John Harold Force carries his father’s name in the middle of his full name. However, the gifting of the name pales in comparison to the life’s lessons the 68-year old, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion received from Harold Louis Force, a man with deep French roots.
“Good man. I always looked up to him,” said Force without hesitation. “He was a role model that I followed, even though he come from the old school. Truck driver, hard worker, street fighter.”
There were three traits a Force child must retain. They were all equally important; Force pointed out. They must be a hard worker, respectful of elders and be able to fight if challenged.
“I can remember him sending me outside to get beat up [by a neighborhood kid] and I was crying, ‘I don’t want to go out there, he’s going to beat me up again,” Force recalled. “When I was little, you get out there and you take that whipping. Never let them think they can ever close you down. I went back out in the street, and the guy beat me up again.”
Force was in the third grade, and while he lost more than he won, Harold demanded his youngest son never run away.
Little did Harold know his youngest of four children would inevitably walk into the fight of his life as a teenager when he took up drag racing with no money, and all kinds of ambition.
“He was not a big supporter of racing until later in my career,” Force admitted. “Nobody will be Don Prudhomme or Garlits; it just don’t happen, he would say.
“And he was, ‘Work and feed your children.’”
One thing about Harold Force, he was a penny pincher because he had to be.
One of Force’s favorite stories is the legendary Christmas story where his siblings pooled their allowance to buy him a coveted toy log truck, just like his dad drove in the forests of central California.
Force cannot forget the moment when he accompanied his father to the river to fish for Christmas dinner because there was no money for a turkey or ham.
Armed with a homemade fishing pole, Harold landed a salmon, ‘or some kind of big fish,’ as Force described it. No sooner than the elation of landing the family’s Christmas meal broke, along came a game warden asking for his fishing license.
“Dad had no fishing license,” Force said. “He then told the warden he didn’t have one and offered him the fish because he knew he was in the wrong.
“The most honest man I ever knew.”
The game warden let the transgression slide for Harold, who only had $85 to feed a family of six for the winter when the logging industry shut down.
Harold might have been critical of drag racing, but nothing would stop him from supporting his son in chasing what seemed to be a pipe dream.
“I know that he’d always complain about money, and how you can’t waste it, yet he’d slip me a check out one door of the trailer, and Mom would slip me a check out the other,” Force said.
Harold wanted a better life for his children, even if it meant having to drive dangerous trucks or make a little money on the side doing amateur fights. And if there was a man, who was up to the challenge, it was Harold, who as Force puts it, had a physique like Matt Hagan.
“He never wanted to be a professional fighter, just did it for fun,” Force said. “He was all muscle. I used to hang on his arms when he would flex them like that and he just had a V chest and unbelievable build. And that was from working his whole life. And like he drove them big off highway trucks. There were truckers that got in those that couldn’t even steer them, then after a day of steering them, your arms were just numb. He was a man’s man.”
Harold knew the real meaning of tough love and believed it was the best medicine for his children.
“He was hardcore, old world, and you worked, a lady was a lady, you treat her with respect, and if I ever had a girlfriend that ever complained about me, he took me outside and ‘We’re going to talk about this,’” Force said. “And if I didn’t have the right answers, I got beat up by him. I can look back and say that was he mean; he was meaner than hell. Like being in a room with a rattlesnake. He bloodied my nose a few times and hugged me to his chest when I was bleeding, that’s the way he was.”
Holding me to his chest he would say, “Now did you learn, son?
“I had blood running down his shirt, and blood running down my face.”
Force remembered the one time he borrowed his mother’s Buick Wildcat when he lied about his own car running out of gas, but word got back to Louis, he’d been racing down at Lion’s Drag Strip.
“I heard the chainsaw when I got home, and he cut my surfboard I made in high school in half to teach me a lesson,” Force said with a smile, all the while shaking his head.
Force also learned if he disrespected his elders, those actions came with dire consequences; consequences he said were intended not to harm him but to teach a lesson.
“The worst whipping I ever took from him was the time I told my mom she was stupid,” Force said. “He drug me by the hair out the door of the trailer, as she was yelling, crying, ‘Don’t, he didn’t mean it.’
“And he dragged me out there and beat me to a pulp, all the while saying, ‘You don’t talk to your mom like that.’
“I was just a dumb kid, you know. I was in like junior high. Big mistake.”
Force understands his descriptions could easily paint his father in a bad light but is adamant they were incredible life’s lessons albeit painful ones he needed to learn.
“I’m painting a bad picture, but I loved him to death. He’d walk out and he’d say, ‘OK, you’ve done wrong here, okay? Which do you want, the belt?.’ ‘I’ll take the belt, Dad.’
“’Or do you want a coat hanger?’ And some days you didn’t get a choice. I hear kids nowadays say, ‘Well my Dad did this,’ and they turn them into the cops.
“Well in this day and age, you’d have gone to jail for some of the stuff he did. But he was a good man. And that’s how you respected your parents.”
Those lessons, Force said, would toughen him up in those brutal, but formative years of his career. Many times he wanted to quit, and Harold encouraged him to fight through the pain.
Harold proved to be his son’s biggest fan.
Nothing could deny Harold from racing to the local store to purchase a newspaper to read about his son’s monumental victory in the 1987 Big Bud Shootout, a special-race-within-a-race which paid a whopping $25,000 to win.
“I remember I called home and they said that dad was in a motorcycle accident,” Force said. “I was stuck on the road, but I got on a plane, and I got a ticket, and I flew to California. I went and saw him in the hospital, he was beat up pretty good.
“He was so tired, it was early in the morning, but he was going to get the paper, and he didn’t really know how to ride a motorcycle. And he crashed, broke his shoulder blade, and it beat him up pretty good. Had a helmet on believe it or not.”
Harold died on April 13, 1988, at 86, having never had the opportunity to see his son win any of his 16 NHRA Funny Car Championships.
Not a day goes by that Force doesn’t think about him, especially on Father’s Day.
Given the opportunity for one more chance to see the man who he said taught him to be a man, Force’s eyes well up with tears at the notion.
“I’d hug him like I’ve never hugged before,” Force admitted. “I would say all those things that you taught to me growing up that I fought with you over day after day, I never understood why. I was just a dumb kid.
“I would say I never understood what you were trying to tell me, but I do now. Because there is nothing, not one thing that my dad taught me or whipped me for or whatever way he had of teaching me, there is nothing that he ever told me that wasn’t 100 percent the truth.
“Now that I’m older, that I’m raising children, I see it all. All those fights and arguments, there was not one thing you ever told me that wasn’t 100 percent the truth, and I didn’t listen. And now I’m seeing it all today with my own children, with my own grandchildren. They have to learn.
“I want to thank you for all those lessons. And I am the man today, good or bad, because of him.”
Bobby Bennett is the Publisher/Editor of CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus