National Hot Rod Association Media Conference
July 10, 2013
SCOTT SMITH: Thanks, everybody, for joining us today on the teleconference. We have a busy lineup including John Force, Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, and Matt Hagan.
The NHRA is 13 races into the season and featured a stretch of four consecutive weeks of racing. Next up for the NHRA Mellow Yellow drag racing series is the grueling stretch of three consecutive races known as the West Coast Swing, which will begin in Vander Meer Speedway, July 19th through the 21st, for the running of the Mile-High NHRA Nationals.
The first driver joining us today is 15-time Funny Car world champion John Force. John, thanks for joining us today.
JOHN FORCE: Good to be here.
SCOTT SMITH: In the four consecutive races we just came out of, behind the wheel of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, he went to the finals three times, won the event in Bristol, was the number one qualifier twice, and moved from ninth to fifth in the points.
John, talk about that stretch of races we just came from and what you and your crew chief have found so far this year.
JOHN FORCE: Well, we've just been struggling all year with a lot of changes. You keep staying after it. Of course, naturally the Schumacher Funny Cars and the dragsters are really hot. Cruz was hot, but he's struggling like me now.
It was good for our team, for Castrol, Ford, all the studies from the engineers that go into your program, they pay us big money, as all sponsors do, and that's to deliver.
To get on a roll and be in three finals, my daughter got one, I got one, then Hagen got me the last time. We're holding our own. Not where we want to be but we just keep trying.
SCOTT SMITH: Thank you, John.
We'll get right to questions.
Q. Concerning Top Fuel canopies, an owner's perspective, but also you're putting your daughter in one of these cars. This is the most visible addition to driver safety. How do you feel about this? Has Brittany spoken to you? Does she love it or does it get in her way?
JOHN FORCE: Number one, she likes it. I owe the thanks to Don Schumacher and his teams. We work hard, the Ford engineers, to build safety. The Funny Cars, chassis, a lot of things were changing. We were never in the dragster business. The Schumacher team came up with a canopy. After we witnessed that, then the Antron crash, Schumacher, we were able to get a canopy. We put it on the second car we built. We had to make changes to make it fit.
We looked at it as the future. We believe it's better. I talked to Schumacher, the driver, and without a doubt he believes in it. Even though we're changing some chassis around, we have to make it fit, but we're going to get another one on order for the other car.
We just purchased a Top Fuel car from Steve Torrence. He had a used car. We're struggling with ours. We wanted to look at that. So we're trying to get the canopy to fit on it.
Yes, we plan on sticking with that.
Q. John, as you were coming up, was there a point in your rise that you said, I can do this? Did it kind of happen to you along the way that it finally started to fall together for your wins?
JOHN FORCE: The wins?
Q. I'm talking about when you got a moment, I know I can be a champion as well as anybody.
JOHN FORCE: I thought I could be a champion playing football. I lost 27 games, nine a year for three seasons as a quarterback in my high school. I had polio as a kid. I was hampered a little bit. But I was never going to go to college and be a great player. But I always believed. I got a racecar to do the running for me. At the end of that, I've always believed that I could do something. If I didn't, I wouldn't do it.
I don't think I could be a preacher, so I should not attempt to do it. Might try to change my ways, but ain't going to be a singer because I can't sing. I drive racecars because I believe I can win.
Q. You mentioned the safety of the racecars. Quick comment on the speeds that you go, the safety, your advice to average people out there, fans and citizens on the highways about speed and safety.
JOHN FORCE: I tell any kid or adult I run into, put on your belt in your street car. At the end of the day, these cars are running over 300 miles an hour, the dragsters are running faster than that, 330. NHRA works hard. In the old days, cars ran 200 or 250.
Market share areas that we're in, the town has grown around, but we have to be there because of Coca-Cola, Mellow Yellow, the sponsors want to be in those markets. Even Pomona has a railroad track on one end and a golf course on the other.
The only way to ensure safety, keep the insurance companies happy, is to shorten. That's why they went to the thousand foot. They not only did that with the pros, but they addressed with the Top Fuel and Funny Cars, restrictors, ways to slow the cars down with ignition.
But drag racers find a way to go faster no matter what you do to them. It's a continual, you know, technology that you can't build new products right now. They don't want anything out there. They want everything left alone to hold us where we're at. At the end of the day we want to give the fans a show, but be safe.
NHRA works out and so do the race teams.
Q. John, can you compare the three races that you have upcoming, what are the individual challenges to each event, and is there anywhere where they're identical, where you don't have to work too hard to be ready for it?
JOHN FORCE: Funny Car, I've won the Western Swing. I sweeped it in '94, when it was Denver, Sonoma, Seattle. Denver is going to be high altitude, hard to make the cars run up there. That's why the crew chief makes the most money, more than the drivers. The crew chief has to figure out a way to make up for the altitude. That's going to be a tough one because you have to change a lot of parts, compression, a lot of things to make that happen.
