The following are excerpts from a teleconference featuring newly crowned 16-time Funny Car world champion John Force; 2013 Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Matt Smith; Top Fuel points leader Shawn Langdon; and Pro Stock points leader Jeg Coughlin.
MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us for this NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series teleconference. We're going to talk to two championship contenders, Jeg Coughlin, Jr., and Shawn Langdon, and two champions that recently clinched the world titles, Funny Car racer John Force and Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Matt Smith.
First we'll start off with Jeg. Thank you for joining us today. He's on the quest for his fifth Pro Stock championship and his first since 2008. Jeg has four wins and four runner-up finishes, two number one qualifying positions this year. Jeg, this has been your first championship hunt after sitting out the 2011 season. How is it to be back in the midst of a championship scrap going into the last race?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: Well, it feels fantastic. First off, congratulations to Matt Smith and to John Force for clinching their respective titles. That's pretty sweet. Both of them obviously multi-time champions. I think entering the final race going into Pomona, the Pro Stock Countdown to One championship is still on. We've got a bit of a lead going into the finale, but certainly nothing we're resting on. We're looking forward to getting to Pomona, one of the birthplaces of NHRA drag racing, just minutes from Glendora, putting on a great show, ultimately and ideally bringing home our fifth Pro Stock championship.
Q. Jeg, I know you've shared some of this stuff with family. Could you talk a little bit about sharing your ability to focus, prioritize tasks, that's given you multiple championships.
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: Certainly in my case I've had a great run in the last 25 plus years of drag racing of some sort. Since 1998, being more or less full-time in the Pro Stock world, I've really enjoyed the challenges of driving a Pro Stock car. It does take some discipline, focus, a whole heck of a lot of horsepower, too. I think having a younger generation coming up in our family, a lot of them are interested in drag racing itself, my brother John's Cody is in circle track racing, and my son Jeggy is into golf. A lot of similarities of what it takes to be a champion, what it takes to separate yourself and put yourself to be in a position of being in a winning position. Obviously that's the ultimate goal of any sport you're in. I think it just takes mainly, if I had to pick one word, I would say it takes an extreme amount of discipline.
Q. Your racing family just got 100 NHRA National wins. Can you share what that means to be part of the Jegs Racing team, part of the family business, all the history.
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: It's extremely exciting to win our 100th NHRA Wally at the national level. We've had great success on the Lucas Oil Series as well. When brother Troy lit the win light up in the final round this past weekend in Las Vegas in the Pro Modified category, that tripped our 100 event win. To be honest with you, I was lost in the moment. I had just gotten put aside in the Pro Stock world by V. Gaines in the semifinals, honestly was just cheering Troy on to the victory. As Alan Reinhart and the PA announcers were talking about that being our hundredth victory, it was a very kind reminder of a lot of memories that started flashing through my mind. I might say I was on the rocker panel of my Pro Stock car going up in front of the car. A lot of memories were flashing through my mind at that time, starting with our first win at the Budweiser Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, in 1990. It means a lot to our family, to all our associates that have worked with us at the race team, and here at Jegs. We have been one big family and enjoyed that together.
MODERATOR: Jeg, you talked about your family. If you look at our champions so far this season, with Matt Smith, his dad; John Force, we're seeing a lot of families in the NHRA. We have for a while. What is it about the NHRA that is so synonymous about racing families?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: I think NHRA and drag racing in general gives an affordable way to enjoy a motorsport, whether you're racing locally at your local home track in Ohio, Missouri, wherever you may be, to rising all the way up to the likes of challenging for a Top Fuel World Championship like Shawn Langdon is getting ready to do, another family affair. I think the sport has lent itself to build on generations and generations. I think you can do it in anything from your street car up to Top Fuel dragsters at many different levels. You can compete for a local track championship, you can compete for a regional championship, within the Bracket Racing world, you can compete within the Lucas Oil Series, and the Mello Yello Series we're speaking of on this call. There's a lot of avenues and opportunities to be involved in in our sport at your level. I think that's why the sport has been so successful in building its family. As we all know, most of the audience today, every ticket gets you right into the pit area. It's just so friendly really from the word 'go' to not only bring your family to get involved, and obviously as I just said physically involved in the sport. I think that's why it's been so successful in the family arena.
