READING, Pa. - When crew members pop the outer shell of a race car over their driver for a National Hot Rod Association Funny Car race, they call it "closing the coffin." And inside the dragster, indeed, is a world beyond what most of us know.
It is a world that passes by in 3.2 seconds at 329 mph. And even John Force, who is positioned to win his 13th NHRA Funny Car title, says life's a blur when he hits the gas.
"It's better than sex," Force said as he waited for a qualifying run at last week's Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, which were eventually rained out. "It's an adrenaline rush. It's like a runaway freight train.
"When you leave the starting line, you don't see anything for 100 feet. Oh, drivers A and B say, `I saw my mother in the stands.' Yeah, right. They're lying. We joke we drive between the flames at night. At nighttime, you don't have a clue where you are. But I'm at my best at night. I know the grooves. That's experience. I could do this blindfolded."
In Force's world, the so-called coffin is his office and the place he calls home more often than not. When his children were little and their mom would yell, "Dad's home," the entire family would run to the living room.
"We thought that meant he was on ESPN," said Force's daughter, Ashley, 21, a rookie in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. "He definitely doesn't have a normal family life, but it has always been fun."
The driver is always in.
"This is what I do," said Force, when asked what he does to relax. "This is all I do. The problem is you have no life. This is all I know. I take the trophies home and set them down and then go on to win the next one."
He sounds a little sad as he talks about the traditional family life he missed, but the work he has produced in the tight confines of his Funny Car has been sublime. Twelve championships so far, and if nothing out of the ordinary happens over the final five races, beginning this weekend at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals in Dallas, he'll win No. 13 in his Ford Mustang.
Just think about that. Thirteen championships. In auto racing, it is unmatched. In NASCAR's Cup racing, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt each earned seven. Michael Schumacher, the great Formula One driver, has seven.
At 55, Force seems a unique creation. He became a grandfather for the first time this month, but is still producing personal-best marks, including a run this season of 329.50 mph. And he is in the first year of a five-year contract with his sponsors that would keep him on the racetrack until he's 60.
"It's not like other sports," he said. "If I raced in the Nextel Cup Series, I'd have to take rest stops. But in my business, I only have to concentrate four or five seconds at a time. Even I can do that. One day, my eyesight and reaction time will go, but, until then, I have no plans to retire."
His daughter is perhaps the only competitor who wants to hear that; she hopes to race against her dad one day. "I'd really hate to miss that," Ashley said.
Easier said than done
"Everyone says they're going to beat him," said Gary Scelzi, a three-time Top Fuel champion who moved to Funny Cars last year to take on Force and is second in the points chase, 206 points behind. "But no one has. We're currently second, and we still think we have a shot, but ... "
Even last year, when Force didn't win the title for the first time in 10 years, his team won it with Tony Pedregon, who drove Force's second entry.
"Yeah, so Force really won that one, too," said Whit Bazemore, who had just spent several minutes being rudely harassed by Force fans.
Bazemore, 41, is like many drivers on the circuit, unfortunate to have come along at the same time as Force. In Bazemore's case, he had yet to run his first full season when Force won his first title in 1990.
Now, 14 years later, Force is still the man to beat.
"Some people get angry and frustrated and don't like John because, well, he's basically ruined their careers," Scelzi said. "But I don't think there is anyone out there who can look John in the eye and say he's done them wrong. He doesn't cheat and he doesn't wreck you."
Bazemore said much the same. Though he and Force have had disagreements, there is no denying the respect Bazemore feels for Force. There is also no denying the frustration that has come with the territory.
"Whatever happened to winning races?" said Bazemore, who has finished second in the points race two of the past four years. "There is so much emphasis on winning championships people look at winning races as if you've failed. I do win races. Championships are reserved for the very elite."
And Force, whose 113 wins are second only to Richard Petty in all major motor sports, is the elite.
Everyone knows it. Even Force, who remains surprisingly humble. He said his success is based on communications, motivational skills and a talented crew that includes crew chief Austin Coil, who Force said "taught me how to win."