Thursday, December 04, 2008

John Force: No scrimping on safety

There are a handful of rules you have to live by when you do the job I do. Wear comfortable shoes. Look both ways – at least twice – before crossing any lane race cars are in. And never, ever turn down an opportunity to interview John Force.

Force was in North Carolina Wednesday evening to pick up the Motorsports Engineering Achievement Award at a banquet during the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s annual motorsports engineering conference. The conference was held at the Embassy Suites near Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord.

“I came here to thank them,” said Force, who flew in for the day from California. “Not for giving me an award, but for what all those people in the room have done.”

Safety is Force’s passion these days. It has been since Eric Medlen died during a test in a Funny Car owned by John Force Racing.

Force has invested his heart and his money into the Eric Medlen Project. Ford has supported him with money, manpower and expertise and he’s worked closely with the leadership of the National Hot Rod Association on safety initiatives.

Force is convinced the work that’s been done to develop a car that offers its driver more protection from the forces at play at better than 300 mph in a drag race helped save his life when had a violent crash in late 2007.

“At the end of the day, racing is about speed,” Force said. “It’s a bullfight and you hang your neck out. If you don’t want to get hurt don’t get in the car.

“But you have to believe the car is right. Right now I have the best thing we could create. I believe it’s seven times stronger.”

But it’s not strong enough, not safe enough. Force’s daughter, Ashley, and his son-in-law, Robert Hight, drive for John Force Racing too, and Force can’t rest until he’s sure he’s done everything he can possibly do to keep them safe.

There are other forces at work in motorsports these days, of course, and Force has to deal with those too. He’s a 14-time Funny Car champion in the National Hot Rod Association, but like everybody else in racing he’s dealing with the challenges of a tough economy.

“We’ve looked at everything,” Force said. “We looked at where the gravy is and the gravy is gone.”

Force said he’s cutting one man off each of his teams. He’s canceled orders on some equipment he wants for his shop just outside of Indianapolis. He’s delayed plans to start building his own bodies for his cars. He’s not going to do any extensive testing before the new NHRA season. He even flew coach on his cross-country trip to pick up the award.

“We’re going t have to work more for less, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “All of us in motorsports have to do it. …We have to put this country back on its feet and everybody is going to have to cut. We’re all in the same boat.”

Force said one thing he won’t cut back on, however, is the effort to make racing safer.

“If I can’t build a car that’s safe I am going to quit,” Force said. That’s not a threat, he said, just the way it is.

“I have a grandbaby that I want to be able to look in the eye and say, ‘Your daddy is going to come home,’” Force said. “I got where I couldn’t tell Ashley she was safe. I was always able to tell her the car was her best friend and I was wrong. I believe now we’ve got a car that will protect you. But it’s still not where it needs to be.

“If the safety element is taken away because of a lack of funds, I am done. …If I can’t race knowing I’ve can make something better I won’t go on. …If we have to cut out everything, even performance, safety has to come first. We’ll build safety first and then we’ll consider racing. …You can’t say that because there’s no money we have to give up safety. I am not giving up my kid.”

13 comments:

Trialdawg said...

Amen.

Anonymous said...

Great piece David,
John is the 1 driver, who could say those words and mean them, he
makes a lot of sence.

Monkeesfan said...

The only thing Force is wrong on is that racing is about speed - no it isn't, it's about getting to the stripe first. If taking away speed makes racing safer, then racing needs to do it.

David Poole said...

Actually, Monkeesfan, John would 100 percent agree with you on that.

Anonymous said...

Force and Kenny Bernstein should stop racing and automatically replace both Graham Light and Tom Compton. With Force/Bernstein running the NHRA, everything would be better off for both the competitors and fans.

Monkeesfan said...

David, thank you for the clarification.

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