(Photo courtesy:  TommyJohnsonJr.com)

Tommy Johnson Jr. back to fulltime NHRA drag racing after five-year layoff

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A familiar name on the NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car circuits is returning to the sport after a five-year absence from the full-time ranks, as Iowa native Tommy Johnson Jr. will compete the entire 2014 season for the Funny Car championship.

Johnson will drive the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T for Don Schumacher Racing, according to NHRA.com.

Johnson is one of only 15 drivers in NHRA history to have career wins in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks, spread across nine national event wins.

During a recent NHRA teleconference, Johnson admitted that as one year away from the sport turned into another and another, he feared he’d never get back behind the wheel fulltime.

Having last competed for an entire season in 2008, Johnson had all but given up hope after his absence reached five seasons last year.

“You wonder every day, especially the first year (2009),” Johnson said. “Okay, it was tough times economy wise. It’s hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car.

“It’s been five years since I ran fulltime in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein, so there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time, “What would you do if you didn’t drive race cars?” And that isn’t an option. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, and the will to get back here, you get tired of hearing no.

“But if you want to do something bad enough, you put your mind to it, and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that’s what I did. I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way, but it’s what I want to do, and my desire to do that paid off and the persistence. But every day I wondered, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this shot.'”

Johnson kept himself busy in recent years serving as a part-time test driver for DSR, as well as working in the race shop. And while gathering data from test runs is important for teams to build race setups upon, it was a shy substitute for the competition he thrived on in the NHRA drag racing world for nearly 20 years.

“When I went to work for Don (Schumacher) two or three years ago, he said, ‘Come to work for me. We’ll work on a deal and get you in the car.’ Maybe it didn’t happen as fast as we wanted it to, but it eventually happened, and I’ve got to thank him for the opportunity along with Terry Chandler (sister of Funny Car driver Johnny Gray and primary sponsor for Johnson’s car). She had a lot of say in who got to drive. I got to know her over the last few years as well there working at Don Schumacher Racing when Johnny was driving the car. Just a great lady. I just can’t thank them enough, both of them, for giving me the opportunity.”

Johnson is excited to shake off the rust and cobwebs and show that he hasn’t lost anything behind the wheel.

“I’ve managed to be able to stay in cars off and on throughout those five years,” he said. “It’s not like I got out of the car and haven’t been in one since, so that’s helped me a lot. Just to keep up to speed and the technology and some of the different things that evolve over the years in driving the cars.

“I think a couple races, we’ll be back in the swing of it. It came back pretty quick in testing. As soon as they dropped the body, I felt like they dropped the body in the ’09 season after the ’08 full year, so it came back naturally.”

That Johnson is resuming his fulltime career driving for arguably the best and biggest team in drag racing is an opportunity that rarely comes along. Sure, there’ll be pressure in driving for the best, but he’s ready for it.

“I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you’re in,” Johnson said. “But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races, and not only winning races, they’ve won championships here in the past few years.

“So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship, definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown (for the Championship), and to strive for that championship. I don’t know that there’s anymore added pressure, but it’s certainly a lot because it is a high-profile team, and that is the goal that I was shooting for. I’m going to get all the pressure I asked for.”

Making Johnson’s return all the more sweeter is he begins his comeback at this weekend’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. It was in 2005 that Johnson won that race, a feat he’d love to repeat as he begins his new comeback.

“In 2005, I was able to win the Pomona Winternationals, and my dad was there,” Johnson recalled. “It’s history, our sport has a lot of history. To be able to win one of the big ones like Winternationals, to me, it’s one of the big ones. It’s one that’s on the tour that every year you look forward to. To kick off the season with a win and you’re the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year.

“But to start the tour back full time with Don Schumacher Racing, driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals, it doesn’t get any bigger than that to me.”

Pigot confirmed for encore with Ed Carpenter Racing

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Spencer Pigot, driver of the #20 Samsung/Fuzzyâs Vodka/ECR Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, drives during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Spencer Pigot will begin his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with the same team he ended his 2016 year with, Ed Carpenter Racing.

The 23-year-old Floridian and past Indy Lights and Pro Mazda champion will have his second season with ECR, driving the team’s No. 20 Chevrolet in the 11 road and street course races while team owner Ed Carpenter will race it on ovals.

“I’m very excited to be staying with Ed Carpenter Racing for the 2017 season,” Pigot stated. “It’s a great feeling to know that I have a secure ride for all of the road and street course races so we can start preparing for the season now. I can’t thank everyone at ECR, P1 Management and Rising Star Racing enough for their help getting this deal done.”

Although this was not confirmed within the release, Pigot would make sense to drive a third car for the Indianapolis 500 at the team. ECR has fielded a third in recent years for now full-time driver JR Hildebrand, who replaces Josef Newgarden in the No. 21 Chevrolet.

Pigot made his first three starts with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at St. Petersburg and the two Indianapolis races last year, before principal backers Rising Star Racing helped Pigot land at ECR for the seven remaining road and street races the rest of 2016.

