During my interview with Force, he couldn’t stress enough that the weather is ‘God’s way’ and it’s no one’s fault, especially the Bader family. He vowed to do everything in his power to make sure the fans were happy, even if it meant moving people into his VIP tent.

In the same interview, Force went off the cuff on several topics with me. But the truth was, Force hated seeing Bader stressing out over the weather situation.

So imagine a few hours later, when I had gone home to start writing the story. I’m sitting in my living room next to my wife, who was quietly reading a book.

My phone rings, and it was a number that I thought looked familiar, so I answered it, instantly greeted with “Hey, John Force here.”

After he had made his pass at 323 mph, Force felt the need to call me at home — just to reiterate his message of wanting to take care of the fans at all costs and stick up for Bader.

My wife is familiar with Force through my work. But seeing her reaction as he was speaking to me in a way only he can after he had just made a run down the dragstrip was classic Force.

On championship Sunday at the Summit Nationals, I went by the pit area of Force after he had been eliminated in the quarterfinals. Even still, over a dozen fans weren’t watching the action, but waiting for him.

I watched as a fan asked him to sign a diecast car for his young nephew. Force asked the guy the name of his nephew, and took the hat off his head and signed and personalized it for the man.

Force then saw me as he signed autographs and called me over. He thanked me profusely and said, “You did Bader right.”

No John, you’ve done us all right.

And now Force returns, fresh off the 150th win. Bader Jr. and Summit is billing Saturday as ‘Impossible never met John Force.’ I can assure you, that is more than a tagline.

It’s also the most accurate description of one of the most impactful figures in the history of motorsports.

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