Q. Jeg, in every type of sport, winning just a single championship is an extremely enormous event. To win more is equally incredible. If you win this year, does it compare to any of your previous championships? Is there a single part about it that's extremely different from your other championships?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: Well, when you're engaged in the NHRA drag racing world, as we are, you have several levels of goals. One is to prepare yourself to compete at the highest level, to compete and challenge for round wins, to compete and challenge for race wins, and ultimately put yourself in a position to win the season title or in this case the Mello Yello championship. That is what drives the teams. That is what drives me. We have been very fortunate to win a lot of rounds, win a lot of races, and put ourselves in the position to win a lot of championships. We've brought several of those home. They are all extremely challenging in their own right, in their own way. This season has been unique in a way, partnering and teaming up with Roy and Allen Johnson at J&J Racing, we had just one heck of a season between the three of us, Vincent Nobile, myself and Allen have won a lot of races, have won a lot of rounds. At this point we're in a position to bring home a championship. That would be extremely special not only for our family but the Johnson family and also for everyone at Mopar and Dodge. It's been a big season. Would love nothing more than to cap it off at Pomona with a victory and obviously, if we could do that it would take care of the championship as well.
Q. Jeg, you've obviously been in the situation before, won world championships. How do you handle the pressure of Pomona in terms of there's so many drivers that still have a chance to win this Pro Stock championship based on the number of points that can be won at Pomona? Do you just worry about what you have to do or do you worry about points?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: I think you definitely take a peek at the points. It's hard not to, with the media, with the technology we have today. We keep pretty close tabs on where we need to be, where others are at, let me just put it that way. ‘How do you handle the pressures of it?’ That's what we love. That's what makes us thrive to dig down and compete at the highest level. We've been in conversation already this week on our preparation methods for the upcoming race in Pomona as far as having the car prepared, everything within the hauler. I know I've been working on a few things in the mindset, getting ready for the race itself. Pomona, it's an electrical and magical place. We're fortunate in the NHRA Mello Yello Series where we've got Pomona as the bookends of the season. First of the year we have new drivers, new teams, new colors, just excitement. On the flip end of that, at the finale, we have season championships coming to the end, not only in the Mello Yello Series, but the Lucas Oil Series as well. There's so much excitement, it is hard not to pull off of that excitement and energy, in my case, to be able to get out there and want to perform better than I ever had. I've had some great, great runs at Pomona and for this year to be no different.
MODERATOR: You talked about Pomona. You raced to a runner-up finish to start the season. How much data can you bring from then to this race or are these cars, after all these races, rounds, are they kind of almost different machines going into the finals?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: They're a little bit different, I would say. Between Jim Yates and Mark Ingersoll, the entire Jegs team, the Mopar Dodge team of Allen Johnson, we've fine-tuned on the cars all year. They're just a tick different. We can look at the data from one year ago in the fall. We can look at the data from the first of the year when we were in the final against your teammate Vincent Nobile. We can use those as baselines to get us started. We've been to Pomona twice a year for our entire career. We know the characteristics of the track. Obviously NHRA and the Safety Safari do a great job of preparing the drag strip that only gets run on a couple times a year. It's somewhat of a predictable racetrack. We're looking forward to that and feel like our game plan is highly on the offense and ready to play.
Q. About your family, racing. Do you believe in speed genes that work in sports?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: Sometimes we're a product of our surroundings, right? In our case, my family and I have grown up around the high-performance world at Jegs, seeing the Edelbrock parts, the Mr. Gasket parts, the Moroso parts coming and going since we were in diapers, and also being at the local tracks around the Midwest watching our father and the Jegs Race Team race. I think there are some things that are certainly in the blood, there's no question. I think there's respects that you pick up in our case being around the industry, the racetrack our entire lives that have helped us appreciate what it takes to compete in this sport and to do well.
Q. If you will, what are the challenges of Pomona raceway versus any of the other racetracks? Can you think of any better place to win a championship and finish the season than Pomona?
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: I really can't think of a better place to finish the season. But, again, as I just mentioned, growing up in the sport, typically the finale has always been in Pomona. In my lifetime it has been. That has just been kind of chapter and verse. I think as far as the racecourse itself, the facilities, being just miles from one of the Meccas of the world, L.A., it brings in a whole new group of fans from all over the world that come in and watch this race. I mentioned also earlier the energies that feed off of that. I think that makes the teams want to perform that much better. As far as the racecourse itself, it is very similar. We race on a quarter-mile concrete asphalt surface. We've got the best in the business preparing it week in and week out with NHRA and the Safety Safari. Things are very consistent week to week to week. That allows the teams to be able to continue to elevate their game. I think in my lifetime in Pro Stock, I think one of my first quarter-mile runs was in the seven-second range, like 7.07 or something. It would not surprise me if we clip into the 6-40s at Pomona in a week's time. A lot of technological advances that we've been able to take advantage of in that lifespan.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Jeg, for your time. We'll let you get back to your work and preparation.
