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

Williams’ updates take Bottas to P2 on Russian GP grid

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Valtteri Bottas’ hopes of ending his difficult start to the 2016 Formula 1 season were given a boost after he qualified third for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday in Sochi.

Bottas scored just seven points in the opening three races of the year, but said earlier this week that he was confident that an upturn in fortunes was not far away.

Williams brought a number of new parts to Sochi for the race in a bid to get back in front of Red Bull in the pecking order, and they appear to have the desired effect in qualifying on Saturday.

Bottas qualified third with teammate Felipe Massa finishing fifth, but both will gain a place on the grid by virtue of Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

“Very good qualifying, really pleased how it all went,” Bottas said.

“This weekend has been very positive. We have some new bits on the car and the car has been feeling better. It’s also a good track for us.

“I’m glad we could maximise the qualifying today. Pleased with that, but it’s tomorrow what counts.

“So far my Sundays haven’t been so great, but I’m sure tomorrow we have a chance to have a good one.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Vettel: No frustration over Ferrari’s lack of reliability

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability problems at the start of the 2016 Formula 1 season, saying “it’s part of racing”.

Ferrari entered 2016 hopeful of mounting a serious challenge to the all-conquering Mercedes team, only for issues on its cars in Australia and Bahrain to limit it to a one-car finish.

Vettel’s plight continued on Friday in Russia when an issue forced him to stop out on track during practice, ultimately resulting in a gearbox change and a grid penalty.

Vettel qualified second at the Sochi Autodrom on Saturday behind pole-sitter Nico Rosberg, but will drop back to seventh for the start of the race.

“Of course I would have liked the gap in the end to have been a bit smaller but we saw in Q2 Nico in particular was very strong getting the lap in,” Vettel said.

“I think for us it was the maximum. We benefitted from what happened to Lewis [Hamilton]. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but it allowed us to go P2 which helps tomorrow with the penalty.

“We’re a bit closer starting on the clean side of the track. I think we can have a good race from there. It should be quite exciting. The car feels good. I think all weekend has been quite strong. We lost some time, but I think we made it up this morning so it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Vettel said that he does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability issues, saying that there is still a long way to go in the season.

“Not frustrated at all. Obviously it’s not nice if these things happen because they don’t make your life easier,” Vettel said.

“But equally it’s part of racing. These things can happen. They didn’t happen on purpose, they weren’t planned. We’re been pushing very hard to try and catch up which I think especially in race pace we’ve proven already this year.

“Obviously we didn’t have a properly clean race yet this year. Maybe we’ll have tomorrow, you never know, it’s a long race and a long way especially around here. There’s a lot of things that can happen.

“I think we have to wait and see. It’s still April, tomorrow is May, and there’s a long, long way to go. It’s a long championship. It’s important to do your best to get the maximum points every single time and the rest you’ll find out anyway.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton set to start 10th in Russia as luckless run continues

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Lewis Hamilton’s run of bad luck continued in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday as an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in the final session.

Hamilton has slipped 36 points behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg after the first three races of the 2016 season, with an issue on his power unit forcing him to start last in China two weeks ago.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi hopeful of cutting the gap to Rosberg, and looked set to run the German close for pole position on Saturday afternoon.

After lapping almost half a second slower than Rosberg in Q2, Hamilton was sent back out by Mercedes later in the session despite not being at risk of losing his place in Q3.

It soon unfolded that Hamilton was in fact heading out to test his power unit, and he soon reported a loss of power similar to the one that prevented him from taking part in qualifying for the Chinese GP.

As a result, Mercedes had to bring Hamilton into the pits and end his day after Q2, leaving him 10th in the final qualifying classification.

While Rosberg was able to ease to his second pole position of the season, Hamilton was left deflated, telling reporters: “I went out at the end of Q2 to get a feel and I lost the same power as I lost in China.

“There’s nothing I can do. I never give up.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg not expecting easy Russian GP despite Vettel, Hamilton woes

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 championship leader Nico Rosberg remains wary of the threat posed by the opposition in tomorrow’s Russian Grand Prix despite seeing chief rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both drop back on the grid.

Defending champion Hamilton was forced to sit out of Q3 in Sochi after an issue similar to the one he suffered in China arose on his power unit.

As a result, Hamilton will start tomorrow’s race from P10 at best, leaving him with a huge task if he is to cut into Rosberg’s 36-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship.

Vettel took advantage of this to qualify second for Ferrari, but he drops back to seventh on the grid after taking a new gearbox earlier in the weekend.

Rosberg eased to his second pole position of the season by seven-tenths of a second despite only completing one fast run in qualifying, but he is refusing to get ahead of himself.

“I was just focused on myself out there, really going for it and feeling great about it,” Rosberg said.

“It’s really going really well today. From Q2 onwards it felt awesome. The others have been unfortunate today, definitely, extremely unfortunate.

“That makes my race a little bit easier tomorrow, but an F1 race is never easy. Even from where Sebastian is and where Kimi [Raikkonen] is and with Valtteri [Bottas] behind and everything, the opposition is still there.

“So I still need to keep focused and try and get the job done as good as possible.”

Rosberg was able to get out of his car long before the end of qualifying safe in the knowledge he had pole thanks to the advantage Mercedes has enjoyed at the Sochi Autodrom.

“To be honest I was quite confident that the lap was good enough out there because in Q2 Ferrari was quite far away and I knew that Lewis was not able to participate in the last part of qualifying,” Rosberg said.

“So I was very sure it was going to be enough. You never know, there’s still the remaining uncertainty so I was glad eventually when Sebastian crossed the line that it was good enough.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.