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

IMSA: Porsche doubles up at Lime Rock Park

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Porsche has enjoyed a perfect day in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s first GT class-only race of the year, with a GT Le Mans and GT Daytona sweep between its two 911 variants at the Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park.

The new mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR has claimed its first global victory since its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year, following through on a run of poles in both IMSA and the FIA World Endurance Championship over the last month.

Dirk Werner, who claimed the new Porsche’s first pole at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park last time out, now has the car’s first win and shared it with 2015 GTLM class champion Patrick Pilet. The pair shared the No. 911 car.

That led a 1-2 in class, with the polesitting Gianmaria Bruni falling to second behind the sister car in the No. 912 car he shared with Laurens Vanthoor.

Porsche’s last GTLM win was also a 1-2, set last September at Circuit of The Americas and with the No. 912 car ahead of the No. 911 car that race.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT pitted from third place for a splash of fuel with just over five minutes remaining in the race, costing Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe a podium finish. That dropped it behind an intense battle between the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, which had been for fourth but got promoted to third as a result of the Ford’s pit stop. The No. 67 Ford fell to fifth.

Martin Tomczyk in the BMW he shared with John Edwards held off Antonio Garcia in the Corvette, who shared that car with Jan Magnussen.

Meanwhile to complete the banner day for Porsche, the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R took its first win with the 991-spec GT3 variant of Porsche’s models. It’s the team’s first win since the 2015 Petit Le Mans season finale, when Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey and Madison Snow shared the car.

Lindsey and Joerg Bergmeister took the victory in GT Daytona, Bergmeister adding to his impeccable run of form at Lime Rock Park with his seventh win at the track. Bergmeister and Thomas Blam achieved a wealth of success with Flying Lizard Motorsports at Lime Rock and Blam, Park Place’s race strategist, now has helped deliver another win for the pair. It also comes following an earlier incident in practice this weekend, and a rebuild of the car by the Park Place crew.

Incidentally, Snow was the one who posed the biggest threat to the No. 73 car this race on this occasion. The veteran youngster – if a 21-year-old can be called a veteran – took the pole in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and led early and handed off to Bryan Sellers. Continuing the sort-of-Flying Lizard theme, Sellers drives for K-PAX Racing in Pirelli World Challenge and that team features a technical partnership with the Lizards.

Bergmeister’s longtime co-driver Patrick Long, another past Flying Lizard driver, then finished third in class in a one-off drive with Canadian Daniel Morad. The pair brought the No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, the Rolex 24 at Daytona class winner, home in third for the car’s first podium finish since the Rolex 24 win.

The No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS, which won at CTMP, was fourth while the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3’s podium run ended in fifth, but in a strong fight back drive from Andy Lally after Katherine Legge was involved in a couple of incidents in her stint – contact with both the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3.

Lally held off points leader Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, the car he shared with Christina Nielsen, while these two’s podium streak also came to an end after six consecutive races.

Busch’s historic Indy chase includes hope for 500-600 double

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indianapolis is quickly becoming Kyle Busch’s favorite racing venue.

Ten years ago, he met his future wife, Samantha, at the 2.5-mile oval.

Last year, he pulled off a rare sweep by winning both poles and both races on Brickyard 400 weekend. It’s the last time Busch celebrated a Cup win and now that he’s back at the historic 2.5-mile oval, he doesn’t want to wait until next September to make a return trip. He’d like to add a May stop to his already full 2018 schedule ad attempt the fabled double bill of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

“I had it (a deal) done last year, sold it and everything,” Busch said when asked about competing in the Indy 500. “I had a boss that said no.”

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion and two-time defending Brickyard champ, hasn’t given up on his dream; he’s just putting it on hold temporarily this weekend as he chases history and tries to end a 12-month victory drought.

He couldn’t have picked a better place to come. Over the past two years, Busch has been the most dominant stock-car driver at Indy.

The two-time defending Brickyard champion has led 168 of the last 189 laps here, including a record 149 out of 170 last year when he won from the pole. He also won the 2015 and 2016 Xfinity Series races from the pole, giving him four consecutive wins at Indianapolis.

When the track opened for Xfinity practice Friday, Busch’s car was near the top again – even with restrictor-plate motors.

Busch still had the third-fastest car in the first two practice sessions, turning a fast lap of 166.162 mph as overcast skies cooled the track. The Xfinity qualifications and race will be held Saturday, the same day Busch and the other Cup drivers also will take their first laps.

Even as Busch talks about winning an unprecedented third straight Brickyard, the thrill of taking a shot in IndyCar’s marquee race – and trying the 1,100-mile Memorial Day weekend double – remains a major attraction for the 32-year-old driver.