JEG COUGHLIN, JR.: Thank you all for calling in.
MODERATOR: Shawn Langdon is in his fifth season in the Top Fuel ranks and is having a breakthrough season. Six wins, three runner-up finishes, seven number one qualifying positions. Shawn, Jeg was talking about Pomona, what it means to wrap up strong there. You started the season with a win in Pomona. Obviously, that's what you're looking for going into this next weekend. What would it mean to bookend the season with the win and then also the championship?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, it would mean everything to me to be able to end the year at Pomona with a championship just for the fact that's where I grew up, racing junior dragsters, growing up, being a big fan of the sport, watching my idols race there. Pomona to me is a special place. When I look at the season, Pomona to me is Indy, it's the biggest race of the year, that's because where I grew up racing, junior dragsters there, racing in the Lucas Oil Series, having a lot of friends and family out there. Then, you know, like Jeg was talking earlier, you start the season there and you see a lot of new things come out for the year, and then you end the season there racing for the championships, all the excitement that goes into Pomona. It's definitely one of the, for me, most exciting races of the year.
Q. Coming down to the end of the season here, having the lead for the championship, you've got the end goal in sight, how does the feeling right now compare to when you were in the same position for the two Super Comp world championships?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, there still is that pressure of having to perform. It's what you grew up wanting to do, wanting to accomplish. When you grow up as a kid, wanting to be a professional drag racer, you envision yourself putting yourself in championship scenarios in the biggest pressure moments. To be in a Top Fuel championship, it is quite a bit different because of Super Comp. I think it's maybe more of the media attention and all the publicity that's drawn to it. So there's a lot of interviews, there's a lot of questions, there's a lot of people paying attention. I think it's just a little bit more of the outside pressure. As a driver, I think you have the same amount of pressure. You're obviously wanting to perform. What really makes or breaks a driver is being able to perform under the biggest pressure moments. I think we're in it right now.
Q. You've expressed in the past your confidence in past teleconferences and interviews. That has gone well for you. How has that confident attitude helped you?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, I think you have to have that confidence as a driver, without having a cocky attitude that you're the best. As a driver, you're always trying to improve yourself. I think the biggest thing is you have to surround yourself with great people. I think I've been able to do that over here with the Al-Anabi racing team. We have a great team. Everybody is focused. Everybody is dedicated to this team. Everybody is here because they want to win championships.
I think it's just surrounding yourself with great people, having that confidence, having that belief in yourself and in your team that you can accomplish great things, I think it can carry yourself a lot further.
Q. As far as Countdown playoffs go, you have to compete just to get into Countdown, then you have to kick it back up and keep going. Does that wear on you, affect you? How does that affect you?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, I think from the four previous years that I've been in the Top Fuel category, obviously I was always looking forward to the Countdown. Going into the Countdown I was always in the fifth to ninth-place range. It would always bring me up to the points leader where I would have a shot in the final six races. This year is different. We went in leading. I was reading on some stuff online. They said we would have already clinched the championship had we not had the Countdown. I enjoy it. Obviously we want to win the championship, that's the ultimate goal. I think it's that drama leading up to the final race of the season, still having multiple drivers having a shot at that championship, that's what drives fans to show up, that's what creates all the drama. You have to have that in the sport. I really enjoy the Countdown to leave it up to the last six races of the year. No mistakes. You have to be at your ultimate best. I think it's just great for the sport and the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Q. As you look back at this year, was there a single moment that occurred where you said, I can be really effective in what I'm doing this year and have a true chance at winning this championship?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, I think it all started in the beginning of the year when we went to West Palm Beach and we were testing out there. We've had a great car all year long. The car responded very well testing to a lot of the changes that we made through the off-season. Going right into Pomona, we were able to get the victory out there in Pomona. Along the way throughout the year, the Al-Anabi car has been strong. We've been able to get a lot of track records this year, a lot of number one qualifiers, get a couple victories along the way. It started off good at the beginning of the year. Fresh new year, you have that confidence that, Hey, it's a new year, we're going to go after the championship this year. But I think just how the season has progressed, it's just our confidence is getting built up each week that we race along the way. But I really think that it was in the summer part when we were able to get the back-to-back wins in Englishtown and Topeka where the car was really starting to turn that corner of not just being good but being very good, even to the point of being a little bit in the dominant side of it.
