A note from the author:
It’s Christmas Eve. In our Minnesota home it’s definitely a Christmas like no other, but we’re getting through it. Just a few presents, no real tree, but we did put up a few lights outside and decorate the living room.
I told Elon he could have Christmas week off as guest-blogger (or Designated Hitter, as Alan Reinhart has now dubbed him) but the competitive DH (who hits clean-up around here) said “No Way.” Here’s his latest installment, with more John Force scooter stories. At the end of the blog, I’ll post my one-and-only first hand Force scooter tale.
Enjoy, everyone. And have a very Merry Christmas, or any other holiday you observe, including Festivus!
It is that time of year when thoughts turn to a jolly older gentleman riding on his sleigh delivering treats and presents to all the good little boys and girls around the world. Santa has a long history but the constant image of Santa on his shiny sleigh zipping around brings a smile to everyone’s face. Thinking of Santa zig-zagging through neighborhoods reminded me of another jolly older gentleman who cruises around the country delivering joy to men, women, boys and girls. You really can’t think of John Force without seeing him either climbing out of the top of his 11,000 horsepower Funny Car or riding somewhere on his scooter. Force and his scooter have become the stuff of legend.
Force’s scooter was such a big deal I actually started a Twitter account for it in September of 2014. You can see the tweets by searching @Forces_Scooter and it still has 408 followers. I loved running that account, which I did on my own, and as it received some attention it even made it on the ESPN broadcast. I didn’t tell anyone I was the person behind the account and it was great to listen in as people tried to figure out who was coming up with the content. I was quite proud of some of the tweets, as well as some of the people that followed the account. As a PR guy you are always looking for angles and Force’s scooter was low hanging fruit. He rode it everywhere and we took advantage of this two-wheeled opportunity.
I remember one race we had ESPN check the odometer on Friday morning and then we tracked his mileage over the course of the weekend. By the end of the race Force had driven/ridden over 100 miles. I was blown away. He never left the track property and was just basically going from the pits to the starting line to the finish line and back. He really racked up the miles “cruising” the staging lanes.
He was like a shark on the scooter. If he wasn’t moving he was dying. I could be standing in the staging lanes talking with a crew guy, and Force would pull up and call me over. Something was on his mind and he just had to have an answer. After a quick chat he would zip off.
The worst was when I needed him at a specific location at a specific time. There were times when things might be running a little behind and he would get antsy. If I didn’t keep an eye on him he would jump on his scooter to “go check on something” and the next thing I knew he was gone. I have a lot of gray hairs because he would disappear only to reappear just in the nick of time for a press conference or sponsor event. He had a weird internal clock that alerted him when he knew he was going to be late but not too late. Again, the man knew how to make an entrance.
Even though, as Force says, he has “been on fire from here to Australia” there were times when the scooter was more of a detriment to his health than his race car. One of the most infamous scooter “incidents” happened at Maple Grove Raceway. The details are a little sketchy but Connie Worsham, Del Worsham’s wonderful better half, thought she witnessed the death of Force on the return road. Force was on his scooter high-tailing it to the finish line when he thought of something he needed back at the starting line. Without looking he just made a U-turn.
As he was executing this maneuver the tow vehicle Connie was riding in was also rolling to the top end. Force was clipped by the passenger side mirror and immediately went down. Connie was convinced he was dead, but in true Force fashion he hopped back up, gave her a wave, and went on his way. He truly is like a cat with nine lives.
I have seen Force lay his scooter down in the gravel shoulders beside the staging lanes of Brainerd International Raceway more times than I can count. He has nearly been clothes-lined by tow ropes in the staging lanes hundreds of times. Near misses with golf carts, passenger cars, and NHRA equipment are common occurrences. Luckily, he is always in his fire suit so he has an added layer of protection.
Like the astronauts who have walked on the moon, or members of a secret society, the small group of people who have ridden on a scooter with Force all have stories to tell and may or may not have nightmares. I have ridden with him many times and there is nothing more terrifying and fun. I would be lying if I didn’t enjoy every minute of my quick trips with Force. There is some cache to being the person on the scooter with him. It raises your profile and you also get some bemused looks from your colleagues.
The most nervous I have been with Force on the scooter is when er we were pulling out of the pits or headed from an autograph appearance and we are weaving through a crowd of people while they were all offering words of encouragement to Force, and at the same time he was drinking a cup of coffee (two sugars, one cream), signing autographs and driving. How does someone do that you ask? Well some t-shirts and hats, in addition to a John Force signature, might have their fair share of coffee stains. Also who wouldn’t want to return from a race to tell their friends the reason they have a slight limp is because 16-time Funny Car champ John Force rolled over their toes.
You make a great entrance when you roll up to a signing or driver intros on the back of John Force’s scooter. It isn’t like walking in with the Beatles but it is pretty close. I will confess I have signed a few autographs as the guy who was on the scooter with Force. This is seriously how I signed hero cards by the way, To (insert name), I’m the guy on Force’s scooter. Best Wishes, Elon Werner.
When I first started working for Force around 2007 my kids came to the race in Houston. A fan gave Robert Hight a bunch of 8×10 color photos he had taken the previous race. Robert kept a few of his race car for his personal collection. There were some other random shots, as well as one of him riding on the back of Force’s scooter. He gave that photo to my son Nick, then 7 years old, who promptly got Force to sign it and he returned to Robert to get his signature. Robert signed the photo, “Nick, Don’t ever ride with Force. – Robert Hight.” Nick still has that photo and it is a good cautionary tale.
