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Feature Writing
Fourth Place
Mike Hembree, USA Today

Boyhood Poverty Fresh for Force

YORBA LINDA, Calif. – The stone mansion at the top of the highest hill in town is owned by John Force, 16-time National Hot Rod Association champion.

It has eight bedrooms, a gym, a library, a sauna, a formal living room with a baby grand piano, a wine cellar, several fireplaces and an attached apartment for visitors – 17,050 square feet in total. Outside, the swimming pool comes equipped with a hot tub, several waterfalls, a bubbling fountain and a small mountain featuring a waterslide.

The house has wide and long views in all directions – to Catalina and the Pacific Ocean and, at night, of the Disneyland fireworks to the southwest.

Who lives here? Only Force, who, at 66 years old continues to be the firebrand and focal point of the NHRA, and his wife, Laurie. And they’re on the road much of the year, either racing or making the promotional and sponsor appearances that make the racing possible.

Built at a cost of more than $10 million, the house is a bit over the top, but it’s not unusual in the world of the wealthy. For Force, though, a man who rose from poverty to become one of international motorsports’ biggest figures, it’s an uncomfortable extravagance, one that’s impossible to hide sitting there atop a small mountain, the most impressive edifice for miles around.

“It’s almost embarrassing,” Force said. “I’ve worked hard, and people say I’ve earned it. But it just seems like a waste. A big, dumb house. I never had nothing growing up. If my dad came back and saw this house, he’d get a stick and whip me.”

Force’s first house wasn’t a house at all. It was a camping trailer his father, Harold, towed from job to job along the West Coast. The family – Harold, John’s mother Betty Ruth and six children – moved from trailer park to logging camp to migrant farm seeking work.

“It was picking berries up and down the California coast and hauling logs in the camps to the north,” Force said.

Family members tell the story of the Force parents picking berries and turning John, a toddler, loose in the fields while they worked. They tied a balloon to him so he could be located easily.

It was a great plan until the balloon burst.

“My kids today don’t even believe those stories,” Force said. “They don’t even know what a TV dinner is. I took them to that trailer house, and they couldn’t believe we all lived in it. Now we have televisions with screens bigger than the front window in that trailer.”

As a child, Force dreamed of bigger things. His eyes turned toward racing.

“My father always told me, ‘You’re the dumbest kid I’ve got. You’re a dreamer, and you gotta quit dreaming. You’re never going to be Don Prudhomme or Richard Petty,’” he said.

Force kept the trailer as a reminder of the hard times. Eventually – and reluctantly, Force had it destroyed. Termites had won a battle that years on a hard road couldn’t.

Force was born in Bell Gardens, Calif., 30 minutes from Yorba Linda, but home was mostly on the road – the same as today. He parked in one place long enough to play high school football, and, as quarterback, he led his team to a record quite unlike the one he would splash across the NHRA.

His high school team never won a game.

Drag racing, fortuitously, became his thing.

He raced for year after year with little money, buying – or bumming – used parts, piecing together old cars that often never made it past the starting line. Laurie, his second wife (a first high-school marriage ended not long after the birth of his first child, daughter Adria) was a dedicated partner, mixing race fuel, making bologna sandwiches, keeping the team rolling when the dollars ran low.

Finally, Force broke through, winning an NHRA event for the first time in 1987 after jumping on the tour full-time in 1983. The victories soon came easier, and, in 1990, he won his first Funny Car title. John Force Racing became a top team in the sport, and Force scored a remarkable 10 straight Funny Car titles from 1993 to 2002, gaining fame as a master storyteller and fan favorite along the way.

Sponsors loved him. He was not only a winner but also a bombastic force of nature. In a sport in which some drivers answer questions but say little, Force was quite the opposite. He talked about everything, even things he knew nothing about. He overheated reporters’ recorders with answers long enough to be speeches.

Being John Force became a full-time job.

And with that came issues, leading to Force’s second unusual housing situation.

