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Emergency Roundtable: Van Wagnen, Hachat, Buck React to Bombshell John Force Racing News

Following the somewhat expected, but still extremely difficult to swallow news that John Force Racing would indeed be parking their entire NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car operations for the remainder of 2020, DRAG ILLUSTRATED‘s editorial team swooped into action – slamming together an emergency round table question-and-answer session covering the situation from almost every angle.

What was your immediate reaction when you heard the news that JFR wouldn’t be racing in 2020?

NATE: It was not one of surprise, that’s for sure. We’ve been hearing since before the Indy races that John Force Racing would sit out the entire post-COVID-shutdown season well before the first two Indy races. JFR’s lack of participation and lack of communication regarding sitting out those races seemed to solidify those rumors. So it was only a matter of time before yesterday’s statement confirmed those rumors.

JOSH: It was the worst-kept secret in drag racing, but the longer we didn’t hear from John Force Racing, the more I tried to convince myself that maybe they would come back next weekend at Indy.

Unfortunately, that ill-perceived hope was crushed when the release came across my inbox, and it was definitely one of those gut-punch emails. We had heard every rumor for Force and company not racing this year, and they obviously weren’t in Indy for the first two races of the restart, but it hits you a little differently when you’ve got actual tangible proof coming straight from the source staring at you directly in the face.

So, yes, like many, many others, it was not a great reaction, even if not all that unexpected.

WES: Immediate reaction? Wow. I guess, honestly, just sad. If you read the statement from John Force Racing, you can sense the sadness from John. You can tell he’s heartbroken. I’m sad for him, sad for the National Hot Rod Association and sad for drag racing as a whole. 

It’s funny, though, because I also respect what he’s saying, and I feel a certain amount of relief in having some clarity. There’s not a single person truly invested in the sport of drag racing that hasn’t been pondering this situation with John Force Racing – the entire team – sitting out the back-to-back NHRA restart races in Indy. Lucas Oil Raceway is 3.1 miles from JFR’s shop in Brownsburg. If they can’t make the math on that deal work…well…something is definitely awry. 

As a business owner myself, again, I respect John’s position. It’s not always fashionable to “live to fight another day”, but I think he’s absolutely making the smart decision here. It sounds cool and might be rewarding in the short term to “go out on your shield” or whatever you want to call it – taking a stand, pushing through – but the wise ones position themselves to sustain over the long haul. John has been doing this at an extremely high level for over three decades. As wild and crazy as he may seem in front of the cameras, he’s no dummy. 

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I don’t want to interject this too early in the conversation, but I think Force recognizes that there was very little upside here. Survival equals success in 2020. Had NHRA staged some sort of Nitro World Series that paid $250,000 to win Funny Car and Top Fuel in the motorsports Mecca of Indianapolis, Indiana, with a dynamite TV package and digital/social strategy that could really move the needle for his sponsors, I genuinely think he’d have been there in full force (pun intended). But to go out and do a dumbed-down version of the same ol’, same ol’? I don’t think that makes sense, as much as I hate to say it. 

I’m also sad for everyone at John Force Racing. I know several really good kids that work or worked there, and I hate this newfound uncertainty for them. I’ve never aspired to work on a nitro car, but I can imagine that getting a gig at JFR is as close to hitting the jackpot as likely exists out here. That’s the top of the mountain, and to land a position on any one of JFR’s teams and have that gig go away – at no fault of your own – is a tough pill to swallow.

Why did they wait so long if this was going to be the outcome all along?

NATE: I think there was a “wait and see” approach behind this timeline. JFR’s PR team is usually on top of things, so I’m sure there was a very purposeful reason for staying silent for so long. Maybe they were waiting to see if the NHRA season lasted past the first two Indy races. All rumors going into those races suggested NHRA was going to close up after Indy 2. If that was the case, JFR would’ve looked like visionaries for staying closed up while all the other teams spent weeks ramping back up just for two races. However, the season is still rolling, and it’s carrying on without four much-needed drivers, cars and teams.