“I thought I had a great opportunity to do it (in May), but I’m kind of glad it didn’t come together because (Fernando) Alonso kind of stole the headlines the last time it was done,” Busch said. “It would be fun. It would be a unique opportunity. The thing that scares my boss is that I’ve never driven those cars.”

If he goes for it, Busch would start the day in Indianapolis for the 500 then fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the 600-mile Cup race. His brother, Kurt Busch, tried that in 2014 and finished sixth at the Indy 500 before a blown engine knocked him out of the NASCAR nightcap.

It would be the first time brothers have attempted the marathon.

Alonso had never driven an IndyCar or even on an oval before May. Yet the two-time Formula One champ spent most of May’s race in contention before a blown engine knocked him out with 20 laps to go.

Busch thinks his experience – and success – at the Brickyard would make him just as competitive.

In 12 Indy starts, Busch has 10 top-10 finishes. He is one of four Cup drivers with at least two Brickyard titles and last year joined seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson as the only back-to-back race winners. Johnson won in 2008 and 2009.

Somehow Busch has fought through the sweltering mid-summer temperatures and found the secret to winning on this narrow, low-banked oval where passing is tough.

Busch’s success puts him in rare company.

The only driver in track history to win four straight races at Indy is Michael Schumacher, the former Formula One superstar who won each U.S. Grand Prix from 2003-06 on the speedway’s road course. Nobody else has captured three consecutive major race titles at Indy, and if Busch extends his winning streak to five on Saturday, it would break Schumacher’s record.

A win Sunday would also give Toyota its 100th Cup victory, assure Busch of a spot in NASCAR’s playoff and give Joe Gibbs Racing its second win in two weeks after starting the season 0 for 17.

“It’s pretty cool to come in here and have a chance to go for three in a row,” Busch said. “But it’s frustrating that it’s been 365 days since we’ve won one of these things.”

And he would rather not have to wait even longer to give Indy a shot next season.

“I’m good,” he said when asked if he’d trade his Brickyard wins for an Indy 500 crown. “I’d just like to have a shot to go and earn it myself.”

Stroll: Baku F1 podium ‘proves I can be here’

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Lance Stroll is pleased to have answered his critics with his recent Formula 1 displays, believing his podium finish in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proves he deserves his place on the grid.

Stroll, 18, stepped up to F1 from Formula 3 with Williams for 2017, aided by financial support from his billionaire father, Lawrence.

Stroll had a rough start to life in F1, failing to finish any of his first three races or score points until the seventh race of the year in Canada.

This kick-started a three-race run in the points for Stroll, the highlight being a charge to third place in Baku after rising through the order in a frenetic race.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Stroll said the timing of his points finish in Canada was of little consideration to him, having always had confidence in his own ability.

“If it comes earlier or later, you almost cannot influence it. But I knew that I was capable of doing results so I wasn’t panicking,” Stroll said.

“I knew that it was all a matter of time. But to really do it in Canada, that was great. A great day, the home race.

“It is much more about other things [than confidence]: me improving the way I drive or me working with the team. We have changed a lot on the car since Baku and that helped me a lot in my performance.”

The result saw Stroll become the second-youngest podium finisher in F1 history, only trailing Max Verstappen and sitting ahead of the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.

“It proves that I can be here!” Stroll said. “I did it with a Williams, not a Mercedes!”

Wehrlein not concerned that Sauber performances are overlooked

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Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein has no concerns that his performances for the backmarker team are being overlooked as he bids to secure a seat further up the grid in the near future.

Wehrlein is part of Mercedes’ junior program, and was an option for the championship-winning marque for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes eventually signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams, placing Wehrlein at Sauber after his 2016 team, Manor, folded during the off-season.

Wehrlein has led Sauber’s charge through 2017, taking eighth place at the Spanish Grand Prix despite racing in a car lacking upgrades and with a year-old engine.

While a career haul of just six points may seem paltry, Wehrlein is comforted by the fact he has lacked the car with which to fare much better.

“My target is to one day be in a team where I can win races, get on the podium regularly and fight for championships,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“Right now I don’t have these tools to make it happen. The weekends where we score points are very, very special for us because we don’t have the car to finish in the top ten often, only if the stars are in the right place!

“And then we have to take the opportunity and bag the points. I am very happy that when the chance was there I was able to grab it. I want to be there when it counts.

“I think it gets noticed that I have scored points in cars that under normal circumstances don’t score points. I don’t worry about that.”

Bottas has flourished since joining Mercedes, taking two race wins and becoming an unexpected contender in the title race alongside teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

When asked if he was worried about Bottas’ success, Wehrlein said: “No, because I cannot influence such a decision.

“Worrying about things that you cannot influence is wasting your time and wasting your strength and efforts.

“Yes, Valtteri is doing a good job and he deserves it.”