One of the craziest Force scooter ride stories involves Associated Press writer John Marshall who covers Arizona sports. I pitched him a “day in the life” story on Force in 2016, when we would be racing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park for the Arizona Nationals. John came out and, at the time, AP was really encouraging their reporters to also grab video highlights to accompany their stories. Marshall asked if that would be a problem and I said we would love it. I off-handedly mentioned he should get some footage from the back of Force’s scooter. He kind of laughed at the idea and said he would take me up on that if Force offered.
I gave Force a heads up about what Marshall was looking for and on Sunday morning he asked him to hop on the scooter and ride up for driver intros. The writer took the chance and not only rode up for driver intros he followed Force the whole time and actually videoed Force walking out during the introductions to a massive crowd. It was great stuff and after he got back to the pits he was on the adrenaline high I would assume it’s the same as what you get the first time you jump out of an airplane. He was talking a mile a minute and said the experience was a professional highlight. You can see John Marshall’s video piece here complete with the walkout during driver intros and the return trip on the scooter.
Force’s scooter was such a big deal we gave one away as part of a Castrol promotion during the 25th anniversary program in 2010. I remember being in the meeting when we were brainstorming different promotions we could do to highlight the relationship. I suggested giving away Force’s scooter to a fan. Everyone loved the idea but it had to go through legal first. I was really getting excited about how we could hype this deal and after a couple weeks we got the go-ahead. We decided to give the scooter away at the U.S. Nationals, so the winner would get a scooter Force rode for 17 races.
Force was notoriously hard on scooters. He crashed them a couple times every year and they would fall over all the time in the staging lanes or top end. By the end of the season they looked pretty rough. Throughout the 2010 season we reminded Force that his scooter was going to presented to a fan at Indy so if he could try and keep it in one piece that would be great. When we got to Indy there were numerous battle scars on the scooter and we had to replace a side mirror but overall it was an awesome collectible. We decided that if the winner didn’t want this beat-up scooter we would get them a brand new one that looked just like it. The woman who won the scooter was a huge Force fan and she was able to attend her first NHRA event in person thanks to Castrol and this scooter promotion. We made her the offer of used scooter or new scooter and she was 1000% interested in the John Force beat up scooter. Bobby Bennett did a great job of telling more about this story on his site CompetitonPlus.com. Read about winner Susan Porter of Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee here.
The reality is Force used to the scooter to maximize his time at the races. He wants to be everywhere for everyone. After his 2007 crash the scooter obviously made it easier for him to get around. He gets asked to do more interviews than any other driver and also has more sponsor commitments, so getting from point A to point B is critical to the operation. If someone asked me to list the top things I miss about working with John the scooter rides would be right at the top of the list. It was a chance to chat him up or hear what was on his mind. It was also the chance to, just for a second, see what it was like to be on the receiving end of the well-deserved adulation of one of the fiercest competitors in sports.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Editor’s Note (and story)
So here’s my Force’s Scooter story. I don’t recall if this was when I was with Del Worsham or Tim Wilkerson, but I think it was right at the beginning of my time with Wilk, maybe my second or third year with him, and we had some new crew guys I hardly knew at all, other than my first introduction to them.
We were testing in Phoenix before the season started, and if you have ever been to the track there you probably have seen the difficult route the pro teams had to negotiate, back then, to get from the pits to the always crowded staging lanes. There are multiple pedestrian crossings, and a very tight sharp right turn hemmed in by Armco barriers, and then the lanes, which can easily be backed-up to that point. It can be gridlock.
Our car was only a few back in line from the chance to make a test run when I was sent back to the pit to get something the team had forgotten. I ran (jogged) back there.
I grabbed whatever I was sent to get and was beginning to jog back up to near the tower, when a scooter pulled up next to me and Force said, in his raspy voice, “Want a ride?”
I’d been in the sport for a lot of years by then, and Force knew me by sight. He was always friendly, but I guarantee he didn’t know my name. He didn’t know half his crew guys’ names! I said I’d love a ride and hopped on.
Now picture this. As the driver, Force’s knees and legs are protected by the front cowling. His feet are on the floorboard. If you sit on the back, you’re right over the rear tire, and if you put you feet on the pegs your knees have no option other than sticking almost straight out. That was fine until we turned the corner onto the staging lanes.
To Force, if there’s anything close to enough room for the scooter to shoot any gap, no matter how many millions of dollars worth of race cars are within inches, he wouldn’t hesitate. I’m sure he never thought of his 6-foot-1 rider on the back. The first two Top Fuel cars we sped between missed my knees by about a hundredth of an inch. When we zig-zagged between two Funny Cars, I figured I had no choice but to take my feet off the pegs and try to straighten my legs as much as possible. I still got nicked by the rear wheel-well on one of the cars.
Basically, I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. I felt a few other scrapes and maybe some other close calls, and then we skidded to a halt. We were right next to Wilk’s car and the whole crew was standing there. Staring at us.
When I hopped off, said thanks, and patted Force on the shoulder, every one of them looked like they’d seen Elvis. “Force gave you ride? Did you have to ask him? What the hell…”
The PR guy not too many crew guys knew yet was already moved up the respect ladder about eight rungs. Elon is right. If you ride with Force, you’re somebody. You just have to hope you survive.
I lived to tell about it.
And hey… As always, show Elon the love and appreciation for what he’s doing for me here but clicking on the “Like” button at the bottom. His musings have allowed me to ramp up the book writing enormously. I’m cranking, and couldn’t be doing that without him.
Merry Christmas to all.