Success on track had earned the Forces – by the time of the first championship in 1990, they had three daughters (Ashley, Brittany and Courtney) – a nice home in Yorba Linda in the shadow of the mountain they eventually would own. It was along a tree-lined street in town near Force’s shop.

For Laurie Force, it was a house but not a home.

John Force found racing to be an all-consuming animal, one that sent him on the highest of highs but dropped him to lows he couldn’t handle without alcohol or conflict – often both.

“I went to bed drinking,” Force said. “I almost felt like I was getting close to being an alcoholic. I’d do my job, but I was drinking. I was gone, always gone. I saw my children, but I missed so many things. If I did come home, I was at the shop until 2 in the morning.

“My wife tells me some of the things I did, and I tell her I don’t remember. She says, ‘That’s because you were drinking.’ That stuff will take over your life.”

Force remembers a tense phone conversation with a crew member sending him into a fury, and that sent his fist into the wall near the phone. It wasn’t the only time.

“We had holes punched in the walls that I covered up with Little Mermaid posters,” Laurie Force said. “They were all over the house. It wasn’t a decorating statement. It was because, ‘Why fix it? He’ll do it again in a week.’”

It finally became too much.

During Christmas week in 2000, Laurie loaded her husband’s clothing and other essentials into trash bags, tied them with red bows and left them in front of the house, awaiting his return from an unannounced trip.

“It had really gotten over the top,” she said. “Ashley was in college, and he got mad at her one day and gave her an 8:30 curfew. I could never side with him because I thought he was always wrong. We all were doing battle with him. It was devastating for me and the girls.

“I bagged up his stuff and moved him out. I remember thinking I wouldn’t let him back in the house until the kids were grown and gone.”

The Forces owned a condominium on a nearby lake – Force calls it the boathouse, and he moved there. The Forces would live apart for the next 10 years, although they often went to dinner together and maintained a relationship of sorts.

“I wasn’t a very good person,” Force said. “I always loved my family. I just failed them. That’s why I can’t fail them again.”

Even while living in separate houses in 2006, John and Laurie, who married in 1981, began planning the big house on the hill. They worked on designs, shopped for antique furniture and consulted builders.

That project served to strengthen their ties, but the real catalyst in changing their relationship occurred Sept. 23, 2007. In a vicious crash in competition at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Force suffered a compound fracture of his left ankle, a broken left wrist, a deep cut to his right knee and several broken fingers. With blood everywhere, Force was airlifted to a nearby hospital.

It was the weekend from hell in what was the hardest year in Force’s career.

Six months earlier, Eric Medlen, one of Force’s drivers and a big-brother figure for the Force girls, had died after a crash in a test run at Gainesville, Fla. Medlen’s death led Force and others in the NHRA to work on improving driver safety.

On the night before his crash in Texas, Force, still shaken by Medlen’s death and perhaps over-served with drinks, walked out to the track fence and saw the “win” lights shining in the darkness.

“I had a sudden mood swing,” he said. “We had lost Eric, and it had changed all our lives. I didn’t know what to do. And I got mad. I said, ‘Oh, God, why would you take a young kid like that and leave me?’ And I got rude, cursing God.”

Force, rarely seen without a St. Christopher’s medal around his neck, almost died in the crash the next day.

“I always told the girls that there’s a monster out there,” Force said. “You love these cars, but there’s a monster, and he’ll jump in the seat by you one day. He’s out there. Ashley said, ‘The monster got Dad.’”

Force was hospitalized for weeks and later was in a wheelchair and later still on crutches.

Laurie was there beside him.

“The crash probably saved my life,” Force said. “I was heading down a bad road, drinking every day even though I was still winning championships. Hell, I was Elvis, Superman and James Dean rolled into one. Now any time I start getting lippy, I think about that.”

Force stopped the excessive drinking. After months of physical rehabilitation, he charted a course to return to the track, which he did at the start of the 2008 season.

“The doctors told me I’d never race again, that they might be able to get me walking with a cane,” Force said. “But I knew I’d race.”

Work began on the big house – called Chateau de Force – in 2008, and the family – a family again -- moved in as the calendar turned to 2011.