Q. How comforting is that as a driver when you feel your car going that way? Does it allow you to relax?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, it's not anything to relax about. The thing in NHRA drag racing is anything can happen at any given time. We've seen that this year of a lot of championship-contending cars don't qualify, go out first round. Just like last weekend, with Doug and Spencer, they were both in championship contention, and they lost first round. Antron Brown didn't qualify, Khalid alBalooshi didn't qualify at one of the Countdown races. Even when we won the race in Redding, we came back to the shop where guys were working all day long. There were a couple areas of the car that we felt we were able to pick up in. The guys came back, worked very hard in the two off weeks that we had. The thing about the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is if you get complacent at any point you're going to get passed up. Even though you're winning, you still have to continue to take that next step and look forward to the future of making yourself and your team and your car that much better.
Q. I'm wondering what would be weighing on you more, performing in front of your hometown crown, potential championship in hand, or having Alan Johnson watch your every move?
SHAWN LANGDON: Both of them are a little bit of pressure on both sides of things. I think, you know, obviously we want to perform in Pomona. It's the last race of the year to be able to clinch a championship. It would be great. But it's always nice to have your friends and family there. But sometimes those races can become a little bit of a distraction, just having a lot of people there that you're trying to perform in front of but also entertain, include them in on hopefully your great weekend. But I think with stuff like that you just become accustomed to it. It's something that as a professional athlete, it's part of your job. You just become accustomed to it and learn when you're outside of the car to have a different mindset. But once you sit in that racecar, a lot of that stuff just goes away. You're not worried about all of the outside distractions.
On the other side of things, performing in front of Alan Johnson, it can be a little bit intimidating at times just because you look at Allen, what he's accomplished in his lifetime, the names of the drivers that have driven for him are the best in our sport. So for me, I'm a young up-and-coming driver, and I still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove. But I like that. I like the fact that I have the best in the business. Whether he talks to me after a run, whether it's something that he says in a positive manner or whether it's something that he says in a manner of addressing something that I might have done wrong, he just makes me better. There's nothing negative about working for Alan Johnson. I mean, the guy is absolutely the best of the best and I've learned more in these last two years, not only just being a driver, but how to handle being a driver, how to handle a lot of the outside positives or negatives just in life.
He's a great mentor. He's a great team manager, however you want to look at it. Alan Johnson is the best in the business.
Q. The end of last season, the beginning of this season, you took on a lot bigger role with the entire team than just the driver. Does that change the way you approach driving the car at all? Can you attribute any of your outside focuses on the rest of the team, can you attribute your success this season to that at all?
SHAWN LANGDON: Well, I don't think that anything that I've done in the office has attributed much to that. When Chad Head was over here, he did an excellent job as a team manager. He saw everything inside and out, ran the team like it was his. He did an excellent job with it. So when I had the opportunity to take over a part of that role, I'm going through a lot of learning experiences of just learning a lot of things about the business, about racing in the Top Fuel class, dealing with a lot of different distributors. You know, that's why I really love being a part of this team, because it's one big team. It's not where everybody does their individual job. Everybody is very quick to help and to pick up if somebody's busy doing something, they'll pick up some slack on their end. I think I've just done a little bit to help along the way to ease a little bit of pressure off of some of the people in the front office, maybe some of the guys from the team, stuff like that. It was an opportunity that was presented to me when Chad [Head] had left. I'm just trying to help out. I'm just trying to fill the void, make it easier. The way I look at it is, hey, if I can lake Alan's job easier, if I can make everybody's job in the office easier, if I can make all the crew guys' job easier, that's less pressure on them. It's just a big team effort over here.
MODERATOR: Matt Smith clinched the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in Las Vegas by racing to the finals and winning the event. This is his second world championship and first since 2007. Matt, all the way back in Gainesville, we talked then, you were confident about your bike. After the Chicago event, it really just started to have tremendous success. What did you find at that Chicago event to this point that propelled you to this championship?
MATT SMITH: Well, we started the year out really good at Gainesville. Number one qualifier, ran really good the first three or four races of the year. We had transmission problems. The bike wasn't shifting. We couldn't win rounds because we'd make one run in qualifying, haul butt, then the next few runs we couldn't go down the track. It was all breakages in the transmission. We got all that fixed. It showed in Epping. We went to the Epping race. My teammate John won his first race ever. We never looked back from that point on. We've been to 10 finals since Epping and won six races between me and John.
