John Force

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


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

Lowdon, Booth bid farewell to Manor in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Manor Marussia Team Principal John Booth and Manor Marussia President and Sporting Director Graeme Lowdon arrive in the paddock before final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth both bid emotional farewells to Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team in Abu Dhabi on Sunday after resigning from their roles last month.

Lowdon and Booth were instrumental in the formation of Virgin Racing in 2010, which ultimately evolved to become Marussia F1 Team.

When Marussia collapsed financially in 2014, Lowdon and Booth managed to keep the team going and revive it as Manor for the new season, securing its place on the grid.

However, following disagreements with team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick over the future of the team, both Lowdon and Booth tendered their resignations, with today’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marking the final race in their roles.

“This is of course my final race with the Manor Marussia F1 Team,” Booth said.

“At a time like this, there is so much to say but I think the single biggest sentiment I will take away is incredible pride at just how much we punched above our weight for such a small team.

“It was a greater challenge than we ever anticipated, but six years on we are still here fighting.

“I wish the team every success in the future and I will be following their progress with a great deal of satisfaction at what we created together.”

Lowdon took to Twitter to thank the Manor team, but left the door on F1 open by only saying goodbye ‘for now’.

Manor’s final race of the year ended with another double finish as Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi finished 18th and 19th respectively. After the race, both drivers paid tribute to their outgoing bosses.

“I would like to thank everyone in the team for their support, but in particular John and Graeme, who we say goodbye to here today,” Stevens said.

Merhi added: “I would like to thank the whole team, not only for this opportunity but for the hard work throughout the season. We’ve had some difficult times, but I am very proud of us.

“My thanks also to John and Graeme and I wish them well for the future. I am sure we have not seen the last of them!”

Alonso: I will be racing in 2016, “that’s 100%”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda arrives in the paddock before final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso has once again rejected speculation claiming he could take a sabbatical from Formula 1 in 2016, telling NBCSN that he will be racing next year.

Alonso saw a miserable first year back at McLaren come to a disappointing end in Abu Dhabi on Sunday as he finished 17th, two laps down on race winner Nico Rosberg.

Deficiencies with the Honda power unit used by McLaren have blighted Alonso’s efforts all season long, prompting a number of outbursts that continued in Abu Dhabi when he threatened to retire the car.

The Spaniard finished the season with just 11 points to his name, marking his worst F1 campaign since his debut year with Minardi back in 2001.

Earlier in the race weekend, it was suggested that Alonso could take a year out of F1 if McLaren and Honda were unable to provide him a competitive car for next year.

Alonso denied such speculation on Saturday, and confirmed to NBCSN after the race on Sunday that he would definitely be racing in 2016.

“No, I will be racing. That’s 100%,” Alonso said when asked if he would be taking a sabbatical.

“If I had to choose a sabbatical, I would choose this [year]! I was here, I was pushing, I was giving my maximum, and I will always do.”

Alonso spent the entirety of his race in Abu Dhabi alone at the back of the field after a first lap collision with Pastor Maldonado and a penalty for his part in it.

“Being last with no battles all the race, it was pretty much alone,” Alonso said.

“We say always that there are some test races for us, but today it was more than ever a test because I was alone all the race.

“Hopefully we got some useful information for winter to develop the car but it was a very difficult race from the start.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi GP post-race (VIDEO)

xxxx during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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The final round of the 2015 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi may not have had a great deal riding on it with both championships already decided, but with the foundations already being laid for the new year, there were a number of storylines running throughout an eventual race at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Nico Rosberg managed to see off a late challenge from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to pick up his sixth win of the year and, for the first time in his F1 career, a third in a row.

The German driver controlled proceedings from start to finish, while Hamilton was forced to settle for P2 once again ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

For the final time in 2015, Will Buxton brings you all of the news, interviews and insight following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Grosjean delighted to sign off from Lotus with points

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus is pushed onto the grid by his team before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean was delighted to end his long-running association with Lotus by picking up two points for ninth place in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Grosjean started back in 19th place after being hit with a gearbox penalty on Sunday morning, but managed to fight his way through the order to stand on the brink of the top ten in the closing stages.

With fresher tires, the Frenchman battled past Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat to move up into ninth place, securing two points for Lotus in his final grand prix for the team.

The result also ensured that Grosjean finished the year 11th in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship ahead of his move to Haas F1 Team for 2016.

“It’s been an emotional journey for me and I’m so happy to be able to reward everyone at Enstone with points in my final race for the team,” