John Force

Funny Car legend John Force faces significant challenge in pursuit of 17th NHRA title

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Closing in on 65 in less than three months, drag racer John Force is at an age where he’s outlasted, outraced and outperformed all of his rivals over the last 30-plus years.

And yet while many of those same rivals have long since retired – including legendary drivers such as Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Frank Hawley, Raymond Beadle and so many more – Force shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Last season was a perfect example. En route to further extending his own record of National Hot Rod Association Funny Car championships to 16, Force compiled four wins, five runner up finishes and six No. 1 qualifying positions on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule.

His driver’s license may say he’s 64, but Force is driving like he’s still in his 20s.

“I love this sport with a passion,” Force said on an NHRA teleconference earlier this week. “Cars are all I know. I love them. I’ve got a romance with the highway, trucks and cars. It’s just what I do. I have no reason to quit.

“Health may make me (quit) some day, and I’m going to race as long as I can do the job. And when I can’t do the job, I’m going to figure out how to get in the race car, test them, and at least learn how to make them safer.”

Preparing for the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., which begin Thursday, Force is ready to not only defend last season’s championship, he’s eyeing yet another title in 2014.

Even with his age, it’s hard to bet against Force. Since winning his first NHRA Funny Car championship in 1990, Force has won 16 titles in the last 24 seasons, including a run of 10 straight from 1993 to 2002.

And while last year’s championship was his first since 2010, Force proved he’s as formidable as he’s ever been.

“I set my goals to continue to win,” he said. “(The) hardest thing for me is I have drivers like Robert Hight, and my girls Courtney and Brittany, they want to win too. But if I’m going to sell myself, I’ve got to continue to win to dominate. At my age, I’m no spring chicken. If I’m going to stay in the fight with these guys, that’s what I have to do.”

But Force also comes into 2014 on the verge of perhaps the biggest challenge he’s faced in his lengthy career.

First, this will be his final season with support and sponsorship from Ford and Castrol Oil, relationships that have propelled Force to become the greatest driver in NHRA history.

And while he’s hoping to secure similar support and sponsorship for 2015, Force is also aware that this could possibly be his last season in the NHRA ranks.

“I’ve always said if somebody’s got to sit out 2015, it will be me,” Force said. “My daughter, I’ve set her on fire; I’ve crashed her. I’m not going to tell Brittany, ‘You can’t race that dragster.’ I may have to move her into a Funny Car.”

Even though Ford and Castrol will still be around in 2014, the most popular driver in the NHRA for the last two-plus decades has already begun the search for their replacements.

“We’re working hard, we’re having meetings,” Force said. “I’ve got to bring a manufacturer back. But I’ve got to look at can I ever get my funding back where it was? I was a $24 million program, $24 million. I can’t count on the world to come save me.

“So if I don’t get it all back, I go out of business, and I will not go out of business. I have too much invested.”

Force is even starting to look at a potential NASCAR-like scenario, where he’ll sell sponsorship to a certain number of race events with one sponsor, another number of events with a second sponsor – and more if he has to.

“We’re chasing manufacturers, we’re entertaining them,” Force said. “We’re looking at not just trying to find a major sponsor that will buy a whole team, we’re going NASCAR (and how it) has rewritten how it’s done. They might have four or five sponsors during the year. … They’ve rewritten the way to go to business, and I’m following it.”

Second, Force – now a grandfather – wants to enjoy the racing careers of daughters Brittany and Courtney, who have followed in the footsteps of their father.

Another daughter, Ashley Force Hood, was one of the sport’s most popular stars less than a decade ago before retiring to begin a family. Ashley works with yet another Force daughter, Adria, in running their father’s multi-million dollar operation in Yorba Linda, Calif.

While he right now may be without sponsors for 2015, Force is not without options. He talks about potentially going back to barnstorming throughout North America if necessary, returning to his match-racing roots of running at any dragstrip that will pay him.

He also could move into the ESPN TV booth, and for the first time in his career is considering selling motors to other teams, much like Hendrick Motorsports does in NASCAR.

“To drive a race car, I don’t care if it’s Pro Stock, Pro Bike — I don’t care what it is — a Fuel Dragster, I want to be able to race and be with my family and be with the fans,” Force said. “If corporate America says, ‘Here’s where we want you,’ I find a way to go there.”

“Everything I do is around racing. I have opportunities to go other places I am addressing. If I take my motor program, and I sell to Funny Car teams and I sell to dragster teams, that’s a no-brainer. I can stay in business. But then they all come back and beat me with my technology.

“I’m going to make money in TV and in racing and with my endorsements, I can afford to pay for one car. I can spend $3.5 to $4 million for my daughter’s car. But I have to find a sponsor for me. I’ve got money in the bank, but in three years, I’d be flat broke. So, nope, I’m chasing it.”

Force is  even looking outside the U.S., essentially anything to survive and keep his company’s doors open, his teams racing and his employees working. At an age where most people are slowing down, Force is perhaps working harder than he ever has. It’s a matter of survival.

“Corporate America global says do you race in Canada, Mexico, England, Dubai?” Force said. “Well, I will, if that’s what it takes. … I know they want me. They’ve been trying to get me back for years. So going to have to stay in business. If I’m going to race NHRA, and that’s who I race for, then I’ve got to do a lot of work to make it happen. Then throw in a TV show, it’s a heart attack in the making. But I’ve got no choice. It’s where I’m going.”

With retirement inevitable, Force feels much of the NHRA’s future survival after he stops driving rests on his shoulders. The sport and sanctioning body have been so good to him and his family that his fierce loyalty won’t let him just call it quits and say “thanks for having me. See ‘ya.”

Rather, he’s sincerely and deeply worried about the future of the sport and is bound and determined to keep it alive for many more years after he’s gone.

“The sport, where is it going? What is good? What is bad? What are we doing wrong?,” Force said. “Everybody’s trying. NHRA is trying, PRO (Professional Racers Organization) is trying.

“I’m continually trying to grow the sport. Continually trying to grow the JFR brand as well as NHRA. The first one was the toughest when you win your first championship because you don’t know how to do it and you learn. But I read a letter from a man named Jim Jannard, and he said you’ve got to continue to reinvent yourself. That is true. That’s what I’m trying to do with my business as well as myself.

“The sport that made me financially stable in life that I could send my kids to college and I can retire right now, I owe the sport (and) NHRA. I owe the fans, and I owe it to protect these kids (keeping up-and-coming drag racers safe in their cars, one of Force’s biggest passions after nearly being killed in the worst crash of his career seven years ago).

“NHRA is my home. It’s where I want to race. I know they work hard. They can only do so much, and the rest of us got to work. We’re not going to fail. I will not fail because I’ve got nowhere to go. This is what I love, and I won’t fail my kids. I put them in this business. NHRA has a great product, and we’ll fight our way out of this hole.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.