Q. This is your second championship. I recall interviewing John Force many years ago, he said, The first one is tough to achieve, but the second one is even harder. Do you have a comment on that?
MATT SMITH: We won our first championship in 2007. 2008, at Pomona we thought we had the second one won. We went into Pomona leading the points. All we needed was two rounds to win. Second round we had a battery short-out and ended our championship hopes there.
I would say the second one is hard. We've been third, fourth, sixth in points ever since, trying to find that little thing we needed to get to get the number one spot. We finally got back to on par this year.
Q. In a playoff, you race all year long trying to get into the Countdown. When you get there, you have to start all over again. How does that wear on you and your team?
MATT SMITH: I like the Countdown format. There's a lot of times through the year you'll have a problem, either a parts failure, or you just get in a slump. For racers, it's great I think to be able to reset things right after Indy or at Indy for the simple fact that the last six races is when you need to be good. We were good all year long, but we had some problems here or there. Just to make a long story short, it makes it a lot interesting for the fans. I think the fans like it. They want to see side-by-side racing. They want to see, just like now, all the Vegas fans come there knowing maybe a championship could be won, maybe there couldn't. Good side-by-side racing. All the fans at Pomona are going to say, We're going to get two champions be crowned there, plus see me and John race there at Pomona. I think it's a neat deal for the fans and the class.
Q. Throughout the entire season, was there a single competitor that you looked at every single week concerned with what they were doing or were you totally focused on your motorcycle throughout the entire season and nothing else?
MATT SMITH: We were focused on our team. I have a three-bike team, sometimes have a four-bike team. I have enough going on with our team to know that we have to focus on our deal. We know we have fast bikes. We know other teams have fast bikes. But if we take care of ourselves, we know we'll be in position to qualify good and win rounds. NHRA did a fabulous job this year of getting our class back under control where Harley-Davidson had such a big advantage last year with a motor that nobody could buy or build. I applaud NHRA for getting our class back on a level playing field. You've had all three makes running within two or three hundredths at every race. It's coming down to tuner's and rider's racing again.
Q. I know your father won a championship this year. He's had a successful career in cars. Can you catch me up on what led you to race motorcycles and not follow your father down the four-wheel path?
MATT SMITH: Our family never had a lot of money. We didn't have the big sponsors to where he could put me in a car. He told me if I wanted to do it, I had to do it on my own. The bikes were cheaper to do than a car. That's all it boils down to. I'm a little guy. That's what I followed. I followed my dream to be able to drag race. So I did it on my own and found little sponsors to be able to run a motorcycle. I think everybody knows the last three years I drove a car, I drove a Pro Mod car off and on for the last three years. I would really love to be able to drive a car a lot, but my heart is in the bikes. We have a four-bike team. That's where I want to be. I want to help somebody else win races and win a championship.
Q. How difficult is it to race and run a four-bike team? Sounds like a handful.
MATT SMITH: You know, it's really a lot easier than what people think. I have a good team behind me. I have a good wife, good family behind me. Having four bikes on the team, if I had one bike and I was the only bike, I would probably drive myself crazy and second-guess myself so much by just doing one bike. With doing three other bikes plus mine, it totally takes the focus off my bike. I try to work on the other bikes more than mine. I just get to go out there and ride the bike and have fun. It shows. Our whole team does a great job.
Q. Do you see any similarities between your situation and the Arana's?
MATT SMITH: Yeah, his two sons are riding, I heard his daughter might ride in the future. My son is not interested in riding motorcycles. He doesn't care anything about drag racing. He's 17 years old. My dad loves to race, my wife loves to race. My brother-in-law Scott Speed runs NASCAR and rally cars. Our whole family loves to race. It's a family-oriented sport. We're just happy to be part of it.
Q. You need to get Scott on a bike.
MATT SMITH: That would be pretty funny to see that.
MODERATOR: We have John Force, who clinched his 16th world championship in Funny Car in dramatic fashion as he was racing up against his daughter Courtney in the finals of Las Vegas. You won numerous championships in a lot of different fashions. How was it in that final to win the race, beat your daughter, win the 16th championship in Las Vegas?
JOHN FORCE: Well, I was so goofed up, it was probably the worst interview I'd ever done. I didn't realize I had it right there. I knew there were things that could cost you points. I knew I was getting out of reach of [Matt] Hagan or [Jack] Beckman or even Robert Hight catching me. It kind of hit me is this for winning the race or the championship, because they didn't want to tell me. Anyway, I had to pay attention more. No, it was really exciting. Fans had signs Sweet 16. I don't know if I like that or not at my age. I felt 16, felt like a kid again. Racing my daughter, would have been good to go down to Pomona. That's why I'm out today, I'm out at the world famous derby for a press conference here, I'm going to be promoting the race all day to put people in the seats, that they can come see the 16-time champion and all the champions.