JOSH: If we’re being honest with ourselves, the moment John, Brittany, Robert Hight and Austin Prock didn’t show up in Indy in July, we likely knew where this was headed this year. If so, it really is a head-scratcher while they sat on this for a month.

While NHRA was trying to restart in the midst of a pandemic, working extremely hard to find some sort of scenario to make it happen, too much was overshadowed by the “Will he or won’t he” talk surrounding Force and his team.

I could certainly see this being a decision that pained him so much that Force didn’t want to announce anything until he absolutely had to, even if he knew weeks before. Maybe he was waiting for that miracle magic wand that either swept up this virus or yielded some sort of funding/sponsorship to make returning happening. But, unfortunately, it really got in the way of NHRA trying to restart its season, taking too much time away from the people who were out there racing in spite of all this. It kept Force’s name in the conversation, but not in a way that necessarily helped him or the series he helped built and thrive for the past several decades.

To me, there’s also this weird dynamic of certain teams like DSR and others going out of their way and bending over backwards to make this NHRA restart as successful as possible. I mean, they had eight freaking cars in Indy, while Elite Motorsports had around that many in Pro Stock. Meanwhile, a mega-team like JFR chooses to remain on the sidelines. I’d argue it’s not a great look and it really hurts NHRA in the process. 

WES: My guess is that the answer is two-fold. First and foremost, I think they were hopeful there’d be some new development that would significantly impact the situation, perhaps brighten the outlook for the second half of 2020. I think we’re all kind of doing that, and it’s probably not that unusual considering how quickly things have changed, how varied and oft-unreliable the information and news surrounding COVID-19 seems to be. 

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The other side – and this is purely speculation – is pressure from NHRA, or perhaps a sense of responsibility not to “pour cold water” on NHRA’s efforts to get racing back underway. Was anything ever said from one party to the other directly? I don’t know and don’t currently have any way of knowing, but I don’t think it’s a stretch, and I don’t think it’d be wrong. It makes sense to me. However, I also don’t think it’d be entirely crazy to believe John Force and company know how influential they are in this industry – especially amongst their nitro racing brethren – and didn’t want to have their decision negatively impact or change the position of any other team out there, especially the smaller operations. 

That sense of responsibility, in my opinion, has been a driving force (more purposeful pun) in keeping John Force himself – now 71 years of age – in the driver’s seat these last few years. He knows his value to the sport, and he doesn’t want to – for lack of a better phrase – leave us hanging. 

I can’t imagine a scenario where John Force would be OK with there being even a slight chance that the news of his not racing outshine or outweigh the news of NHRA returning to racing.

What does this mean for NHRA for the rest of 2020?

NATE: As much as I’d like to say this just means NHRA is down two Top Fuel entries, two Funny Car entries and one merchandise trailer on the midway, it obviously means much more than that. John Force and his drivers are star players for the NHRA, and they bring out a lot of fans who might not otherwise go to the races or watch on TV it Force or one of the other drivers aren’t racing. Plus, this leaves a few dozen talented crew chiefs, car chiefs and crew members looking for work. Some of those people will look for work outside of racing, and some of those will find that things are better wherever they find work. The last thing high-level drag racing needs is talented crew members exiting the sport. On the other hand, some of the smaller, independent teams can probably pick up some talented help that would usually be beyond their budget.

JOSH: Well, there’s no positives out of it that’s for sure. I can’t imagine the marquee name in any other sport simply opting out for the reason, coronavirus or not. Kyle Busch not racing in NASCAR – and not actually confirming it until several events had passed? Would never happen. The same with LeBron James in the NBA, Patrick Mahomes in the NFL and on down the line. Force is the marquee name in drag racing, the face that everyone — even the most casual of fan — knows, so it’s unquestionably a crushing loss for however many races remain in the 2020 NHRA season.

