Ryan Braun

After Braun and Hernandez debacles, more fans should view racers as role models

1 Comment

The notion of professional athlete as role model is a romantic one, born to children at the moment they watch their first home run, first touchdown, first three-point buzzer beater or first slapshot goal.

The heroes are those they see as infallible, who bring joy by their efforts on the battlefield. There is no notion, initially, of these athletes as thugs, criminals, or cheaters.

And then you have the last month in sports, where two of the best at their respective disciplines are going away for a while because they screwed up.

Ryan Braun cheated, which isn’t new and doesn’t particularly sting. But he did lie, he did throw a guy under the bus, and he did dupe an entire team and entire city – my hometown of Milwaukee – into believing he was the golden boy who could save baseball in Beertown. Instead, we all feel like drunks who had too much in the moment, enjoying his efforts on the field but now have awoke with a hangover the size of Bernie Brewer’s head.

Meanwhile Aaron Hernandez has been charged with first-degree murder. He starred on the field for the New England Patriots for three years, and was a key part of a generation of new tight ends who were changing the NFL in a way it hasn’t been given the increased passing attacks. Now, the aftermath and fallout has turned his name and his image completely toxic.

It’s with these two recent examples – the latest in the long line of stick-and-ball athletes who find a way to throw it away – that I wish more sports fans would look to racing drivers as their professional role models.

From an access standpoint, racing drivers in North America are far more reachable to the common fan than any in the four major sports. Think for a minute that you, as a fan, have the opportunity to walk the grid of the Indianapolis 500 – the single largest one-day sporting event – mere hours before the 33 drivers take the green flag. And throughout the month of May, or at any IZOD IndyCar Series event, you can brush shoulders with them at any moment in the paddock.

From a professional obligation standpoint, racing drivers have to be clean. Drivers so infrequently get arrested, have DUIs, or do lascivious acts away from their discipline that when you do, it’s a shock to the system. As for their jobs, they are racing inches apart from each other at 200 mph for two to three hours. It takes trust in the entirety of the field that they are all clean, not performance enhancing, to be able to make races safe, clean and enjoyable for the fans.

Now, granted, there is plenty of cheating that occurs in racing. But it’s not inherent in the drivers; it’s more performed by the crews. There are two old adages in racing: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” and also, “It’s our job to cheat, and it’s their job to catch us.”

In a homogenized and increased spec-car era of racing that permeates most levels of motorsports, the window for innovation is so small that performance gains have to be pursued in such tight areas. In NASCAR, it’s splitters and spoilers. In IndyCar, it’s dampers. In Formula One, it’s about finding aero tricks given the tight regulations. Go mere millimeters outside the regulations, and it’s penalties out the wazoo for you.

So in that respect, racing does have its link to stick-and-ball sports in that someone, somewhere is always trying to create a performance advantage. And sanctioning bodies make sure to crack down where possible.

But in terms of the participants themselves, most drivers have such an edge on most stick-and-ball sport athletes, it’s not even funny. Drivers take the time to appreciate their fans, via autograph sessions, fan forums, random moments and conversations and now, engaging via social media. They have to be clean to do their jobs accurately and safely.

They are still real people beyond the stereotype of being a standard, blasé corporate mouthpiece for whatever sponsor it is that supports them.

They are definitely greater role models for kids to look up to.

2016 MotoGP calendar finalized by FIM, Dorna

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 25:  The MotoGP riders start from the grid during the MotoGP race during the MotoGP Of Malaysia at Sepang Circuit on October 25, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

The calendar for the 2016 MotoGP season has been finalized by the FIM and Dorna ahead of the first race of the year in Qatar next month.

The last provisional schedule issued in November featured 18 races with just one chop-and-change as the Indianapolis Grand Prix was dropped to make way for an event in Austria.

This calendar has been given the green light by governing body FIM and commercial rights holder Dorna, finalizing the dates for the coming season.

Officials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came to a mutual agreement with Dorna to terminate its contract for the MotoGP race early following the last race in August.

As a result, the only American round on the MotoGP calendar is the race at the Circuit of The Americas in April.

2016 MotoGP season calendar

1. Qatar – March 20
2. Argentina – April 3
3. USA – April 10
4. Spain – April 24
5. France – May 8
6. Italy – May 22
7. Catalunya – June 5
8. Dutch TT – June 26
9. Germany – July 17
10. Austria – August 14
11. Czech Republic – August 21
12. Great Britain – September 4
13. San Marino – September 11
14. Aragon – September 25
15. Japan – October 16
16. Australia – October 23
17. Malaysia – October 30
18. Valencia – November 13

NHRA: After rough 2015, Courtney Force hopes the force is back with her in 2016

Courtney Force (Getty Images)
Leave a comment

It would be great to borrow a line from Star Wars and to tell NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force, “May the Force be with you.”