It's a great race. It's the Auto Club finals. But I wanted to get it done and I needed to take her out and I did it.
Q. Mid-season you shake up the entire team by crew chief changes. Did you envision yourself winning the championship after that? Is that the turning point of the whole season?
JOHN FORCE: It became a turning point. I'd been in three final rounds with Mike Neff. Courtney beat me at the New England inaugural race in the final. I couldn't seem to get around her. That's why I was on my toes wanting to close this thing out. I didn't want to have to go to Pomona. I like the excitement, you know what I mean, the hype, but I wanted to close it. I couldn't take any chances. I'm trying to sell corporate America. You all know that. I've hired Just Marketing. I have my TV show back. Coming back next year with Octagon. I hired Rogers & Cowan, a publicist group. I needed to deliver and show that I could win. It was my wife that made the statement; ‘You're upset over the loss of Ford and Castrol.’ I want to make it clear, they have been great to me. I'm with them next year. But I've got to find new partners for 2015. I needed to have that championship as part of it. I got my mind right. But we had flip-flopped for only one reason: that I might have to go to Top Fuel. I thought that's maybe what Castrol was talking about. They talked about dropping a team. I thought, If I got to go, I have to go with Jimmy Prock. Jimmy Prock has run Top Fuel. My daughter Brittany struggled all year. Starting to run now, brand-new chassis. We tested it at Vegas. But when we got the new chassis with Jimmy Prock, that's when it started running. We believe the car was a big part of the change. Jimmy found it. It was like magic took place. We could do no wrong. And the confidence was unbelievable that we had. The support from Hight, Mike Neff, the whole brain trust was in that fight to win the championship. The only one trying to beat me was Courtney and her crew chief, because she's trying to move up in the points. We wanted to finish out one, two, three, with me, Robert and Courtney. We got a shot at that at Pomona.
Q. Speaking of Courtney and testing in Vegas, that 3.97, that is a big run. In the post-race interview with Courtney, you could tell she was really happy for you winning the championship, but you could also tell she was really upset she lost to you. Is she really that competitive?
JOHN FORCE: She really is. All my girls have a different way. Ashley, you would never know she was upset unless you really looked at her face and watched what she said. Brittany is the same way. But Courtney is different. We fight when we go to the movies. We'll stand out in front of the movies. I get in there, I try to put salt on my popcorn, she'll take it away from me, and butter, because the doctors tell me to kind of watch my weight and everything. Every day with her is a fight. I love her with all my heart. But the other two, Ashley and Brittany, teamed up against me, the two of them together are never the headache that Courtney has been since she was a baby. And winning is all she does. She don't have time for the boys. Her first love is her racecar. I taught her that. But she isn't why I needed to win. I needed to show corporate America I'm still in the fight, the game. She drives a racecar. It's what the agencies do. I knew the importance and couldn't take a chance, even though the need was stretching, that I needed every point, that any need to get to Pomona, don't qualify. Something stupid goes wrong, it happens. Get some oil down. Then they told me the oil down rule has changed this year. I never read a rule book, so I didn't know you couldn't lose points in oil down. That's why they said it was over if I was able to beat her. But I was gobbling up like Pacman. Everything I could eat on that table. I said Jimmy, ‘Are we pushing it?’ He said, ‘No, this is running in the 3s.’ I said, ‘Nobody is running in the 3s. It's not the altitude of Denver.’ He said, ‘This car will run in the 3s.’ On Monday Courtney runs 3.97, 327 [mph]. They took it away from her when she ran 329. So probably the numbers didn't show it, but the numbers showed she ran 401 when they slowed her down. The biggest thing I got to get her is to stop driving out the back door. She likes to improve. She likes to see all. She's a pain in my side.
Q. Probably nobody knows more about championships than you do. Could you share how you become a champion, what it is to be a champion, people that haven't got there yet.
