By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — “Big Daddy” Don Garlits tried to get John Force into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame years ago. Several times, actually.
Force declined every invitation.
“I kept telling him, ‘There’s other guys that need to go in, and I’ll be around awhile, I hope,’” Force said. “He finally called me and said, ‘You need to go.’”
The nearly 74-year-old Force relented and was the headliner of the 2023 class that was formally inducted Thursday night on the eve of the NHRA season. The often-colorful and always chatty Force delivered a nearly 20-minute speech that was as rambling as it was wide-ranging in front of a packed hotel ballroom that included the 91-year-old Garlits.
He promised to finally pay off several outstanding debts from decades ago and said he’s working on getting daughter Courtney back on track. Courtney stepped away from racing in 2019 and has since given birth to two daughters.
“Why am I still doing this at my age? Because I love it,” John Force said.
The 16-time Funny Car champion also made it clear he’s not thinking about retirement as he begins the season-opening Gatornationals. He even signed a three-year contract extension with Chevrolet and his primary sponsor, Peak, in December.
“How far can you go?” Force told The Associated Press. “I’m 73 now. I want to be respectful to the sport, but I also want to help the sport. I want to help it grow, and it needs some help right now.”
Force remains NHRA’s top promoter and drag racing’s unquestioned spokesman, roles he started to embrace long before his first championship in 1990. He went on to win 15 more, including an unprecedented 10 in a row between 1993 and 2002.
His last title came in 2013, and he hasn’t finished better than fourth over the last eight years.
But John Force Racing continues to thrive, with daughter Brittany winning her second Top Fuel championship in six seasons in 2022, and teammates Robert Hight and Austin Prock finishing second and third, respectively, in Funny Car and Top Fuel. Hight came up three points shy of winning his fourth title, a number that would tie him with NHRA legends Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme.
Force, meanwhile, is entering his 47th professional NHRA season. He holds nearly every record imaginable, including championships, final rounds (264) and event wins (155).
“Racing is what I do,” Force said. “I didn’t really come for the money or the trophies. I wanted to make a living and I wanted to race. That’s what I get to do. It’s easy for me.”
It’s resulted in now six Hall of Fame inductions, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2008, the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at Fort Worth in 2011, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2012, the California Sports Hall of Fame in 2017 and the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 2019.
“I’ve lived it and I love it. It’s taken care of me and now my family,” said Force, who takes great pride in watching three of his five grandchildren race. “Those kids motivate me. You live through your children. Now I’m living through my grandchildren.”
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