It also shows just how different drag racing is than these sports when your most famous driver isn’t able to return in the midst of a public health crisis. But what else is troubling is we’re missing a year — or what’s left of it — without seeing Hight, Brittany Force and Prock, who all had outstanding 2019 seasons. Hight is as good as they get in this sport when it comes to talent, while Brittany and Prock represent two ultra-successful young talents. With the nitro class not exactly exploding with entries, their loss has already been painfully obvious during this restart.

WES: I think NHRA is facing an increasingly challenging situation here in August of 2020, and this news sure as hell doesn’t help things. We’re kind of glossing over the fact that Mike Salinas – the guy that was buying up all the best and brightest drag racing had to offer leading up to 2019, hiring Alan freaking Johnson, in hopes of becoming a front-running nitro team for the foreseeable future – threw in the towel for the season a few days ago. 

Let’s face it…we had serious participation problems looming when there were what seemed like a dozen rigs on nitro alley emblazoned with the familiar John Force Racing script logo. Not being able to count on those drivers and cars for the rest of the year? Having to constantly hear about it? Having one single driver’s absence overshadow virtually everything you’re doing? That’s freaking rough. 

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I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that it will very quickly – if it hasn’t already – grow tiring for everyone involved to have this “John Force Racing parked for 2020” storyline dominate the drag racing conversation. 

How confident are you that John Force  will return to full-time competition in 2021?

NATE: I’m fairly confident you’ll see John Force come back full time next year, at the minimum. Will he have Robert, Brittany and Austin with him? I’m less confident about that. They may find themselves with only enough funding for two cars. But as for John Force himself, I think it’s fair to expect him back in a major capacity next year, just as long as this COVID mess clears up more by then.

JOSH: Well, being that I would never have imagined him sitting out — even during a pandemic — it’s nowhere near 100 percent. He said all the right things in the short press release on Friday, stating his regrouping for 2021 with a great group of sponsors, but we kind of got those words earlier this spring when COVID-19 hit. That optimism fizzled out extremely quick and almost a full year will have passed by the time the 2021 season kicks off. That’s a lot of time to find something else to do that doesn’t cost nearly as much. Force has nothing left to accomplish and has done it all in his incredible career, and all these months off may have him come to the realization that he’s had his fill of drag racing.

So, I’m not overly confident, but I would still wager it’s better than 50/50. The optimistic side of me hopes the other three (Hight, Brittany and Prock) being motivated and eager to return helps up those odds as well, but after a year like this, nothing seems like a sure thing anymore.

It was the worst-kept secret in drag racing, but the longer we didn’t hear from John Force Racing, the more I tried to convince myself that maybe they would come back next weekend at Indy.

Unfortunately, that ill-perceived hope was crushed when the release came across my inbox, and it was definitely one of those gut-punch emails. We had heard every rumor for Force and company not racing this year, and they obviously weren’t in Indy for the first two races of the restart, but it hits you a little differently when you’ve got actual tangible proof coming straight from the source staring at you directly in the face.

So, yes, like many, many others, it was not a great reaction, even if not all that unexpected.

WES: Truthfully, I’m not confident, but I’m also fleshing out my feelings on this matter right now. I feel like I can make a solid argument either way. 

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The reasons I’m not confident are, first and foremost, that the man will be 72 next spring. I’m not saying he won’t physically be capable of doing the deal in 2021, but I don’t see it getting any easier, either. Secondly, I’m never a fan of letting anyone experience too much life without me. It’s not something he wants to do, but he’s about to let all these sponsors he talks about all the time, corporate America and everyone else experience life without him. You’re hopeful that it will suck and they’ll be beating your door down in the very near future, doing whatever they have to do to get you back, but there’s always a chance that they’re totally okay with it. It’s like when you make the decision to give up soda and it really rocks your world initially, but a week later you’re sipping sparkling water and have forgotten all about it. 

If it’s hard for John freaking Force to sell a sponsorship in 2020, how hard will it be in 2021 after sitting on the sidelines for a year? Does John Force have it in him at this point to go out and prove a point? I don’t know. 