JOHN FORCE: A lot of kids weren't even born when I was winning championships. Nobody remembers when I was losing, when I was being spanked by the Snake and Mongoose and Kenny Bernstein. The first 10, 12 years of my career, like Snake said, I was a joke, just somebody they called that I guess the term was 'fodder,' somebody they would put in the show so they could get beat. When I got to the winner's circle, it was like finding the fun. Castrol, Ford, Mack Tool, coming onboard with us with my daughter Brittany, if they hadn't come onboard, the girl wouldn't be racing. Can't do it without corporate America. I knew about losing nine final rounds. Couldn't win a race let alone a championship. When I started winning, got enough black eyes on race day, I knew how to turn off that switch of pressure. I see a lot of drivers have it because they want that win. Every now and then, over the years, it would come back. I'd find myself sitting there in the car, You've got the team, you've got the car, you've got luck, all you need to do is not screw this up. Find yourself, turn off that switch, the fear that makes your knees knock, you know what I mean, makes you sweat so bad you can't see through your visor. I learned to handle it. But I studied a lot of sports books about how to do it, how to fail, but how to do it right. I'd learn from it. That's what I did. It turned the switch on. I didn't even want to know that was Courtney next door to me. She even said later, Dad. I heard you honey. But not right before we ran, you always do. I hunted you at the end of the racetrack in the semifinals because I knew we both won and we were going to the final. I didn't want to see you anymore. I love you, want you to do your best, but I needed to race you like I was racing Matt Hagan. That's what I needed to do. I didn't need the emotion to take over that that's my little girl, or I would have choked. I needed that round. Probably the worst that I've ever needed to win a round to win a championship, I needed it in my whole career more than my first championship. This is the one that's going to keep John Force in business. Earnhardt made the statement, I said it on TV, he told his people in the boardroom, I was there: I'll do the winning, you guys sell me. I want no excuses. Well, I'm not exactly Dale Earnhardt. I don't try to kid nobody. He had confidence like you couldn't believe. But so do I. But I believe luck is a big part of it. We got the job done.
Q. I was curious about reaction times physically and mentally as you get older. We're not that far apart in age. Mentally, I don't think I am any different reaction-wise than when I was in my mid-20s, but physically I don't know. Have you noticed over the years that physically the reactions are more difficult to come by?
JOHN FORCE: Yeah, that was only because of age. Probably anything that has saved me, that changed my lifestyle, hell, even my wife likes me now, at least until that final round with her daughter. If you noticed all the grandbabies were in the car, Jacob, Ashley, Noah, they were in Courtney's car in the final, and my wife. Autumn, my granddaughter, was my only grandkid with me. She stayed with grandpa. But on reactions, I'll try to make these short, when I crashed, I changed my lifestyle. I ain't saying I don't have a glass of wine every now and then, but my party days are done. If I'm going to race with these kids, I have to live in the gym. I was in the gym every night. The lady in the restaurant, fans said, ‘We were in here last night, you've had tomato soup every night.’ What is the deal? Because I have to eat right. There ain't no room for a steak, not Friday night, not Saturday night. And Sunday night I went back in and I had the soup again, it was so good. And my wife even said, Why? I said, Because I have trouble sleeping if I eat wrong. I know what it's going to take tomorrow to race against Hagan. He's young, strong as a bull. He's got the heart, he's got the dream. I've got to have everything perfect. I've got to have eight hours of sleep. I worked out in the gym three days in a row to make sure that I was right on track. And my reactions are there. Tom McEwen called me and said, ‘Force, bring your Christmas Tree home. Come home and work it all week. You got two weeks off. You'll get out of the groove.’ I was in a couple final rounds in a row, won them both, Reading and Missouri. So I did everything right. That's what it's going to take for John Force to continue to be a champion. Changed my life. But I did this years ago. The one thing I did wrong is my company has grown so big, I got too big for my britches. And losing Ford and Castrol in 2015, and we don't know, things could change, hell, maybe they'll stick around, but I know this, you can't focus on corporations that build buildings and restaurants, and you can't focus on the other stuff that I do in the chassis shop, in the motor program, I can't be involved in the entertainment company. I'm trying to micromanage everything. I'm sitting on the end of the bed telling my wife, If I don't get the money, my racing's done. She said, ‘Well, why don't you focus on winning. You don't get into the winning mode till you get to the racetrack.’ That was the one mistake I did. I called in my company. I said, ‘Nobody talks to me business until this championship's over.’ That started back in Missouri. I went into Missouri with my head right. I'm going to focus. Everything else has got to stop. I was in the middle of a design. Nobody talks to me. Your head goes in the wrong direction and you don't know it. You think you're in the game, you miss something that is critical. Jimmy told me, We're putting too much heat in the clutch, it's losing its consistency. I went off into my other businesses and forget. He rode it and put it in the trailer. Every day he told me, Focus on what we're going to do. Jimmy, like Austin Coil, very sharp cookie, knows what it takes to win. Like I said, we got it done.
