The car is in flames.
They'll call it a blower explosion later, but for now, all John Force sees is his baby girl's Funny Car, about 100 feet off the starting line, engulfed in a fiery burst of red and yellow. Courtney Force quickly climbs through the opening in the roof and gives a thumbs-up to the crowd at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., site of the NHRA Toyota Summernationals.
It's the first weekend of June, but it feels like August. The track wilts beneath a heat wave, with the temperature at the starting line reaching 130 degrees. The night before, Courtney was towed from the line because of a broken blower drive shaft, and now she's a little heated too, after losing another chance to improve her qualifying time. When her crew rolls her Traxxas Ford Mustang off to the auxiliary lane, John Force is there to check on his 24-year-old daughter.
"How are you?" he asks. "Are you OK?" John touches Courtney's arm. He had been standing behind her car at the starting line, which he does whenever Courtney and older sister Brittany race -- as if Dad's presence might somehow deflect harm. At the very least, the 64-year-old drag-racing legend has a prime spot from which to assess their cars just before the green light.
Courtney assures her father she is fine, then climbs into the backseat of the Ford Explorer that will tow her Mustang back to the pit. She removes her helmet and unzips her fire suit. Her face is flush, and a streak of dirt cuts across her cheek. "He just kept asking if I was safe," she says. "He doesn't care about the car in those moments. I don't know exactly what happened, but when I hit the throttle, it just blew up."
The first family of drag racing, as the Forces are known, spends so much time together that it's almost impossible to tell the difference between John the boss and John the dad -- as when he leans into the cockpit of Brittany's Castrol Edge dragster, offering last-second advice to his 26-year-old daughter while also lovingly squeezing her gloved hand. (When John and Courtney cross paths again later in the day, he will tell her, deadpan, "You're going to have to dip into your allowance to pay for that car you broke.")
As Courtney and Team Traxxas cruise away from the track, John walks back to his own car for an upcoming heat. "Sometimes he'll spend so much time at our cars that he'll forget about his," Courtney says. "And we have to say, 'Dad, we're fine! Go worry about your own car!' He just wants to build this protective bubble around us -- to keep us safe and to help us succeed. All of it comes from such a good place."
Keeping it in the family
The thought of disaster is never far from their minds. In 2007, John Force Racing endured the loss of driver Eric Medlen -- who was like a big brother to the girls -- after his car shook violently during a test session. Later that year, John suffered serious injuries during a race in Texas, and doctors thought he might never compete again. Although winning championships is always the goal, it's never more important than safety.
John, who started racing in 1978, has won 15 NHRA Championships. His oldest daughter, Adria, is CFO of John Force Racing and is married to Funny Car driver Robert Hight. Ashley Force Hood, the eldest of three girls born to John and his second wife, Laurie, became the first woman ever to win an NHRA Funny Car event, in 2008. (Ashley, who serves as president of JFR, is currently on hiatus from racing after giving birth to her second child.) Brittany, a rookie, sits 13th in the Top Fuel standings. And Courtney, in her second NHRA season, is seventh in the Funny Car division, three spots ahead of John. "Sometimes Dad will start giving me advice," Courtney says with a smile. "And then he stops and says, 'Why am I giving you tips? You're ahead of me!' "
Back in the early days, Laurie Force mixed fuel for her husband and the couple slept in their car between events. "She is the glue who holds this whole operation together," Brittany says of her mother. "She seems to always know what everyone needs."
At the moment, Laurie and Brittany are in the family's air-conditioned RV, killing time between qualifiers. "I'm thinking about getting your dad an iPhone for Father's Day," Laurie says. "What do you think?"
John still has an old-school flip phone; he can't even receive text pictures of his grandsons from Ashley. Not that this is surprising for a man who has repeatedly had his Tumi suitcase refurbished because the company stopped making that particular model. He also carries a worn red leather wallet that is damaged at the corners because Tumi phased out that design, too.
"I don't know," Brittany says. "Remember when I got him that iPod, the simplest model with like only two buttons? I even created a playlist for him, and he never touched the thing. How is he supposed to use an iPhone?"
This is the same John Force who spends most of his waking time tweaking an engine that produces G-forces more intense than what an astronaut feels at launch. "I find something I like and I stick with it," he says later as he pulls out his family pictures from that beat-up wallet. "Here's a picture of my favorite child," he says, pointing at the image of a young girl who appears to be about 3 or 4 years old. "That's Ashley."
John says he is kidding, but Courtney and Brittany roll their eyes. "He's not kidding," Brittany says. "Ashley is his favorite."
Demanding more -- and giving more
John has taught his girls everything he knows about the racing business. He wants them to know success long after he is gone. Sometimes that means pressing Brittany and Courtney for more -- say, to stay out on the line, greeting fans and signing autographs at the end of a 14-hour day -- even when they're on the verge of tears after tough races. "I'm the boss, and there are times they're just worn down," John says. "It's hard. But I always tell them, if the losing doesn't hurt, the winning won't feel so good."
The toughest thing for all of them is negotiating those moments when the blurred line between dad and boss leaves them all frustrated. Sometimes the girls think John demands more than he might from a regular employee, but they know that he gives more, too. "When they were kids, I was gone all of the time," John says. "The NHRA took me away from them. Now, I'm with them all of the time, and I get to teach them the thing I love."
On the way to the Englishtown track on the second day of qualifying, Brittany and John drove together. They stopped at Dunkin' Donuts, and while they were in the drive-thru line, John asked Brittany how she has been feeling about everything in her rookie season. So she took the opportunity to explain that sometimes he overloads her with information in the last moments before a race, and it's not helpful. "I just told him, 'You come at me with too much at once,' " Brittany says. "And he said, 'I know, I know.' But that's how he is about everything -- just all-out passion. And I know it's because he wants me to be safe and do my best."
Before Brittany's qualifying race that same afternoon, John zips over on his motorbike, to his daughter's place in line, just before the crew lowers the body of her car. She is strapped into the tiny compartment, and all John can see are her eyes. He leans into the space and offers only one piece of advice: "Don't try to gather it up fast; gather it up slow." Brittany taps her ear to let him know she hasn't heard. He repeats the phrase and she nods, understanding that on a track this hot, if the wheels are spinning, she must gradually help them catch.
John reaches in and gives her hand a shake. Then he zooms away on his bike, toward the starting line, so he can stand behind his daughter's car as she waits for the green light.