Retirement leaves drag strip theatrics in the dust
By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
LUTZ -- He wasn't the fastest driver on the National Hot Rod Association tour, but Louis Force knew how to please the crowd.
He set himself on fire. He held a rope hooked to a speeding dragster that pulled him on a steel plate. He strapped himself to the outside of race cars going up to 190 mph with no helmet.
"I was the clown," Force said. "I'm the guy who filled up the down time when the races stopped, just so people wouldn't ask for their money back."
When Force, now 58, was not doing exhibition acts, he raced Funny Cars on the NHRA circuit, earning a world record and the nickname "Diesel Louie."
Three years ago, he retired from life in the fast lane and moved to Lutz with his wife, Beth, 30. They live on 3 acres across from the Oscar Cooler Youth Sports Complex on Lutz Lake Fern Road.
"Back then, I was young and stupid," he said.
Funny Cars are factory reproductions of cars manufactured by American automakers. They look like regular cars. But underneath the hood is a 6,000-horsepower fire dragon that runs up to 300 mph down a quarter-mile strip.
Not all of Force's drag strip theatrics were stunts. Sometimes the cars he drove would blow up and bathe him in hot engine oil.
In his 45-year racing career, Force said he broke nearly every bone in his body. He lost the index finger on his right hand, lost several teeth and most of the hair on his body, including his eye brows.
But he made a name for himself by building and racing the world's fastest dieselsemitrailer truck. Force drove it 188 mph with its front wheels in the air.
"He did exhibitions with his truck with what we call a wheel-stander," said Phil Burgess, editorial director for NHRA Publications in Glendora, Calif. "He did an entire quarter mile on rear tires."
That truck is now on display at a showroom in Yorba Linda, Calif., which is owned by his younger brother John Force, the reigning 11-time world champion AA-Funny Car racer.
Force said he and his brother John were a team for years. He built the semitrailer truck because he wanted to do something different. Force said there are only about 10 semitractor Funny Cars in existence.
"I knew I didn't have the money to run with the big dogs," he said. "So I wanted to do something so unique, the public could not ignore me."
Although he is retired from the pro tour, Force still races a diesel tractor in Bradenton and in Gainesville at NHRA sanctioned tracks. He also drives a semitrailer for a chemical company, running in-state trips that allow him to come home every night.
At home, he tinkers in his garage with four drag cars that he is building.
Unlike Funny Cars, these can legally be driven on the streets: a 1955 Chevy Nomad Wagon, a 1987 Chevrolet Astro van, a 1961 Ford Econo Line van, and a 1966 Chevy Nova.
"I tried everything over the years," he said. "I've had my lungs punctured, all my ribs broken, both arms and both legs.
"For what it was worth, when the entire following of drag racing was about 400 people and my fan base was about 60, I was a 15-year-old drag racing hero."
- Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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