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Is John Force Bringing Superman Back to Bristol?

Gary Nastase/Auto Imagery photo

He may not be faster than a speeding bullet. He may not be more powerful than a locomotive. And, on legs ravaged by childhood polio and mangled in a high-speed crash in Texas, he certainly isn’t able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  

But, to legions of drag racing fans, especially those attending this week’s 23rd Super Grip Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway, John Force remains larger than life. To believers, the driver of the PEAK Antifreeze and Coolant Chevrolet Camaro SS still is Superman, the alter ego he assumed here 25 years ago.

In 1999, in the midst of winning a record 10 straight NHRA Funny Car championships, Force donned a blue and red firesuit emblazoned with Superman’s distinctive logo, climbed into a Funny Car touting the latest cinematic incarnation of the “Man of Steel” and promptly beat five Top Fuel dragster drivers, including Doug Kalitta, to win the inaugural Winston Showdown and its then massive $200,000 top prize. 

It was a victory that quickly became part of drag racing lore. By 2001, though, the Showdown was gone and so was Superman, at least the drag racing version. Not that Force didn’t excel in the event that took its place. In fact, he has won the Thunder Valley Nationals four times (2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013) and will try to add to that bounty this weekend when he sends his 330 mile-an-hour PEAK Camaro after a second straight victory on the NHRA’s Mission Foods tour.

Although he repeatedly has rejected the notion that he is Superman, the G.O.A.T. or anything more than just a California kid following his dream, Force cannot deny his one extraordinary superpower and that is his longevity. 

For more than 40 years, he has been part of the championship conversation, as he is once again thanks to victories in two of the first seven races, the most recent last Sunday at Epping, N.H., where he beat teammate Austin Prock in an all-JFR final at the New England Nationals.

As a result, he returns to Bristol Dragway second in the driver standings, just 22 points off the lead enjoyed by Prock, the Funny Car rookie who wasn’t even born when Force won his first 48 tour events and his first three championships.

Whether or not you believe he’s Superman, it’s difficult to imagine a drag racing landscape without Force in it, which makes the 75-year-old’s comments following last week’s win a little perplexing for his multitude of fans.

“I’m not being dramatic,” he told members of the media, “but my time is up. It was up when I was 65. Hell, it was up when I turned 50. The world is changing for me and I’ve got to do some real thinking (about the future). I know I’m gonna have to (step away), sooner or later.”

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Given a few days to savor the 157th win of his career, though, the one-time truck driver clarified the point. 

“I’m not quitting today,” he said. “I’m out here racing for a championship and I just love it. I love the sport, I love the people, I love Prock and all these kids who keep me motivated, but I am starting the (transition) process and we’ll just see what happens down the road.” 

This story was originally published on June 5, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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