John Force tries again to tame Texas

John Force knows that before he makes that first run down the drag strip at Texas Motorplex in Ennis this week, he will briefly flash back to three years ago.

He says won't dwell on it. A lot has happened since a fiery crash sent him to a Dallas hospital for a month and had some believing he'd never race again.

But rather than want to stay away from a place that brings back tough memories, Force returns to conquer it. And the 61-year-old does so on top of the Funny Car points standings as he attempts to win his 15th championship.

"I'm not going to quit racing until I win this race," Force said. "I need to do that."

Three years ago, Force sped off to try to advance in the second round of eliminations on that September Sunday in Ennis. His Funny Car collided with Kenny Bernstein's, which ripped Force's car apart. The accident and the ensuing sight of paramedics loading Force onto a helicopter left the entire facility silent, a rarity at an NHRA event.

"I was on the starting line watching him," said former driver Mike Neff, who is now part of the crew that tunes Force's car. "Austin Coil [Force's crew chief] radioed back that Force was hurt, and I remember him saying his legs were broke. My stomach just sank. We knew it was bad. That was very tough."

Force went through six hours of surgery that first night at Baylor University Medical Center. He had a badly dislocated left wrist, three screws inserted into his broken left ankle, major abrasions on his right knee and many of his fingers were messed up.

Shortly after the crash, Force watched the video. He was still strapped to his seat as the car tore in half, but he had nothing around his legs and feet. He skidded along the wall before eventually coming to a stop thanks in large part to the parachutes that deployed behind him.

What bothered Force was that the frame around the cockpit did not stay intact. Improving cockpit safety became an obsession of his from that day forward. But it wasn't just the crash at Ennis that made the drag racing veteran a crusader for safety.

Earlier that same year, driver Eric Medlen, someone Force considered like a son and whose father was part of Force's team, died in a testing accident.

"It's still tough to think about," Force said. "We all realized our kids were out there and we had to protect them better. We raced all those years and didn't think anybody could get hurt. But when we built that new race car, we knew that car was seven times stronger. We don't go out there beating the odds, but we'll never quit on safety."

While Force and his team funneled time and money into research to make the cars safer, he was still trying to heal from the debilitating injuries in Texas.

Force bucked all the odds and returned to the driver's seat in time for the 2008 season. That was amazing, considering he couldn't even walk after the crash, but worked extremely hard to get himself back. Force was never one to open the door to a gym or consider working out a prerequisite to winning championships. After all, he had won 14 of them without worrying about such stuff.

But the crash changed all of that.

"I changed my lifestyle and I quit drinking and partying and pushing myself to the edge," Force said. "I joked that two hours a day in the bar was better than two in the gym. But that's not true. I changed my eating habits. All of it has probably taken me back 15 years."

Things didn't go well on the track for Force in the years after the crash. He didn't win a race in 2009, the first time in 23 years on the Funny Car circuit that he didn't have a trophy. He had turned 60 and watched as the other drivers on his team had success. His son-in-law, Robert Hight, won the championship and Force's daughter, Ashley Force Hood, won twice and was second to Hight. It was great for John Force Racing. But the head of the organization wasn't anywhere close to his customary championship level.

The team was also dealing with funding issues. Neff's sponsor, Old Spice, pulled out. Ford also cut back its financial help, making Force cut nearly 25 percent of his team's budget. So the team decided to park Neff's car. Force added Neff to the crew of his team and has certainly benefited from it as Neff had a more complete understanding of what it took to get Force back on track.

"I was doing the bottom end and most of all the duties on the car, but I'd never driven and experienced what that was like," Neff said. "Communicating with the driver, you can't really relate because you don't know what that's like. Now I know how important something is to the driver. When you were ignorant to it, you may not know how big a deal it is."

Neff, Coil and Bernie Fedderly helped Force find himself again. The cars got better and so did the driver.

"Even though I have the damage and injuries, at the end of the day I made myself mentally sharper. My lights on the Christmas tree are better than they were 15 years ago. It was a wake-up call that I was going the wrong direction in life. I got myself back in shape. I'm going to win me a championship or fight like hell."

Force is attempting to become the oldest driver to win a championship, at age 61, eclipsing Warren Johnson's Pro Stock title in 2001 at 58. And don't think this is some possible Hollywood ending to his career. Force has a long-term deal with Ford to drive until he's 65.

Right now, though, his focus is on winning in Texas and, once and for all, putting the crash behind him.

"It's like I lost a fight and you want to go back to that fight and win it," Force said. "I wasn't even in the game the last two years. My crew chiefs knew it. We made changes to the car and I worked harder over the winter than I ever have. The timing was perfect in that it got me back on track. Now I just want to finish it off."

Don't bet against him.

Richard Durrett covers motorsports for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.