“I think the accident really played a huge part in changing him,” Laurie said. “He told me, ‘I’m actually glad that it happened.’ For the longest time, he couldn’t walk. He had to crawl some. It made him see how precious life is and that he should take care of himself and be a better dad and husband.”

Now Force works out regularly in his home gym, determined to keep his body in shape to race years into the future. Even at 66, he hasn’t targeted retirement.

When – or if – he stops driving, Force probably will remain the big gun in John Force Racing, the dynamo who brings in the sponsors and keeps the juice and the money flowing. It’s a task he’s unlikely to willingly give up, in part because he remembers what life was like on the other side of the mountain.

“You can’t explain poverty,” he said. “It’s built-in. I live in fear. The sky is falling. I wake up every day, and I’ve got to work. And I love it.”

The work continues because Force is responsible for a web of family ties at John Force Racing. Courtney races in Funny Car and Brittany in Top Fuel. Ashley was a racer and winner in Funny Car before parking her car to have two children (Jacob, 4 and Noah, 2). She is JFR’s vice president. Adria is JFR’s chief financial officer, and Robert Hight (her husband, although they’re separated) is the team president and a Funny Car driver.

And there is another generation to consider. Autumn, Robert and Adria’s 11-year-old daughter, competes in Junior Dragster events, and only an unlikely detour will keep Ashley’s youngsters from being involved in the sport. Their dad, Danny, is Courtney’s crew chief, and the two boys enjoy “staging” diecast dragsters on the big table in the den of the Force house. They also “repair” their mom’s shopping cart on visits to the supermarket.

Force, the ultimate machismo guy, stood in awe – although with a bit of confusion – as he welcomed daughter after daughter after daughter after daughter into the world.

“I wanted sons,” he said. “I wanted them to play football. I had Adria, and then Laurie and I had our first, Ashley. Then I began to heat up my underwear. Didn’t work. A girl. Then another.

“I never got to name one kid. I had boy names all ready – Axle, Spartacus, Bubba. Maybe they’ll let me name the cat we’re getting.

“It never crossed my mind that they would be drivers. Then they start racing, and they’re good. They love it. To watch them cry when they win and say, ‘I did it, Dad,’ that’s something.”

Now, in clear contrast to the rocky days, the extended Force family is together. When they aren’t on the road, they rendezvous at the big house. It’s an easy commute for everyone. Ashley and Danny live in the former Force house at the bottom of the hill, and Courtney and Brittany live in a condominium complex 10 minutes away.

And Force is at the center of it all, both at home and at the nearby shop (Although JFR’s main shop is in Brownsburg, Ind., the administrative offices and the Force museum are in Yorba Linda). Team members – there are 115 total at the two sites -- say he doesn’t dabble in anything but rather is elbows deep into everything, dealing with such minutiae as the design of newspaper ads and the placement of rear license plates on the team’s fleet of transport trucks.

He’s always plotting and planning. Last year, he came up with an idea to honor retiring NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon by putting Gordon’s familiar paint job on the Force funny car. There were discussions within the Force team structure about the legal issues and sponsor conflicts that might erupt, but Force listened and finally said, “Doesn’t matter. Let’s do it.”

Virtually the only time Force is quiet – other than during a few hours of sleep each night – is in a movie theater. Cinema is his lone – and a frequent -- escape. There he eats popcorn double-soaked in butter and “finds my heroes,” he said.

“Dad is always here, and he’s in everyone’s business,” Courtney said. “He’s always overprotective, but we’re in a family business, and that’s how he is all the time. Even at Christmas dinner, he doesn’t know how to not talk racing. But we’re all like that. We try to talk about something else, but we all stare at each other.”

And it happens in the house that speed built – the embarrassment, as Force calls it.

“From what he came from, he’ll always feel that way,” Ashley said. “But we make a lot of good memories here. Sometimes I feel like he’s so caught up in worrying (about the size of the house) that in 20 years he’ll feel like he should have enjoyed it more. But he’s a worrier. He worries that he can’t stop or it will all go away.”