Q. To backtrack to something you said earlier, would you seriously have considered chucking your Funny Car career if Castrol wanted you to run a Top Fuel car at age 64?
JOHN FORCE: I made a statement, Funny Car is what I do, it's who I am. There's nothing to prove for me in dragsters. I'm John Force, but I work for people. I'm an employee. Just like my employees work for me. If they tell me I have to go drive a dragster, if they told me I have to go drive a motorcycle, whatever it takes. I never realized twice in my life I've never had a fear of losing the love I have for NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing, how much I need the fans, how much I need to drive and wake up. I always joke that if I quit driving, I'd end up like Marlon Brando, weighing 300 pounds in six months. It's the only thing that when I put my pants on in the morning makes me diet. John Force, people don't believe it, but I'm a very nervous guy. That's why I talk all the time.
Q. I asked you about would you have gone to Top Fuel. You answered it basically.
JOHN FORCE: No choice. That's what I got Jimmy for. He said, Are we really going? I said, I have to be prepared to know this team well enough that we have to go into next year especially when I'm looking for sponsors, I've got to win. We might as well learn together to be a team.
I learned these kids, because I've known them for years. I've known Jimmy since he sat on the tailgate when I used to race his dad. His dad would say, ‘Can you watch my kid?’ I got nothing to do. I love that guy. I watched him grow up. Anyway, that was the reason for Jimmy. He was the guy that ran the dragster and did well. There was nobody else. That's why I moved Robert with Mike now. Auto Club deal was done. They weren't going to do a dragster. That's a Funny Car deal.
Q. In all of the conversation that you've been having, all the answers to the questions, you sound like a rookie senior driver. Senior people start at age 65. They're rookies as seniors. Do you feel like you're just getting all started over?
JOHN FORCE: Can I tell you truthfully? I've had a lot of crossroads where I thought I was broke. Sitting in Memphis, not knowing which way to go. My dad called me. ‘Hey, NHRA has a rain-out, now the guys that are going to run the match race there in Houston, all those guys are going back, they need you.’ It was a crossroads for money that got me to the next race.
But twice in my career I really felt it was over. It terrified me. That's when I laid in that hospital in Texas, in Dallas. The doctors said, We're going to struggle to make you walk because you're a mess. You're broken on the left side, the right side, the upper right wrist. You're going to be lucky to walk good. It's going to take a lot of work. So quit thinking about racecars and get your head into this. I laid there sick for four or five weeks. Then I came back. I said, Okay, I'm back. They'll never take it away from me till I say it's over. Ford and Castrol hit me for 60% of my budget. If I don't replace that, I can't race. My machine is too big, you know what I mean? That's why in the bed in the morning, my wife said, ‘You're so busy now chasing money, press conferences, just go win. Everybody loves a winner.’ So what I'm saying is I knew I got to find a sponsor. Winning is the key. Everybody wants a winner. That's just the way life is. I went and saw that movie Rush. I watched it three different times. My wife said, Are you going to go see it again? I said, Yeah. There's things I learned in there about attitude and winning, different styles. Still ain't figured out who John Force is. My wife says I'm so full of it. One day you're one personality and the next you're another. Probably the best friend I've ever in my life is my wife. She's gotten me through all this.
Q. What is the earliest you've ever lost your voice coming into a race at Pomona?
JOHN FORCE: I've done that before. I get so wound up, blow my throat out. I'm just excited to get to this race because I got a car that can win. But all my cars, Robert's car ran 403 at testing. I'm loving it. But I know I've got a future now. I'm being honest. I'm not trying to kid nobody. I was sick for weeks. I didn't let anybody know it, but I went right into fight mode. That's why media, everything, I want all that I can get because I'm trying to sell corporate America, and I will. If not, I'll be on the start line with my daughter, I'll be out there with Robert with Auto Club. I have had friends come forth trying to help. The agency is working. I feel a lot of love, not because I won a championship, but before that. I don't want to quit racing. I know someday I'll have to. Father time is chasing me. Like I told them in the press room, they better put on their tennis shoes, father time, and he's going to have to get running because he has to chase me till I drop. I don't fish, I don't run my motorcycles any more since I crashed, I can't take another hit physically. I have pins in my legs now. If I crash, another racecar crash, it could be over. This is all I know. I tried golfing. That was terrible. You know what I mean? This is what I do. I'm scared to death of not being able to get out there, so...
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