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

Sirotkin takes first GP2 win of 2016 in Hungary

2016 GP2 Series Round 6
Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary.
Sunday 24 July 2016.
Sergey Sirotkin (RUS, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBB8505
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Sergey Sirotkin battled from sixth place on the grid to pick up his first victory of the 2016 GP2 Series season for ART Grand Prix.

Sirotkin entered 2016 as one of the favorites for the title, but a luckless start to the year meant he arrived in Hungary far behind series leader Oliver Rowland.

The Russian finished third in Saturday’s feature race before a scintillating start saw him rise from P6 to P2 in the opening stages in Hungary.

The safety car was deployed on the first lap following a clash further back sparked by a spin for Arthur Pic that eliminated four cars.

Racing Engineering’s Jordan King headed the pack after starting from reverse grid pole, but a mistake when coming back to the green flag allowed Sirotkin to close up.

The ART driver perfectly positioned his car as he went side-by-side with King through the opening complex of corners, eventually pulling ahead at Turn 4.

From there, Sirotkin managed to pull clear and hold on to his lead through to the end of the race, picking up his first GP2 victory in over a year.

King held on to second ahead of teammate Norman Nato, who rounded out the podium positions ahead of Artem Markelov and Mitch Evans.

Oliver Rowland salvaged some points from his difficult weekend in P6, while Saturday winner Pierre Gasly extended his championship lead in seventh, also chalking up the fastest lap in the process. Raffaele Marciello picked up the final point for P8.

The GP2 Series continues next weekend in support of the German Grand Prix.

Ericsson to start Hungarian GP from pit lane

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 22:  Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 22, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson will start Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix from the pit lane after Sauber changed the survival cell on his car following a crash in qualifying.

Ericsson crashed out midway through a frenetic Q1 session marred by rain and red flags, sustaining enough damage to warrant repairs overnight.

Sauber was forced to break parc ferme conditions to fix Ericsson’s car, meaning he will now have to start from the pit lane

“As the survival cell has been changed the competitor is required to start from the pit lane and should follow procedures laid out in Article 36.2 of the FIA Formula One sporting regulations,” a statement from the race stewards in Hungary reads.

Rio Haryanto has also been given a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox overnight. However, the Manor driver actually gains a place from his qualifying position thanks to Ericsson’s penalty, rising from P22 to P21.

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET, with lights out at 8am ET.

WATCH LIVE: Hungarian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Top three qualifiers Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing wave to the crowd from parc ferme during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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With Formula 1’s summer break rapidly approaching, the title fight between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton is becoming increasingly tenuous.

Just a single point separates the Silver Arrows at the top of the drivers’ championship, the momentum having swung dramatically in Hamilton’s favor over the past five races.

Saturday saw Rosberg snatch pole position away from Hamilton in the final minute of qualifying, although the result was not confirmed until almost five hours after the session finished.

Rosberg completed part of his lap under yellow flags, leading to an investigation from the stewards. They eventually deemed him to have slowed enough in respect of the caution.

The post-qualifying drama did not stop there as questions were asked about five drivers’ laps during the downpour in Q1, as a grey area in the 107% rule was found.

The FIA stewards decided to let Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas keep their positions under “exceptional circumstances”.

After all that drama, the grid for the race was set as it was six hours earlier: Rosberg on pole, Hamilton P2, and the Red Bulls lurking just behind – the stage set for a thrilling battle at the front of the pack.

You can watch the Hungarian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at the Hungaroring providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Hungarian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the post qualifying press conference during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton are poised to renew their fierce rivalry in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix after locking out the front row of the grid for Mercedes.

Hamilton went into qualifying chasing a sixth pole position at the Hungaroring, and looked to have clinched it when a yellow flag was shown at the end of Q3 following a spin for Fernando Alonso. All drivers were forced to slow down, the majority abandoning their lap altogether.

Rosberg was the exception. After lifting through the yellow flag zone, the German lit up the timesheets over the rest of the lap to edge out Hamilton and snatch pole away.

The stewards did investigate Rosberg’s lap later that evening to ensure he had slowed down enough, before ultimately deciding he had.

Another post-qualifying drama followed after a grey area in the regulations emerged regarding the 107% rule, threatening five drivers with grid drops. The stewards opted to let the affected drivers keep their grid slots, citing “exceptional circumstances”.

On a weekend that has already offered plenty of drama, Sunday’s race is likely to follow suit. Be sure to tune in from 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app for all of the action.

Here’s what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

2016 Hungarian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Rosberg, Hamilton up for a fight once again

Relations between Rosberg and Hamilton have been frosty throughout 2016, and with the summer break approaching, the next two race weekends are particularly crucial. Back in 2014, a dispute in Hungary resulted in Rosberg stewing over the summer and hitting Hamilton on-track in Spa in what was arguably the turning point in the title race. Might we see a similar incident this weekend?

Starting from the front row, we may be set for another on-track fight between the two Mercedes drivers – something that has been all too scarce throughout 2016. Austria ended with contact – can they keep it clean on Sunday?

Mercedes bids to complete the set

Hamilton may be a four-time winner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, but this is actually the only race on the 2016 calendar that Mercedes has not won in the hybrid era. 2014’s event was won by Daniel Ricciardo in stunning fashion, while Sebastian Vettel dominated last year.

Mercedes’ bid to complete the set on Sunday is far from academic. On the contrary, with Ricciardo and Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen lurking just behind on a track, and the tight confines of the Hungaroring playing to the strengths of the RB12 car, Mercedes has a fight on its hands today.

Ferrari looks to ignite its season

After taking a huge stride towards Mercedes in 2015, hopes were high at Ferrari for this season. However, it has proven to be a frustrating campaign, with the brief glimmers of victory passing by. With Red Bull now appearing to move ahead in the pecking order, a big result is needed to ignite its season.

Hungary appears to be make or break for Ferrari’s 2016. Victory would justify the repeated claims that it is capable of challenging Mercedes for the title. Anything less would surely push a greater focus onto 2017.

Opportunity knocks for the lower field

The Hungarian Grand Prix has a knack of shaking up the field, with safety cars and races of attrition offering possible gains to those lower down the field.

Haas will be hoping to make the most of another double-Q2 appearance, particularly with Romain Grosjean starting P11, while Renault and Sauber are both in desperate need of points.

Throw in some safety cars and – after Saturday’s sudden downpour – maybe even a sprinkling of rain, and the lower pack could benefit.

2016 Hungarian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Fernando Alonso McLaren
8. Jenson Button McLaren
9. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
10. Valtteri Bottas Williams
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
13. Sergio Perez Force India
14. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
15. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Jolyon Palmer Renault
18. Felipe Massa Williams
19. Kevin Magnussen Renault
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
22. Rio Haryanto Manor