Unfortunately for the youngest daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, the force wasn’t even close to being with her in 2015.

In 2014, Courtney was one of the most successful drivers in Funny Car. She won a career-high four wins (out of a career total of seven wins), became the winningest female in Funny Car history, and earned the 100th win by a female driver in NHRA history.

It was a dream season as Force finished a career-best fourth in the standings.

But as good as everything went in 2014, it was the complete opposite in 2015. She failed to win a race, never could mount any type of consistency, and failed to reach the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in her career.

Force ultimately finished a career-worst 11th in the final Funny Car standings.

Even worse, in 24 races, she was eliminated in the first round an unheard of 15 times.

Courtney Force in action (Richard Shute/Auto Imagery)
Courtney Force in action (Richard Shute/Auto Imagery)

But heading into this weekend’s season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., there’s only one direction for Force to go, and that’s up.

“Last year was definitely tough,” Force told NBCSports.com. “There’s really nothing I can point fingers at, but I definitely think it’s going to make us feel a little bit better going into this year. We’re staying positive.”

Force started off positive in Friday’s first day of qualifying, as teammate Robert Hight had the quickest run at 3.942 seconds (at 322.19 mph), while Courtney Force was second-quickest at 3.945 seconds.

 

Much like her famous father, there was a significant amount of change that occurred for the overall John Force Racing operation in 2015.

There was a manufacturer change (to Chevrolet after nearly 20 years with Ford), a primary sponsor change (to Peak AntiFreeze and Lubricants after more than 30 years with Castrol) and just a whole different mojo than she and everyone in John Force Racing had never experienced.

Not so much in 2016, Courtney Force said.

“I feel like the pressure’s off a little bit for all our teams right now,” said Force, a big fan-favorite in the NHRA world. “With Chevy coming on board, Monster, Peak Antifreeze and Lucas (Oil) as sponsors, it was huge for us.

“To have them all really behind us definitely kind of puts us back to having comfort and knowing that we have support out here.”

Now in her fifth full season in the NHRA Funny Car ranks, as well as with primary sponsor Traxxas, Force is ready to forget about 2015 and look forward to a big leap forward in 2016.

“We definitely had a little bit of a rough year last year, but there were a few things we were trying out with the car and I think it just took us a little longer to figure it all out,” she said.

Perhaps the most significant change for Force this season is having two new co-crew chiefs: Dan Hood (husband of sister and former racer Ashley Force Hood) and Ronnie Thompson, who came over from sister Brittany Force’s Top Fuel team.

“I think the two of them are going to work well together and I’m excited,” Courtney Force told MotorSportsTalk. “We brought in a couple of other new people and switched a few positions.

“We’re definitely in our routine again, and the test at Phoenix (last weekend) definitely helped. We’re really just keeping a positive attitude going into this year.”

Father John Force expects big things this season from both Courtney and Brittany.

“I want this to be a big year for my girls,” Force told MST. “I want both Courtney and Brittany to have a big year.”

While that may put extra pressure on someone, knowing it’s your father who has high expectations, Courtney looks at it a bit differently.

“I think there’s always a little bit of pressure because he is my dad, but not really so much from him, maybe just more on myself,” she said. “I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself since I started racing. I push myself hard out here because I really love being in these cars and this opportunity, I’m just trying to take full advantage of it and really show these sponsors what we’re capable of.

“After a rough year like we had last year, I’m ready to get these things turned around and get back to how we used to be. We’ve won a lot of races, we know how to win and having the support of my dad, no, he doesn’t put that pressure on me, which is nice. I’m very lucky that I get to stay on as a driver for his team. I put pressure on myself more than anything.”

If there was one key to last year’s dismal season, it was missing the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, a six-race playoff that begins after the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Heading to Indy, Courtney was still within striking distance of making the Chase, but things didn’t work out the way she hoped they would.

“It was hard, for sure, every week, we went out there,” she said. “At the start of the season, we were like, ‘No, we didn’t have it this weekend, but we’ve always got next weekend.’ The time window to get in there started to get smaller and further away.

“(Not making the Countdown) was definitely a shock. We had Indy to try to make some magic happen and it was out of our hands. We couldn’t do much about it. We went out and that was just the way it was going to be.

“We just kind of had to take it, learn from it and move on. It was definitely a bummer. Since my rookie year, I’ve been in the top 10 every year. But I think it will only make us stronger for this year, which is probably the most important thing that came out of it.”

But now Indy and the entire 2015 season is and will remain in Force’s rearview mirror. It’s full speed ahead in 2016, starting with this weekend’s 56th annual edition of the Winternationals.