The reasons I’d be shocked to see John Force not make a return in 2021 are that it’d represent a massive missed opportunity for him. No retirement tour? No John Force’s Last Stand? Get the f@#$ out of here. He’ll make a mint on t-shirts and hats alone. The margins on merchandise are legit. Whether it’s one race or 24 or somewhere in between – I don’t know – but I see zero chance that John Force isn’t on a Funny Car entry list in 2021 for that reason alone. 

I also know that you simply can’t count a guy like John Force out. To be honest, this whole coronavirus deal and the fallout it has created may be exactly what he needed to motivate him to go out with a bang. He’s won 16 championships. He has that Jordanesque ability to find motivation anywhere he can, and having a global pandemic derail his race program may be exactly what he needs. 

Lastly, are you prepared for drag racing sans John Force?

NATE: The NHRA returned for two races in July – minus Force and Co., and somehow the organization is still standing. It’s a significant loss to not have John and his teams out there racing, but at the same time, it makes room for new storylines to emerge. It opens up a couple qualifying positions for smaller teams that don’t always get to race on Sunday. It leaves spaces in the FS1 broadcast to highlight other personalities that don’t always get the spotlight. It’s certainly unfortunate, but drag racing will be just fine without John Force for a handful of races.

JOSH: I guess we better start preparing ourselves, huh? And by we, I mean everybody: fans, competitors, sanctioning bodies, tracks. It’s a scary notion trying to envision NHRA racing without the iconic Force, but as this year proved, it’s probably not that far away.

How many fans did he drive to the track, year-after-year? Will those people return when he’s gone? Were they only Force fans or have they become drag racing fans as well?

There’s a lot of big-time questions that will have to be answered, but let’s hope NHRA is readying themselves and trying to get in front of that. You can get a massive year out of a retirement tour, but after that, you better have some sort of plan ready for LAF – ‘Life After Force’ — because it might be coming soon.

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Let’s not mistake this for wanting that to happen because I sure as hell would like to see Force out there for several more years. So I guess in that regard, I’m not prepared for drag racing sans Force. And if it’s sans Force soon, I hope that doesn’t mean all the Force family — and JFR as well. That’s one thing I’m not even prepared to discuss.

WES: I am. I’m a massive John Force fan. I’m legitimately a fan of the man, the racer, the athlete, the ambassador and the businessman that he is. Personally, I’ve used John Force and all that he has created as a motivator and an inspiration for nearly 15-years. I remember walking into his shop in Yorba Linda for the first time – a shop that used to be a freaking Southern California car dealership. I remember pulling into the parking lot of his massive Brownsburg, Indiana, facility and getting a tour from him. On both those days, I remember telling myself, “all this was built on the back of drag racing.” It was moving. It hit me in my stomach. Still to this day, what he’s done in and for the sport of drag racing drives me. I see all he has and all he has built, and I know that it came from drag racing and it excites me. I’m so thankful and grateful for the guy. I can’t say it enough. 

But…I’m also ready for whoever comes next. John Force has been so big for so long. Can you imagine having to contend with all that he is? The championships. The larger-than-life personality. The laundry list of sponsors. The “brain trust”. How do you step into our sport and compete with all that? 

I’m not saying it can’t be done, or that someone couldn’t have swooped in and stolen the show, but it’d have been nearly impossible. If it wasn’t Force gobbling up all the airtime and interest, it was his model-worthy, race-and-championship-winning daughters. I think at one point Ashley Force’s cat was being interviewed by ESPN. 

All that said, I’m excited at the prospect of the door opening for drag racing’s next big star. I look around the pits of any NHRA national event and I see a slew of superstars waiting in the wings – super talented, charismatic, lovable, relatable people needing only an opportunity. Maybe when John Force isn’t taking up so much space in the minds of the drag racing masses there will be room for someone new. 

Let’s hope he or she will do as much for the sport as John Harold Force.

This story was originally published on August 1, 2020. Drag Illustrated

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