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Yorba Linda family's drag racing dynasty gears up for 50th Winternationals

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The National Hot Rod Association kicks off the drag racing year Thursday with the 50th Winternationals in Pomona. In the Funny Car division, there’s a family dynasty. John Force Racing has won 16 championships in the last 20 seasons.

Drag racing might have powered itself on the drive and charisma of guys like 60-year-old John Force. He says it took him 15 years to win a drag race, but Force now has 126 victories as a Funny Car driver.

"Besides trying to get that 8,000 horsepower 330 mile-an-hour race car down a quarter mile in 4 seconds," Force explains in his signature race-track shout. "It’s all about that 'Christmas tree,' too, reacting trying to beat that other driver off the line."

Just four seconds of pure acceleration. The "Christmas tree" is the post of multicolored lights the two racers watch to know when to put the pedal to the metal. If John Force is the legend, son-in-law Robert Hight is the new kid on the strip. He won his first Funny Car title last year.

"To see cars like the top fuel dragsters or the Funny Cars like we drive accelerate from zero to 100 in less than a second and you know, go over 300 miles an hour or upwards of 310 (mph) in 1,000 feet, " says Hight. "You can feel the ground shake. It is so loud"

Ashley Force Hood is one of John Force’s four daughters and the first woman to race in a Funny Car final. She insists that fans flock to drag races for more than speed and noise.

"Every ticket, it’s a pit pass so they can go down into the pits, they can meet the drivers, get autographs," she says. "They can stand five feet behind an 8,000 horsepower race car that’s warming up. If you choose to not go up into the stands and you want to stay in the pits, that’s entertainment on its own because you can watch a team pull back into the pit, completely tear apart the car, work on all the parts and pieces, put it all back together and then pull up to make a run."

Since drag racing is a touring sport, Ashley Force Hood grew up following her dad from race to race. Now she happily competes against him in the same category.

"He beats me sometimes, and I beat him."

Ashley’s older sister Adria is the money manager of John Force Racing, Inc. And she’s married to Robert Hight – Ashley’s racing rival. Ashley and Robert battled one another for the championship last year, which made family gatherings interesting.

"Thanksgiving was a little tough," joked the patriarch John Force.

"I wish we’d had four turkeys stacked up, because Ashley was looking at Robert. Robert was looking at Ashley, because he had beaten her. But at the end of the day, we’re still a family. They fought heads up, and he won. They beat a lot of competition."

The victory was the completion of a comeback for John Force Racing, which had suffered from the dangers of the sport. In March of 2007, a test drive crash killed team member Eric Medlen. Six months later, John Force was in a crash that nearly ended his career. He recovered, but daughter Ashley says it was time to focus on safety.

"You can’t just jump back in these cars and put those things to the side," she said, recalling the accidents. "Obviously, they are dangerous and we know that, but we also knew we could make it better."

Robert Hight says the safety improvements – better helmets, tougher seatbelts, a new chassis – did not reduce the team’s ability to compete. He figures the cars are now 7 times stronger than the ones Medlen and his father-in-law were driving at the time of their crashes.

"The very first race we went to (with the new safety enhancements) was the 2008 Winternationals and I won that race with this brand new car that we just thrashed all winter long to get."

John Force grew up in Bell Gardens and started his business 35 years ago, back when the only races he could afford to take his car to were at Pomona. He now employs more than 70 people in Yorba Linda and Indiana. Not bad for a guy who's first home was a small trailer home.

"You kinda set on the toilet and pull the chain, and take a shower at the same time," he remembers. "I grew up with five brothers and sisters, and when you wake up every morning with your brother’s toe up your nose, you'd better be about family, or you can’t get along."

This weekend’s Winternationals will test the Force family. John – once the sport’s greatest funny car driver – was winless last year, while daughter Ashley and Robert Hight are expected to compete again for the championship. Still, a win for one Force is a win for the whole family.