Date published: March 19, 2010
Journal code: NDRG
The wife of the 14-time champion has stood by her man, through thick and thin
A lot of racers like to keep their family lives separate from their racing careers, but that's hardly been the case for John Force, the sport's alltime winningest driver. The personal life of the father of four has been talked about for decades - mostly by him as he toured the country making a name for himself while lamenting being away from home - and was even the subject of a popular television reality show, Driving Force, on A&E a few years ago, on which his sometimes-dysfunctional realities were shown to all.
The family is reunited now at the track, where daughter Ashley Force Hood races with her dad in Funny Car, daughters Brittany and Courtney compete in Top Alcohol Dragster, and eldest daughter Adria, from his first marriage, is married to his world champion driver, Robert Hight. To many, though, the most interesting member of the family may well be Force's wife, Laurie, who, after playing a vital role in the early years of his career, kept the home front going while John was out barnstorming the country and making a name for himself. It's an interesting love story, a long and twisting tale of heartache and dedication, turmoil and rebirth, and the unexpected rekindling of a relationship in the wake of his nearly career-ending accident in Dallas in 2007. Laurie blushes off suggestions that she's the strong woman behind the strong man, but it's clear that, in many ways, he wouldn't be who he is without her.
How did you and John first get together, and what were those early years like?
We met in 1972 - he was a truck driver then, like he says - and when mutual friends of ours got married, he was the best man, and I was maid of honor. He was just so crazy and funny. He was full-on, just like he is now. He was very unpredictable and unlike anyone I'd ever met. He was so different that he was in a league of his own, and that's what was intriguing about him.
What did your parents think about this character from the wrong side of the tracks?
On one of our first dates, John showed up on his motorcycle, and I purposely did not bring him into the house because I knew my mom didn't approve of motorcycles and wouldn't want me going out on one. Unfortunately, she died a few months later, but my dad has always thought John was quite a character.
My dad worked, ironically, at Ford Motor Company from before I was born until he retired. When they first got married, my parents had that car with the door roped on and six kids, but as he moved up the ladder in the company, we ending up living in Hacienda Heights [Calif.] in a nice house.
How did you get your introduction to drag racing with John?
On another one of our first dates, we were on his motorcycle, and he asked me if I liked to go to the races. I rambled on about how my dad used to take my family to the races and we'd bet on the horses, and he turned around and looked at me like I was from another planet because that wasn't at all what he was talking about.
I knew nothing about drag racing, so he took me to Orange County [Int'l Raceway], and it looked pretty exciting. I think it was the Fox Hunt [race], and there were bands playing, and at the end of the race, everyone ran out onto the track. There were streakers. It was pretty bizarre and wild. He told me that he always thought he'd want to have a Funny Car one day. It all seemed so exciting, but I didn't know how good he'd be or how it would work ... and at the start, actually, it didn't work very well. I remember the first race he took me to when he was racing, his car caught on fire. I think it was his Monza. He had a St. Christopher that I had given him, and it even melted off. To this day, he still wears a St. Christopher.
Obviously, he struggled for a long time before he became successful. Were you encouraging him or thinking he was in the wrong line of work?
He didn't get much encouragement from anyone - family, friends, anyone. A few times, I even suggested that he should quit. He had more reasons to quit than he ever did to pursue, but I figured he knew what he was doing, and certainly there was no talking him out of it. I think a lot of the savvy he has now comes from going through the process. It was trial by learning for him. He was so focused and so committed; you couldn't tell him no. He'd just fall down and get up, hundreds of times. He should have quit so many times, but he didn't.
He was doing mostly divisional races or match races, which is where he was learning how to drive and get it all together. In 1976, he went to Australia to race - I stayed here because I was still in college [at San Diego State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and a minor in dance] - and when he came back, he was really hooked. He wasn't even officially licensed, but the stardom and the fans and the excitement - he was sold. If he had any doubts to that point, that just sealed it for him. He started to really get his act together and started to get a few sponsors, like Leo's Stereo, but the interesting thing to me is that he never promised them, "If you give me X amount of dollars, I'll win a race for you"; it was always, "I'll do car shows, I'll do cross promotions with other sponsors, I'll be at your store openings." He never promised he could win a race because he certainly couldn't back then, but he found other ways to make it work. Many times, it was just me and him and his brother and a couple of guy friends. If you were able to go on the road and work for free, you were on the team. It was rough times, but it was so fun. We were with good friends, and we'd see how much change everyone had and buy bologna sandwiches. It worked out. It was tight, but we never starved.
And then came the Wendy's sponsorship? How did that change life?