Sonoma, even though you're at sea level, we usually get into the heat. On a racetrack it can be really tough to adapt to. Then you get the night sessions. What we looked at is, How do you go there and win the race?
We did a lot of match racing, even though the crew chiefs like Mike Neff, that era, I'm pretty old, none of the kids on this call go back as far as I did, Schumacher's dad. The technology from the year before, they'll all adapt. That could be anybody's race there at Sonoma.
Seattle, you're up in the trees. Another racetrack, the heat gets on it. I hope NHRA, and they always do, they try to satisfy the pros. Then you have Pro Stock. They want it a little bit different. It seems to change week-to-week.
But the racers get on them on tracks where we want to run good and we struggle without really good prep.
Understand I'm not a crew chief. I'm a driver. I really don't know the tune-ups of these racecars anymore. I'm not that much in it. I wish I had a Robert Hight or Mike Neff that drove to explain it to you, but I do the best I can.
Q. You've been great for the sponsorship and the growth of the NHRA. It appears now you have a daughter who has done something which can be extremely fascinating in the growth of the NHRA. How do you feel about her exposure in the ESPN Magazine?
JOHN FORCE: Well, it's like I am with my children and you have to be a father and you have to be a boss. My kids do wrong in the racecar, I get after them. They're still my children and I love them. Just like Schumacher loves his kids, or Antron's dad loves him.
When this issue came up a few years ago, they didn't want me because I was cute, but because I was broken up, they wanted to put me in how I recovered. It was kind of embarrassing to me. I was never pretty. I don't have a body like Schumacher and Hagen and Antron.
So I took my hits. I went and did it, but I felt it could give more exposure for my sponsors, Traxxas, Mac Tool, Brand Source. I did it, took my hits. But the reactions were pretty good. A lot of fans wanted autographs because of the ESPN issue.
They came last year. It all started because Courtney was saying, Dad, I struggle with this Funny Car, my muscles are hurting. I said, Get in the training. She got into it last year. I go into the gym all the time just to keep my body moving.
My daughter got into it. Then ESPN came in and said, Hey, we'd like to use her. She felt, because it's my first year, I'm a rookie, I want to establish myself as a driver. I'm not really a sex symbol, I'm a racecar driver that has to be in shape, like any of the female drivers or the male drivers.
She went after it hard. Turned it down the first year. Came back this year, leaned on us, mom. I said to mom, We got to look at it as a business. It will be great exposure for the sponsors. Went to each sponsor, got approval. Courtney wanted to do it this time because she was really working out, hitting it hard. She's a pretty girl, attractive, got a great physique.
They really do it and do it right. It's not Playboy or those types of magazines, it's really about an athlete. Other athletes have done it. I was just told that she got the front cover nationally, and if they sell worldwide, she's the one individual that's going national, they picked her even over the quarterback of the 49ers, got his name somewhere, Colin Kaepernick from the 49ers, she had 78% of the votes, and she's number one. He was behind her quite a ways.
So she's going to go nationally with it and you'll see it everywhere nationwide.
It's working so far. Did we get a few hiccups? Yup. They there were people that said, My kids watch it, they love Ashley, now we don't know. Eight-year-olds don't come in and buy ESPN Magazine off the rack. What they do is watch us on TV. I didn't know it was going to be on TV Sunday. I was shocked when I was told it was on TV.
Once again, it's exposure. My daughter is very proud of what she's done, the way she looks. I thought it was done - what's the word - I don't know what the word is, but they did it right. It's my kid and I'm going to be proud of her as a father.
As an owner, got us great exposure so far. I think it's a positive note for NHRA and all the sponsors and I'm going to stick by her no matter what anybody says. We made that decision and we moved ahead with it.
Q. Where did they get the nostalgic dragster in the ESPN Magazine and did Ford get upset?
JOHN FORCE: It is to promote your sponsors is why we do it. ESPN, they do it their way, just like Swaringen, the producer at ESPN, he made a decision to put it on to promote the magazine that was coming out a week later, this Friday. I think he put it out as teasers. At first, I didn't understand. I was like, Wow, when I saw my kid, because I had not seen the pictures before. I'm a dad so I don't really want to look.
I started getting the calls. Yeah, a few negatives on TV because of kids watching. But I have to look at the big picture. The world has changed. We have to go to market different. As long as they do it with good taste. I was excited.
I thought the nostalgia wasn't about showing Funny Cars or dragsters. Somebody said, That Mustang, she ran out of gas in the middle of the desert. That was the whole idea, to fit anybody that has a street car, loves the desert, loves nostalgia. They do it, you don't have a say, and they pick the pictures. So far, so good.
