NHRA legend explains why he's paying tribute to Jeff Gordon

If you're a sports reporter, the single easiest job you'll ever have is to walk up to 16-time NHRA champion John Force, say hello and turn your tape recorder on.

If afterward you don't have enough information for three or four stories, get out of the business. Yeah, Force is a talker, but a damned good one.

This weekend, Force and the rest of the NHRA racers are at zMax Dragway across from Charlotte Motor Speedway for the NHRA Carolina Nationals, the first race in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. There, Force is running a Jeff Gordon tribute paint scheme that frankly is pretty amazing.

Following are excerpts from what Force had to say at zMax Dragway and what Gordon had to say about Force from Chicagoland Speedway where all three NASCAR Touring Series are running this weekend.

How did the Jeff Gordon tribute car come about?

"Well I've known Jeff (Gordon) since he was a young kid. I met him when he was 16, 17 years old and he still looks 16 or 17. ... I was actually out at a race. I'm not trying to say we are not close buddies, we don't hang out. ... When I go to NASCAR races and that is about what I know. You can love somebody and you can respect somebody and you don't have to be their friend. I mean I guess we are friends. We are racers in that deal. He is on his schedule and does what he does and I do what I do.

"This was, to me, more of one legend to another to say, 'Man, thank you. Thank you for what you've done to our sport.' If you haven't seen him he has been coming (to zMax) the last two or three years, maybe longer. He always shows up here on Sunday, dressed in a little hat and a shirt, you wouldn't know it was Jeff Gordon. He's got his two kids with him and he's up and down ... loves this place."

Why Charlotte?

"I was out at Fontana with Auto Club and Chevrolet and Peak and everybody meeting all the drivers and I saw these signs in the infield that said 'Thanks, Jeff'. It was that simple. He really is going to retire. ... That really was what it was all about. Just to say thank you. ... To take a moment for the fans that are here ... We are in NASCAR country, guys. This would be the place to unveil it, the start of the (Chase) for him and the Countdown for me. That really is my reason."

Did you take it personally when Jeff said your car was always on fire?

"Nah, he's really a good guy. ... You get to know these guys, but Jeff was a guy, all of them different animals, (Darrell) Waltrip, Rusty (Wallace), (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.) different people, but Jeff was just some young kid with a dream that could drive a racecar.

"I have never heard him ever raise his voice. Maybe he does get mad and raise his voice, but I never heard him raise his voice even when they bumped him out of a race. He would just say, 'Well, that guy is kind of impolite' or something. I've never seen him mad. I've seen Earnhardt (Sr.) mad; I've seen them all mad; never him. He is just the same guy and then to watch him out here (zMax) with his kids watching (and saying), 'There is John Force.' I'm sitting in my car last year and he is going, 'There is John Force.' His daughter looking like, 'God, he is so old they let him drive?' ... I made that up, but she was probably thinking it. (Jeff is) just an amazing guy and it was just a way to say thank you from NHRA, from all the fans that cross over NASCAR, IndyCar, and drag racing. Our teams, our families, the race team guys are coming up to me (and saying), 'Awesome, Force!' They know Jeff, they run into him; he is really a good guy."

What would it mean for someone in NASCAR to run a tribute to you on their car?

"Well, that isn't why I did it, but they are going to have to wait a long time. I ain't going anywhere. I'm going to be stubborn; I'm going to fight this thing out. I still love what I do. I can still drive a racecar. I keep coming up with good ideas. I love that, but I don't want to put that out there. They've got races to run, sponsors to carry. If somebody says something nice about me along the way, I'd take it ... And (Gordon) already did."

Did you know he was going to dominate like he has?

"You don't think about none of that ... We had a picture with the fans today. It was unbelievable. There were hundreds of them all around that car. They just love Jeff Gordon. It's kind of cool to cross over, put a little NASCAR out here in NHRA drag racing here at Charlotte. He likes it. Jeff, he is not like me. He's not a big old bull-jive talker, but he said thank you. But he made a deal on TV last night. He was asked, 'What do you think about John Force doing the tribute to you?' The first thing his hand went was like this (makes a motion) meaning they go straight. The first motion he made you can see it. But it's kind of cool. So if I don't catch it on fire and I can win a race, I can do him tribute -- and if not I'll sneak out of dodge."

And from Gordon:

How surprised were you that Force is doing this?

"I was shocked. That blew me away! I have always been a huge fan of John Force, and I went out to that track (ZMax Dragway at Charlotte Motor Speedway). Took my kids out there to watch the drag races. I was just so impressed with what they do, and the power in those cars.

"... It is one thing to see a track or a fan or somebody here within this garage area do something to pay tribute. But when it starts going outside of NASCAR and our sport, that certainly humbles you and make you extremely appreciative of not only what I have done, but people that recognize it -- specially when it is someone like John Force."

Are you going to get the body, and if so, where would you put it?

"First I want to tell John I only want the flames to be on the paint, because I've seen him go up in a big ball of flames before this. So let's just hope it stays on the body with the paint. I don't know anything more than that. I am just so appreciative of him doing that. Just seeing it on the track is an honor."