(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.”

Cooper Tire extends as FIA World RX official tire supplier

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Andreas Bakkerud of Norway leads Timmy Hansen of Sweden out of a corner drives during the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill Circuit on May 25, 2014 in Canterbury, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Cooper Tire has been confirmed Tuesday as the official tire supplier for the FIA World Rallycross Championship for three more years, starting in 2017.

The move was announced today by the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

It continues Cooper Tire Europe’s run as the official tire supplier that’s occurred for several years.

Hinchcliffe embraces ambassadorial role to help grow IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5  Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Those of us who remember the early James Hinchcliffe videos circa 2006 to 2008 – the brat video at Road America, the novelty size check, the spot-on Kimi Raikkonen imitation among others – knew then that the Canadian was never shy of being goofy to help promote not only himself, but his racing series that he competed in at the time. At that point, it was the Champ Car Atlantic series, where he spent three years before moving into Indy Lights for two years in 2009. These were the early days for the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” the head of his own fictional city.

Now though, into his sixth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is busier than ever with other external commitments, but he’s never stopped being an ambassador for the sport.

If anything, he’s continued to grow in that department.

This year alone has been no exception. Hinchcliffe won the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, which made for a remarkable story in its own right, and also meant he’d be going through the ringer of the in-between week media tour to help promote the race.

Then there was Hinchcliffe’s role as one of five IndyCar drivers on an appearance of Celebrity Family Feud, along with Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, the surprisingly funny Will Power (those of us in the paddock know his humor, but probably not the national audience at large) and Hinchcliffe’s roommate and good friend Conor Daly.

Today, of course, Hinchcliffe has been named to the cast of the new season of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s a move that sure, can grow his profile, but by default is also tasked with growing IndyCar’s, knowing how dedicated its smallish but hardcore group of fans are.

“For me personally, it’s a great opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and do something you probably don’t have the opportunity to do again,” he said during a conference call today. “After everything last year, it’s definitely given me a different approach to life and maybe given me a little bit more confidence to try things like this.

“But certainly getting one of our drivers out into some primetime, mainstream media and especially during the off-season, kind of keep IndyCar’s name out there a little bit. Again, we’re all assuming this is me making it past week one, so it’s already a bit of a bold statement. But for sure, it’s definitely got two sides to it.”

Couple all this with his outside business commitments – Hinchcliffe has been a race analyst for Champ Car races in the past, now hosts his own “Mayor on Air” podcast, has his own beer brewed by Flat 12 Bierworks (Hinchtown Hammerdown) is a co-founder of Speed Group, a driver development, management and social media/PR company and he’s a spokesperson for Honda Canada via a personal deal – and sometimes you wonder how the 29-year-old Canadian does it all.

One, he has a good group of people around him.

And two, he takes it seriously in terms of knowing what he needs to do to help promote the sport he’s been so blessed and fortunate to be a part of.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “From a young age, I was counseled that this is the world, this is the motorsports world that we live in, and I’ve always just prepared myself for that, and so I’ve not shied away from extra commitments.

“I’m a very driven person on track and off, whether it’s my racing or promoting the sport or outside business ventures I’m involved in. I like staying busy. I like staying active in that sense. This is a big part of our sport and is a huge help.

“This kind of thing, sure, it benefits me personally but it also benefits the sport, and I’ve always said from day one that anything that I can do outside of a race car to help grow the sport of IndyCar racing is something you can sign me up for because I’ve got such a passion for this sport.”

Hinchcliffe is in his sixth IndyCar season, but only fifth full-time after his injuries sustained last May at Indianapolis sidelined him for the rest of the year.

But like Castroneves – Hinchcliffe’s now “DWTS” compatriot and predecessor – his goal is to keep driving first and then tackle the rest of the to-do items later.

And looking at Castroneves provides him a window to do just that. The Brazilian is 41, but is in his 17th straight season with Team Penske, 19th overall since debuting as a rookie in CART driving for Tony Bettenhausen in 1998. Yet he’s still at the top of his game and in the top-five in points; Hinchcliffe is not too far behind him in eighth.

“I plan on being around it for a long time as a driver, for a long time after that, as well, and I just love the fact that we’ve got the opportunity to do this kind of stuff,” Hinchcliffe said.

“You just try and help spread the word and show people that IndyCar racing is an incredible form of sport.”

On a lighter note, Hinchcliffe’s training and dancing schedule will mean that he’ll spend quite a bit of time away from his home in Indianapolis. Daly, his good friend, is also his roommate.

Hinchcliffe joked that that part of the preparation is underway.

“I have a tremendous concern. I’ve already set up a network of people that will be coming to check on him and the house in my absence,” he deadpanned, in classic “Hinch” form.

Sabres’ favorite to sing Canadian, American anthems for IndyCar race at Watkins Glen

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Don’t be surprised if some fans attending Saturday’s Indy Lights race or Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix at the Glen, both at Watkins Glen International, wear jerseys or jackets of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres’ beloved national anthem singer, Doug Allen, will sing both the Canadian and American Anthems prior to the start of both of this weekend’s races.

Known as “Anthem Guy,” Allen has gotten Sabres fans fired up before home games for over 20 years by singing “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Allen is also known for his charitable side, serving as Facilities Coordinator for the Buffalo City Mission and Worship director at his church, Fellowship Wesleyan Church in West Seneca, New York.

Sunday’s race is the second-to-last event on the 16-race IndyCar schedule. It replaces the originally scheduled race for this weekend, the inaugural event in Boston, which was subsequently cancelled.

Here’s an example of Allen and his stirring rendition of the anthems:

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Kevin Magnussen set to race Italian GP pending final check

during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.
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Following a series of checks both on-site in hospital at Verviers and further checks back home in Denmark, Kevin Magnnussen appears set to compete in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, barring any hiccups from a final check on Thursday from the FIA.

Renault Sport F1 Team released the following update on Tuesday:

During the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday 28 August Renault Sport Formula One Team driver Kevin Magnussen exited the track at high speed. After initial checks at the circuit’s medical centre, Kevin was referred to a local hospital in Verviers for further routine examinations.

Kevin had heavily bruised his left ankle but the tests showed no fracture or serious injury and he was released from hospital the same day and returned home to Denmark. He has since undergone further checks in Denmark that indicate he is able to race at the Italian Grand Prix in six days.

The FIA will confirm Kevin is fit to compete following a final assessment on Thursday in Monza.

Kevin commented, ‘I’m feeling much better, which is very good news. I’ve had several checks that show I am fit to race in Monza and I am sure I will be in the car this weekend. We were running in the top ten in Belgium and I’m very motivated to repeat this again in Italy.’

No further comment will be given.