Wendy's was our first sponsor, in 1979. As I recall, it was $36,000 a year, and I remember being so excited because that seemed like a lot of money, and now we could go to all of the races. We made our first cross-country trip to Florida, and he met the store managers there and had his name up on their billboards, and it was all just so exciting. I don't even think we qualified, but we still made it work.
I read somewhere that you actually wrote the contract for him?
He had the gift of gab - still does - but when it came to putting it down on paper to make it official, I helped with that, but it was so beyond basic. It was probably one page that I wrote down what he said.
And what about his great tale of dressing up as little red-headed Wendy, the chain's mascot ... true story?
Mostly. There was an opening here in California, and the Wendy's girl didn't show up, so he went into the bathroom and was in the process of putting the outfit on - dress, red wig, and all - when she showed up. Thank God. At Don Steves Chevrolet, he actually did dress up as a tree and walked around. He did whatever it took.
When did things change on the home front?
We got married a couple of years after that. When Ashley was born, we moved into the house we're in now. I remember we moved in, and the very next day, he flew out to compete on the match race circuit just in order to pay for the new home. Five weeks later, he came home; I made him some coffee, but he didn't even know where the spoons were. There were 12 drawers, and I watched him open every one until he found them. He didn't have any idea where anything was.
And that's the way it was for a long time, right? He was pretty much gone a lot while the kids were growing up. How did that work?
You hear a lot of negatives about one parent raising the kids, but I never really got that. He was gone and missed a lot of school and extracurricular activities - whether it was piano or singing or concerts or cheerleading or gymnastics - but they were OK with it. If they had done a piano recital, they'd just play it again for him when he came home. They got to watch him on Sundays on TV, and a few times, he would take one of them on the road with him, just a special weekend out of town with Dad. He would make a point of being a part of whatever he could, and I never got the feeling that the girls were resentful of him being gone.
Were you resentful?
Sometimes it was good to have him gone. He was so high energy. And a couple of times, when he chose to reprimand the kids, I would think, "What are you doing?" He grounded Ashley one time right after she got out of high school - told her she had to be home by 8:30 - or if the girls were fighting, instead of sending them to their rooms, he'd give them each $20. He was so extreme that he was not a good disciplinarian. He was so into the racing. That was 100 percent of his day. What percent was left over to listen to the kids? I don't think he had anything left in him. He took over the racing, and I took over the raising of the kids.
It was easier to have him out of the picture because there was more of a routine. When John would come in, everything would turn upside down, and it was just big-time chaos. He didn't really help the situations when he would try to offer his fatherly parenting advice, but the girls always knew he loved them. He was at the airport and realized it was Courtney's birthday and ran into a store and bought her a hair dryer. What 7-year-old needs a hair dryer? But she was thrilled that he thought of her.
OK, another quick myth-busters question: Word is that you named the girls alphabetically - Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney - so that he could remember which was oldest more easily. True?
By the time we got to Courtney, I knew I had to keep them in order to make it easy for him. Brittany was supposed to be Bethany, but he didn't like that, so we changed it, and after I had the three of them, Ashley told me she had a great Z name. I told her that 23 more was never going to happen.
We've heard him say that the racetrack is his home. Did that hurt your feelings?
No, because I had to agree. I always knew his first love was the race car but that I could be a close second.
And at some point you started living apart?
It was about 10 or 11 years ago, and I don't know if it was the struggle of the business or how driven he was to succeed, but he would come home - sometimes he'd show up at midnight or any hour of the morning after a race - and he could be on a rampage about anything, and I've got kids who are sleeping and need to get up the next morning. He was very explosive, and I didn't think it was good for the kids or me.
I was at the end and just couldn't take it anymore. He was uncontrollable and explosive, and there was no calming him down or having a rational conversation. He was on the edge - never at me, but at the situation - and, ironically, he had just bought this condo that he saw as our retirement home - even though we were only 45 - and I thought, "Perfect." So when he was gone to some race, I packed him up and moved him over to the condo.
It wasn't like he disagreed - he was upset - but I think he felt he needed some space, too. He told me that he can be so over the top that sometimes he can't even stand himself.
And divorce was not an option?
I would never divorce him, and still won't, for two reasons. First, being Catholic, I don't believe in divorce - I thought that if he's so miserable and unhappy, he'll divorce me - and second, gosh, look, we stuck it out, and it does come around. Things do change, and people do change. I guess I'm lucky that he didn't pursue anything because he was certainly angry enough at me at times that he would have loved to.
What are the living arrangements now?
He's only a mile and a half from us, and he doesn't stay there all the time. He still calls and comes over and spends time with us, so it's not really that much different. It just gave him some space, and, if he didn't need it, I certainly did. And everything seemed to be OK.
We're building a house now in which we both intend to live, but it's so huge that if he really gets me mad, I could just lose him in it.
