I started 40 years ago; and racing has changed. When you look at the engine program, it’s evolved. NHRA is putting rules and restrictions on it, but we’re all about speed and e.t. They don’t want us to go any faster because we’re out-running these racetracks—safety and liability are a couple of big reasons why. But you can never stop a drag racer. Like I said, we’re about speed and e.t., and these crew chiefs will find a way.
Look at multi-stage clutches. That’s a big change. We were involved in a lot of that, headed by Austin Coil in the early days. Guys like him and Ron Armstrong and so many others helped evolve it. And even Jimmy Prock with the headers. He changed that program, and it was unbelievable; everybody followed. I assume it was about thrust. If I were a mechanic I’d be doing that myself. It made these cars faster.
The computer age changed things drastically. I’m sure they thought us drivers couldn’t think that fast in 4 seconds—and now it’s 3 seconds—so the computers gave the crew chiefs data to learn from. So much of that has evolved, and now it’s become an e.t. game like Pro Stock, and everybody is running basically the same. Now, it’s driver reaction time, it’s a lot of other stuff, too. You have to fit the driver in the cockpit, make the throttle right, and drivers have to train. I train regularly to build my legs and my body to be stronger—something I never did back in the early days.
Even looking at the chassis, a lot has changed. It wasn’t until Eric Medlen’s crash in 2007 that we realized that my show-car chassis that were 30 years old were identical to the new cars, yet we were running 100-mph faster and 2-seconds quicker. It was like, “God, we never changed the chassis!”
The evolution of safety started, too. It wasn’t just John Force Racing or John Medlen or Austin Coil or Bernie Fedderly or Jimmy Prock or Mike Neff. It was the evolution of NHRA rules, the PRO organization, and everybody in racing wanted to build a better race car. Maybe other than a little bow in the chassis to help them plant the tires, the chassis didn’t change much—but the driver’s compartment did, for protection. That included carbon fiber around the drivers, and to get protection about their feet, just like in an IndyCar.
Aerodynamics is another area that has advanced. My first Funny Car was a Chevrolet Vega, and I went to Australia with it in 1974. Talk about a handful. Aerodynamics in today’s Camaro compared to that car is night and day.
I’m excited to be back with Chevrolet. I won championships with them, with Oldsmobile, and with Pontiac, so it’s like I’ve come back home. The first car I ever owned was a 1954 Chevy four-door with a three-speed on the column. I shaved the back door handles off to try and prove it was a two-door.
But … look at what Chevrolet does now. They have engineers who work with us here at John Force Racing in Brownsburg (Indiana) and in Yorba Linda (California). The new Camaro body is done and we’re running it, and they’re still making changes in order to make it even better. That’s the kind of support that keeps us on top.
The aerodynamics are great, and we’ve proved that with the big speeds and e.t.’s, but we’ve got to get better and try to win championships. The strength of the body is critical, too. That’s another thing they’re continually working on as well.
Coming from the Mustang and moving on to the Camaro was a big change. Out of the box, my first weekend in the car I put it in the wall in Topeka. It was me thinking I could walk on water and I could show everyone this Chevrolet could run low e.t., and when it rattled I pedaled it and put it right in the wall. But it came right back, and we won four races and were in the hunt for the championship.
The Mustang was very boxy. It had a small windshield, and all of a sudden with the Camaro I have this panoramic view. The view is so good; I struggled with it because I was looking at too many places. They had to put a scope out there, a St. Christopher on the injector. “Look that way, stupid.” But I finally figured it out, and now we’re doing well with it.
There are a lot of good cars out there, but we’ll be in contention this year, putting three Funny Cars after that title. We have good financial backing from PEAK, Advance Auto Parts, Monster Energy, and Auto Club of Southern California.
We’re real lucky. Life’s good.
John Force is a 16-time NHRA Funny Car World Champion, owner of John Force Racing, and driver of the PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil 2017 Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car.