Q. I never hear anybody talk about tires. You hear NASCAR talking that Goodyear brings this tire to this track, that tire to that track. Do you have that same situation at NHRA, different tires to different tracks?
JOHN FORCE: We run pretty much a standard tire. A lot of safety has gone into the Goodyear tires. There's other brands in our categories of drag racing. In the Funny Cars and dragsters, I can't think of anybody that doesn't run a Goodyear. The technology for safety, I don't think it's a different tire every week. Maybe one of the other boys, Hagen or Schumacher should answer that. I know we run the same stuff, we buy them in advance, take them from race to race. I don't think there's a tire for high altitude or heat. I think it's basically the same tire.
Q. You talked about the differences between the three tracks on the Western Swing. When you said you get to Sonoma, heat is a big factor. The best qualifying times are usually set on that evening qualifying session on Friday. How do you set up for that? On Sunday when you race, it's going to be hot. Big change.
JOHN FORCE: That's tricky. But let's face it, they do that session because people are working on Friday, I assume. They say if you're going to get to the races when you get off work, they can't have it at 1:00 in the afternoon, so they drop it into the evening.
They also do it because of the heat. Sometimes in some of these tracks, it was so hot back there racing at Norwalk, you know, it just would have been a struggle, even though on race day we were still in the heat, but we still had some runs that were in the heat of the day. We were able to find a balance.
You're right. Sometimes you run good. It scares me when I'm low ET, next day in the morning it starts to get warm. Luckily you have the early run on Sunday to get a tune-up at most of the tracks. Some tracks do run at 12:00. Starts putting you into the heat.
These crew chiefs out here are pretty good, the best, and they do adapt these cars.
Q. How do you deal with the three consecutive race weekends back-to-back? Those have to take a toll on you.
JOHN FORCE: I've been on the road for about six, seven weeks. I'm back here in Indy right now. I can't get home. It was my daughter's birthday, Brittany, my wife's birthday. They celebrated yesterday. I sent flowers. I have to stay and get work done.
A lot of changes at John Force Racing, trying to make these Funny Cars and dragsters better. Have some new stuff before we hit Denver.
If we're going to fight this fight and race against the bad boys out there, we used to be the leaders. You know what I mean, everybody was chasing us. We had the bullet on our back, the target. But not anymore. We're fighting to get back up there. That's why the three races in a row, it felt great to be in there.
We're working on Robert Hight's Auto Club car right now, Courtney's, and especially the dragster.
I like the races right in a row because you get into a groove mentally. Your whole preparation is right. I don't vacation hardly at all. When I go away, I come back with a couple weeks off, I'm really kind of lost. It takes me a day to get in it.
You just have to rest. The boys and the gals, the team on the road, you have to give them downtime. When we come home with a week off, we say, Everybody is off. We were unable to do that this week with the changes. I stood in front of the teams yesterday, Guys, whatever you did, three or four straight, I know you're all trying to get home to your families, new babies, but I need your help. We got to pull some overtime. They all stood behind me.
I even had to talk to a few of the wives. I know they were coming, I have to change it, it's my fault, don't be mad at them. We're a team, a family, like all the others at NHRA, and we do what we have to do.
Q. John, when you come to Vander Meer and stuff like that, what are your thoughts when you think about your early times in Colorado at Vander Meer, carrying on? When you come back, what's the nostalgia for you?
JOHN FORCE: First time I came over that mountain it was snowing. I knew without a race I wouldn't have any money to pay the hotel rooms. Now that's changed because I have major sponsors like Auto Club and Castrol, Ford, Brand Source, Freightliner. I'm really a fortunate guy. I'm able to do it right. A lot of the teams are still struggling with budgets, trying to make it to the next race.
I remember being there with my dad, he's passed now, John Vander Meer, he was a kid like me, his and my dad sat on the hill and talked about their two crazy kids, one trying to run a racetrack, one trying to drive a racecar. Neither one of us had a clue.
I look at your daughter, how little she was, my daughters, playing on the side of the hill in the dirt, running around there, playing at the racetrack. That's where we come from.
There's bad times when I crashed, there's good times when I won. I love going back. It's a beautiful facility. The fans open their arms to us. The media is great. It's really a tough deal on that mountain.
There was one year there I ran top speed, I was faster than the dragsters. That don't happen very often. For some reason our deal went right, for a few moments we were up there with our big brother. It was a great feeling. A lot of those dragster guys were telling me that was pretty cool. Never done it since, but we keep trying.
SCOTT SMITH: John, thank you very much for the time out of your busy day. We'll see you at the start of the West Coast Swing there at Vander Meer Speedway next weekend.
JOHN FORCE: Want to tell you in the media and NHRA thank you for having me on. I want to say good luck to the other drivers, not that they need it, they're pretty dang good.
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