His best finishes of seventh at Mid-Ohio and ninth at Road America came after successful tests at both venues. Pigot struggled in qualifying – his best start was only 17th – but his undoubted potential and talent shown throughout all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is still there as he’ll prepare for a second go-’round in IndyCar.

“We are happy to have Spencer back.  It was a challenging situation for him to step into the team last year mid-season as a rookie. We believe that Spencer has the potential to be a contender in this sport and we will continue to focus on maximizing that potential,” remarked Carpenter.  “It is great to have some offseason left to allow us to continue that development before the season kicks off.  We are anticipating a strong sophomore campaign from Spencer.”

Pigot’s first IndyCar test this year will be alongside Hildebrand for a test at Sonoma Raceway on February 7.

Pigot’s official confirmation all but closes the books on the 2017 IndyCar silly season, with KVSH Racing’s future uncertain if not at an end prior to the March 12 season opener at St. Petersburg. There may be an opening in the second Schmidt Peterson Motorsports seat with Mikhail Aleshin not confirmed yet, and Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker set to test for the team in March.

NBCSN’s coverage of IndyCar will kick off on April 9 with Round 2 at Long Beach.

Franchitti praises INDYCAR’s direction with ’18 renders, urges series not to rush Halo

ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 29:  Former driver Dario Franchitti of Scotland stands on pit wall prior to qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at the Streets of St. Petersburg on March 29, 2014 in St Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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BIRMINGHAM, UK – Dario Franchitti has praised INDYCAR’s plans to revamp the bodykits used in the Verizon IndyCar Series from 2018, calling the series’ direction “fabulous”.

Franchitti raced in IndyCar between 1997 and 2013, claiming four championships overall, three with Chip Ganassi Racing (first with Andretti Autosport in 2007) before being forced to call time on his career after sustaining injuries in a crash at Houston. The Scotsman remains heavily involved with the series as an advisor to the Ganassi team.

Following INDYCAR’s release of the first car renders for 2018, Franchitti was quick to praise the series’ officials for moving away from the “ugly” aerokits currently being used.

“The drawing of the rending is just that right now, but the direction they’re going in is fabulous,” Franchitti told NBC Sports at Autosport International.

“I talked to Jay Frye quite a bit about what I felt was wrong with the current body kit.

“And I believe that all the drivers sung from the same song sheet of wanting more underbody downforce, get rid of all this top side nonsense. Make the cars look a bit better again, because the car has got quite ugly.

“I have to say that his team have listened to everybody. They know the direction they want to go in now. I think it’s going to be good.”

Part of INDYCAR’s five-year plan discussed in Detroit included further discussions regarding the introduction of cockpit protection, with the Halo device tested in Formula 1 on the table.

“I think everybody is looking at [Halo], but it has to be done in the right way,” Franchitti said.

“We’re here in the UK, it makes you think of Dan and Justin. We lost both of those guys to head injuries. Would they have survived with a Halo? Who knows.

“But if it’s going to be done, it’s got to be done right. And there are so many unintended consequences when you do that.

“You don’t want to rush into it, but you want to introduce it as quickly as possible.”

Franchitti also previewed the 2017 IndyCar season, set to start in St. Petersburg on March 12, and is intrigued to see how the fight between defending champion team Penske and Honda-returnee Ganassi plays out, as well as how a number of drivers fare with new teams.

“The driver market a wee bit obviously with Sato to Andretti, Newgarden to Penske, the Foyt guys have changed around,” Franchitti said.

“Bourdais has gone to Dale Coyne. Dale Coyne seems to have really strengthened his team.

“And then us with the Ganassi team going back to Honda. There are some big changes there. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

“That’s going to be the interesting fact because last year the two big teams had Chevy. Now it’s split. It’s going to be fascinating how it all plays out.

“We’ve tested the car. I can’t say much about it, but it will be an interesting season.”

Timeline: Tracking six weeks that flipped the 2017 F1 driver market

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The waiting is finally over. After six or so weeks of speculation, rumors and theories about who might replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas was finally unveiled by the team as its second Formula 1 driver for 2017 on Monday.

Bottas’ arrival from Williams has been expected since about the middle of December, making the news hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is still highly significant.

With Pascal Wehrlein joining Sauber and Felipe Massa due to return at Williams, the driver market is – for now – complete. We still wait for news on Manor’s future after it entered administration earlier this month.

Can’t remember all that has happened since Nico dropped the mic and walked away from F1? Here’s a timeline of events to refresh your memory.

November 27 – Nico Rosberg clinches his maiden F1 world title in Abu Dhabi, finishing second in the race to win the championship by five points. Felipe Massa makes what was planned to be his final F1 start.

December 2 – Rosberg announces his immediate retirement from F1 in a press conference ahead of the FIA gala in Vienna, Austria.

December 3 – Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda says he has received calls from half the F1 grid enquiring about Rosberg’s seat.

December 4 – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel dismisses the suggestion he could leave Ferrari and take Rosberg’s seat for 2017. Lewis Hamilton claims he’s not chasing number one status at Mercedes following Rosberg’s departure.

December 6 – Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff admits the team has to consider Fernando Alonso for the vacant seat, but hints a deal for 2017 would be unlikely.