“I can’t wait to get back in the swing of things at the start of the season, at my home track in Pomona,” Force said. “I think 2016 will be a great year for our Traxxas Chevy Camaro team and we are ready to make it our year.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Nobuharu Matsushita to remain in GP2 with ART Grand Prix

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Nobuharu Matsushita (JPN, ART Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _MG_4660
© GP2 Series
Leave a comment

Nobuharu Matsushita will remain in the GP2 Series for the 2016 season after agreeing a new deal with defending champions ART Grand Prix.

Matsushita made his GP2 debut in 2015 with ART, racing alongside Stoffel Vandoorne who ultimately won the drivers’ title in record-breaking fashion.

Matsushita finished ninth in the final drivers’ standings with one race win to his name, and is now gunning to battle for the championship in his second year with ART.

“I would like to thank Honda and ART Grand Prix for giving me this opportunity to continue racing in GP2 Series,” Matsushita said.

“ART Grand Prix won the championships last year, and I am so honored to be part of such an amazing team again. As a member of HFDP, Honda Formula Dream Project, aiming to be the top-world-class driver, I will give my best to win the drivers and the team championship in my second GP2 season.”

Matsushita will race alongside Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin at ART in 2016, with the Russian driver moving from Rapax for his sophomore year in the series.

“I am truly delighted to start our third year of partnership together with Honda with this reinforcement of our collaboration,” ART team boss Sebastien Philippe said.

“Nobuharu will partner Sergey Sirotkin in the GP2 Series. He had an incredible year in 2015 when he did not know Europe or the championship, the team and the car, but nevertheless he secured one win, several podiums and made massive improvements all year long.

“As a driver and on a personal level, we have no doubt at all that he has all the assets needed to fight for the title in 2016.”

NHRA: Lots of change heading into this weekend’s season-opening Winternationals

nhra logo
2 Comments

Last season, the National Hot Rod Association adopted a “#BaptismByNitro” theme to attract new fans and attention to the sport.

But as it kicks off the new season with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California,  if the NHRA were to come up with a new theme song for 2016, it’d likely be the old Scorpions ballad “Winds Of Change.”

Change – and positive change at that – seems to be all around in the wind for the NHRA, including:

* Peter Clifford begins his first full season as NHRA president (he replaced the retired Tom Compton last June). Clifford has made a number of dynamic hires in an effort to improve the sanctioning body’s reach and attractiveness to fans.

* The NHRA has embarked upon one of its most ambitious marketing and communications initiatives ever to increase fan attention and attendance at events, including the hiring of veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount late last season as new vice president of communications.

* Another significant hire is Emmy award-winning Ken Adelson as vice president of broadcasting and digital content to supercharge the NHRA’s TV and digital sides.

* Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 has become the official TV partner of the sport, with plans to televise live the majority of the 24 races this season, including expected three-hour presentations of final eliminations on Sundays. In addition, former Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon embarks upon a new career as a NHRA TV analyst.

* New rules in Pro Stock, including the long-awaited implementation of electronic fuel injection and the removal of long-standing monster hood scoops, should inject life into a class that had grown somewhat stagnant to fans in recent years.

* After becoming the first back-to-back female champion in any NHRA pro categories, Pro Stock queen Erica Enders goes for three straight titles this season.

* Fan favorite and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlan returns to the sport on a full-time basis after racing part-time last season.

* After enduring what he called his “worst season in 25 years” in 2015, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force is bound and determined to earn title No. 17 in 2016. The ageless Force (66 years old) told MotorSportsTalk that he feels as invigorated as he’s ever been and looks forward to significantly improve from last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish.

* In addition, Force will have long-time crew chief Austin Coil “helping out” in an unofficial capacity for Force’s Funny Car, as well as those of son-in-law and John Force Racing team president Robert Hight and Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney.

* John Force Racing also scored another coup in the offseason by hiring 11-time Top Fuel champion team owner/crew chief Alan Johnson as a consultant to oversee the Top Fuel efforts of driver Brittany Force. Judging by some of the runs Force had during last weekend’s preseason testing for nitro cars at Phoenix, not only does she seem likely to earn her first career win, she also is an early possible contender for the championship.

* Defending pro class champions are Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

And those changes are just for starters. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the NHRA is poised for increased growth and notoriety in 2016.

While the sanctioning body still has not capitulated to what many fans want – the return of full quarter-mile drag strip racing for Top Fuel and Funny Car competition (the standard remains 1,000 feet for 2016) – the changes that have already occurred for this season definitely hold a lot of promise.

Yes, the winds of change are swirling within the NHRA.

And if Clifford and the rest of the sanctioning body officials have their way and many of the changes prove successful, by season’s end the NHRA may be signing another Scorpions song that deals with wind: “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski