NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The healing power of words

Fan reactions to John Force's crash
25 Sep 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Well, I guess y'all sure do like John Force about as much as I do. After seeing what you did to help Ashley win the AOL Hottest Athlete poll, I reckon between us we could probably get John nominated for president, if not elected.

Simply put, the response to my "Hurry Back, Superman" article (below) has been gratifyingly astounding. The e-mails began flooding in from around the world not long after it was published, and they shared a common theme: Thank you for saying what I was thinking.

It's always nice when a writer can tap into the emotions of the majority, but as I said in the replies to just about everyone who was kind enough to thank me, my words are more a credit to him than to my writing skill. 

I was pouring out emotions after a long day spent at the computer and on the phone dealing with the type of story that we hate to write and actually didn't know it would go where it did when I sat down to write it, but by the time I began to recite all of the things that he has accomplished, it wasn't even like I had to think about them. They just kept coming and coming, and when I looked up at the monitor after that final period, it was like, DAMN, this guy is really amazing. Not that I didn't know it already, and not like I haven't written about a bazillion words about Force in my career, but I guess I just never had the occasion to put them all into print at one time. But enough about me … here's what you all thought:

From Kathy Graham: "Your article made me cry. It was right on -- exactly what John Force's fans are feeling, but don't have the ways or means to say -- so thank you for speaking for all of us. I'm a late-comer to his fan base. My husband has watched drag racing for years, often in our family room as I read or did this or that. About three years ago a very loud and joyful and energetic voice forced me to pay attention to what it was my husband was watching. Of course, it was John Force being interviewed after a race. I had never seen anyone quite like him. Definitely over the top, but in a very good way - and it was all for real - not just some act to sell whatever. I guess I was hooked from that moment on. … The main reason I have become such a FAN is because of John Force. Not that he's a heartthrob (although he has his cute moments), or that he's brilliant (hmm… he does make more sense than most people in the news these days). I guess the reason I am a John Force fan is because he is a very good man, always trying to do the right thing, who has courage to risk his life every time he gets into his Funny Car and courage to go after his dreams. He's a man who loves his family and would do anything for them, a man who is funny and bright, who works very, very hard, and who really has made this world a better place by being such an example - a role model of making every day count, of dealing with adversity with grace and faith, of never giving up, and always sorting to the positive (back to that great, goofy smile)."

From Mike Pingel: "You have no idea how much John Force means to all of us 50-somethings who grew up watching him struggle to being the icon he is today. He is an inspiration for all of us average, honest-working folks who live and breathe John's every move. Sounds dumb from a 50-year-old, but this guy is my idol." 

From Colin Saunders: "We feel like we know the Force family in our household, although we don't. Your article seemed to capture everything that we feel as well."

From Cheryl Deskus: "We've been NHRA fans and members for a long time, and that is definitely the Force we know. [He] can drive you crazy with his interviews, but you can't help but love him! My husband said last night that he was sure he was driving the nurses crazy hollering 'Where's ESPN? I still got an interview to do!' Thanks for your story, it touched my heart."

From Dave Singley: "Every race I go to, I look for where the John Force teams are because I know I will be spending a lot of time there. I started to take my two daughters to the drags when they were young, so they sort of grew up with it. You could always count on John Force to get that picture, that autograph, or to say hi, and now I take my grandson, who is 9, and next year will be my granddaughter who will be 2 1/2. This thrills me to death to see my grandchildren having fun there, and they love Force also. John touches a lot of people, and to see him hurting, we hurt, too. When you wrote about John being a Superman: nothing could be more true."

Patti and Rick Beckstrom: "The uplifting words we all needed to hear. Thanks for putting in print what every racer and fan is feeling."

From Murray: "I hope John reads your column at some stage and understands what he means to us mere mortals."

And from Joe, perhaps the shortest but most meaningful comment: "Thanks for being there for us."

I've written about many tragedies in this sport during my career here, about friends we lost and friends who have been hurt. We've grieved together for racers we lost and agonized when those we care about got hurt. I've poured my heart out over the losses of heroes like John Myers, Leslie Lovett, Blaine Johnson, and others and tried to come to terms with inexplicable things that go wrong in life like Darrell Gwynn's life-altering crash in England.

As the editor of National DRAGSTER, the official voice of NHRA, I've always felt that it was my responsibility and my goal to be there for everyone, to be like a big brother to maybe help make some sense of it all, to put a face on the hurt and the confusion, to put into words what you might not be able to, or simply to validate your feelings. 

I'm glad and proud that I've been in some way able to do that for John Force and his fans.

I've been asked about the picture below and Force's aerial antics. I was lucky enough to capture him in mid-flight at the 1993 Dallas event, reacting to the news that he had just recorded his first four-second pass, a 4.996, in Saturday's first qualifying session. Chuck Etchells, who two weeks earlier in Topeka had stolen Force's thunder (and robbed his wallet) with the first four, was in the other lane, as he was a day later when Force defeated him for his 11th win of the year.


Well, it's official: A bit of footage produced in Dallas hasn't been as heavily reviewed since that awful day in 1963 when another American hero named John was felled. And while ESPN's multi-angle replays of Force's crash at Texas Motorplex aren’t the Zapruder film and Force, though popular enough in some circles to be president, isn't JFK, it hasn’t stopped sleuths across the country from deploying big-screen, high-definition, slow-motion, freeze-frame technology to dissect the crash video.


Zapruder's 26.6 seconds of 8mm film that captured Kennedy's assassination has been dissected by historians for five decades, referring to specific events by their frame number (frame 226, for example, appears to show him first reacting to being shot). Race fans also have been poring over the primary view of the Force crash, shot from the top-end runout camera (and interestingly, about 26 seconds long), looking for the gunmen on the grassy knoll, pointing out pieces in particles in certain frames as evidence to support their theories, most of which initially leaned toward blaming the foam finish-line boxes, a theory that the Force team has debunked.