December 8 – Mercedes posts a tongue-in-cheek advert in Autosport magazine regarding its driver vacancy for 2017.

December 9 – Former manager and long-term confidante of Alonso, Flavio Briatore, says that the Spaniard will not take Rosberg’s seat.

December 11 – Hamilton and Wolff enjoy an “amazing” meeting regarding plans for the 2017 season. Hamilton says Mercedes will have “the strongest partnership” to defend its titles. BBC Sport reports that Valtteri Bottas is Mercedes’ prime target and has already tabled an offer for the Finn.

December 13 – Alonso tells the entire McLaren team at its base in England that he remains committed to the project, ending speculation about a possible move.

December 14 – Williams’ Pat Symonds says that keeping Bottas is “crucial” to the team’s future success.

December 15 – Mercedes confirms that it will make no announcement regarding Rosberg’s replacement until January 3 at the earliest. Claire Williams says that Williams was open to letting Bottas leave, relying it could find a suitable replacement.

December 16 – Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner says he would not allow junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr. to take Rosberg’s seat.

December 20 – Reports suggest that Massa has agreed to come out of retirement and return to Williams for 2017, paving the way for Bottas to leave the team.

December 30 – Massa posts on Instagram that he is back “training hard” in America.

January 3 – The earliest date for an announcement from Mercedes passes.

January 4 – Mercedes confirms it will launch its 2017 F1 car, the W08, at Silverstone on February 23.

January 6 – Manor – the team Wehrlein raced for last year – enters administration, raising doubts over the team’s future and place on the 2017 grid.

January 15 – Claire Williams says she expects to make an announcement about Bottas’ future within a week.

January 16 – Pascal Wehrlein is officially announced by Sauber; photos of Bottas in Mercedes team gear leak online; Williams confirms Massa will return; finally, Bottas is announced officially at Mercedes.

Valtteri Bottas joins Mercedes F1 for 2017 season as Rosberg’s replacement

Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City, Mexico.
Sunday 30 October 2016.
Valtteri Bottas, Williams Martini Racing.
Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Williams
ref: Digital Image _X4I0171
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Valtteri Bottas has officially joined Mercedes AMG Petronas ahead of the 2017 Formula 1 season, replacing World Champion Nico Rosberg.

The long-expected announced was made by Mercedes on Monday, putting an end to six weeks of speculation in the wake of Rosberg’s decision to walk away from F1.

It followed two other announcements made the same morning, with Pascal Wehrlein going to Sauber and, more importantly for Mercedes’ case, Williams Martini Racing’s release of Bottas to Mercedes and confirmation Felipe Massa would come back for one more year.

Mercedes still managed to have fun with the now worst-kept secret in F1, building up the “suspense” on Twitter:

And then Mercedes made it official, via a live video from its factory in Brackley.

Bottas joins Mercedes for his fifth season in F1, having raced with Williams since 2013 and recorded a best finish of fourth in the drivers’ championship in 2014.

The Finn led Williams to third place in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015, scoring nine podium finishes during his time with the team.

Mercedes had been due to field an unchanged line-up of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in 2017, only for Rosberg to announce his immediate retirement from racing five days after winning his maiden F1 title in Abu Dhabi.

The news sent the F1 driver market into a late flux, with Bottas appearing towards the top of Mercedes’ shortlist alongside its in-house junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Mercedes decided against promoting Wehrlein due to his inexperience, having only completed one season in F1, leaving Bottas as its prime target.

Bottas had re-signed with Williams for 2017, rejecting a move to Renault, and had been set to partner 18-year-old Lance Stroll during his rookie campaign.

Mercedes’ first approach for Bottas included Wehrlein as part of the deal, only for Williams to reject the German on account of his inexperience and the need to have at least one driver over the age of 25, as per a requirement for title sponsor Martini.

Williams found a solution by luring Felipe Massa out of retirement, the Brazilian having raced for the British team since 2014.

Massa said an emotional farewell to F1 in Abu Dhabi, but is now set to return for at least one more season to help the team develop its new car, the FW40, during a period of regulation change.

With Massa agreeing to return for 2017, Williams gave the green light for Bottas to join Mercedes, ending the six-week waiting game that had played out.

Having missed out on seats at Mercedes and Williams, Wehrlein is now due to race for Sauber in 2017, replacing Felipe Nasr at the Swiss team.

The only remaining seats on the F1 grid for 2017 are at Manor, which is yet to confirm either of its drivers amid ongoing takeover talks with American-Mexican investor Tavo Hellmund.

2017 Formula 1 driver line-ups

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton/Valtteri Bottas
Red Bull: Daniel Ricciardo/Max Verstappen
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel/Kimi Raikkonen
Force India: Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon
Williams: Felipe Massa*/Lance Stroll
McLaren: Fernando Alonso/Stoffel Vandoorne
Toro Rosso: Carlos Sainz Jr./Daniil Kvyat
Haas: Romain Grosjean/Kevin Magnussen
Sauber: Marcus Ericsson/Pascal Wehrlein
Manor: TBA/TBA