This is supposed to be a column about National DRAGSTER and a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on to produce drag racing's only news weekly, but lately I'm finding that that one topic alone isn’t going to dominate this column. I've shared quite a bit of what goes on here week in and week out, talking about deadlines and decisions and some of the cool things that happen, and though many have written to ask additional questions and thank me for sharing the inside story, I've also received a lot of feedback about recent columns about Marvin Graham, Pete Kalb, and, most recently, John Force, enough to let me know that the column can and should be broadened.
I hadn't really intended to keep writing about Force, but the feedback and plaudits for the man just keep rolling in, and many are worth sharing. Even my mom wrote in (Hi Mom!).
By far the week's most interesting conversation was with former Funny Car racer Frank Mancuso, whom some of you may recall from his Travel Agent flopper of the 1970s and '80s. He had initially written in to comment on Force's accident, but since I recognized his name, I wrote him back and asked for more information about his career, and it turns out he has an even deeper connection to Force's current condition than I could have imagined.
Mancuso was involved in two well-photographed accidents, his infamous guardrail vault at the 1978 Gatornationals that left him muddy in the soggy photographers' area (this is why we have guardwalls now instead of guardrails at our national events) and an even more notorious two-car entanglement with the Earthquake jet dragster of Mike Evegens later that year, captured here so well by Norman Blake.
Mancuso well remembers meeting Force for the first time in Englishtown in the early 1980s, where at the request of the late Vinnie Napp they were doing a display at a local mall to promote an upcoming event. "I remember spending the time [during the display] working in the trailer, grinding rings and fixing all the little things that get put off. We were parked with this new kid called 'Brute Force,' who instead of working on the bits and pieces was working the crowd. Here we are almost 30 years later, and the man still has the energy I remember seeing that hot summer day."
What makes the story even more interesting is that Mancuso suffered very nasty injuries in that jet-car accident yet still won the Division 1 championship that year. Here's that story in Mancuso's words, which also includes a sad note about Dodger Glenn, who was killed that summer:
"In 1978 I teamed up with Pete Pearson, who bought [the] Rolling Thunder car. The very first time I drove it in Gainesville it made a hard right over the guardrail. We fronthalved it, but it was a beast to drive. I used to have to hold the wheel with my knees to keep it from vibrating out of my hands. We tried every fix we could think of. At the Summernationals that year, I had an argument with Dodger Glenn about making a Saturday night qualifying run … [but] Glenn and I pitted next to each other at a Maple Grove points race after that and shook hands. I told him about my upcoming match race with the jet; I wasn't very happy about it but needed the money. He told me, 'Whatever happens don't let the jet get in front' because the kerosene would mess up my engine. I made a run that night and was waiting in the car in the pitch black of the turnoff road when I saw a ball of fire and a motor go rolling past me. Glenn went into the woods, and it was so dark no one could find him. We were sorry when we finally did. Two weeks later when I ran that jet I remembered Dodger Glenn's words about letting the jet get in front and stayed in the car too long and it veered right just as it did in Gainesville. I broke both feet, and my right leg was nearly severed. Mike Evegens broke a bone or two also. After I recovered I looked at the bits and pieces of that car and found that one inner tire was about three inches larger than the other. In any case, we won the division championship that year. Truly a year of highs and lows."
More Force fan feedback:
Wayne Creech is convinced that his 6-year-old son has to be in the running as Force's biggest fan; after all, he was named after the quarter-mile legend. John Force Creech may be the only human whose middle name is "Force." His dad introduced John to the Force team last year at Indy, and they thought he was kidding until he whipped out the birth certificate. Recalled the proud papa, "Ashley told him he had the coolest name ever, Robert picked him up and gave him high-fives and carried him around for a few minutes while the crew was hard at work. Eric hugged John and said, 'With a name like that, you are the man!' John tickled little John and rubbed his head each time we came back, and no matter where we were in the crowd, John made it a point to get to little John if even for a few seconds."
Jeanne Salyer, who admits that the Superman story reduces her to tears every time she reads it, thinks she might have that story topped. "I still remember the first time I ever saw him," she recalls. "It was at Firebird Raceway in the early '80s, and one of his major sponsors was Jolly Rancher. I remember him going through the grandstands with boxes of Jolly Rancher hard candies, throwing them to all the fans. I thought he was a little goofy then. Now I just think he’s darned right crazy, but in a good way. My husband and I are such huge fans that our wedding cake had an image of the Castrol GTX Funny Car painted in icing. This season has certainly been a stressful and trying one for the John Force family and team members, but from adversity comes strength. The rest of the Funny Car teams better watch their backs, because a stronger Force team can be nothing but trouble for them." Nice cake, Jeanne. Now about those traffic lights …
Andy Bolsar first met Force while crewing on Tim Grose's Funny Car in the summer of 1984. "Tim was running a booked-in race at Englishtown and John was one of the other cars there, and when all the racing was over I remember going over to John's trailer and listening to some stories and being mesmerized in the stories of racing and some non-racing experiences," recalls Bolsar. "John Force always could and still does hold your attention when he talks, this even from a hospital bed! I wound up crewing for Bill Walsh's Top Alcohol Dragster through '87 and I would see John through the years at different races, and he would always say hi in passing, which I thought was so cool that he remembered me from a onetime meeting. I haven't seen John in about seven years, but I still think that he would say hi and have a few words to say to me. That's just the way John is."
And why we love him so ...