As John was beginning to become successful, were you surprised? Could you ever envision that it would lead to multiple championships and a racing empire?
Truthfully, I never thought five or 10 years ahead. It was always "Things are going good, and he's making enough money with the racing," and things were working out fine. It took him 10 years to win his first race, and, to me, that was the gold ring that was almost unattainable, so I never, ever thought about winning a championship. It didn't even occur to me.
When he got [tuner] Austin [Coil], things started to go in a really great direction; he started winning races and getting bigger sponsors and winning championships; everything just started going our way.
For two years, you put your public life on display in the Driving ForceTV show; how was that experience?
We thought it would be good for the general public to get a glimpse of what drag racing was all about, and I think it did that. The show wasn't all that intrusive in our lives. We would meet every week and go over what was happening with John or the girls, and they would tell us what and who they wanted to follow and what they were hoping to get. I think it was harder on John and Ashley because they were more on it. It was a little rough, but they weren't out to watch us fall apart, and we knew that going in. I think it was a good experience, and I'm glad we did it. I'm not sure Ashley would want to do it again.
A lot has happened in the years between then and now, including all three girls driving, losing Eric Medlen, and John's own accident. I'm not sure how you kept it all together.
2007 was really a hard year. Ashley had just started racing Funny Cars, and nothing bad had really happened in the class in years, and then Eric and John both had their accidents, and it's just catastrophic.
After Eric's accident, John and I both had to sit Ashley down and ask her if she wanted to continue, and she did a lot of soul-searching. For John, it took on a new aspect for him because it all used to be about him and "Don't worry about me; I'll be OK," but now that his daughters are in it, safety is very important to him. The Eric Medlen Project means a lot to all of us, and it was very critical that we followed through on it. You can't put a price on it.
How did John's accident change you both?
He tells me he's thankful he had that accident. He used to say that and I couldn't believe it when he said that, but now, I am, too, because it's really changed him for the better. Our relationship is better, too. He's certainly made the effort and worked hard at it. I don't know that he's calmed down much, but I certainly can relate to him better, and we get along better.
What was your role in his hospitalization and rehabilitation?
He was in the hospital for a month, and I was there almost all of the time. I came home a time or two to check on the girls and grab a few more incidentals. I think he was very angry after the accident because he couldn't do things he'd normally do for himself and was dependent on people to do it for him, and that's a position he'd never been in before. He was not a good patient. I felt bad for the nurses. He was a handful.
Did you think he would return to driving?
Even though the doctors told him he shouldn't, I always knew he would. I knew he wouldn't step back. He wouldn't accept it when people told him he was the worst driver and his parts are junk and his crew doesn't know what it's doing - and it was all true - but he wouldn't quit, he wouldn't have any of it, and I think it was the same here. I knew he wouldn't let that happen.
Since his accident, he's not had a beer, and he's very committed to his health. He goes to the gym religiously. I never foresaw that after all of his physical therapy was over that he'd keep going to the gym. He's been a member of that gym for 15 years, and the only time he'd gone was when the show [Driving Force] had us do something in the gym. It's amazing what he's capable of doing. He's quite a good role model, and it all came from him. He's the driving force.
It's one thing to see your husband racing; how much harder is it to watch your children doing it? And three of them at that!
All of the years growing up, I never had one - not one - thought that they would ever get into racing. John always wanted a boy, first to carry on his name and second to follow him into racing. In fact, I was thankful when I had Courtney and only girls so that one of my kids wouldn't be racing; now, I've had to eat those words. It's not at all how I thought it would play out. It's definitely harder for me to watch them.
Are the girls more like you or their dad?
They're all a little like me. Ashley can drive a race car like her dad, but personalitywise, she's more like me - not all that comfortable in front of the camera. Courtney looks more like me, but she seems to love the crowds, and so she might be more like John than me. Brittany, she's got a mind of her own. She's doing student teaching and still trying to squeeze in racing, so she's completely different than both of them.
You've driven, too; you took the gas dragster class at Frank Hawley's school, right?
They gave that to me as a Christmas present. Brittany and Courtney were just getting into Super Comp and would talk to me about this or that, and I didn't even know what they were talking about, so I thought I probably should do it so I have some idea what they're going through, and it really opened my eyes. I just wanted to get my license to be able to relate to what they were going through.
And today, what's your role? Are you the strong woman behind the strong man?
Behind John is another John. Most of the time, he doesn't listen to me anyway; he just goes on with what he believes in, and usually he's right. I'm the listening person, and maybe he just needs that. I think I'm out there for emotional support and as a cheerleader.
Looking back, would you change anything?
It's been quite a roller-coaster ride. I never expected it would end up like that, but I don't think I would change anything. ND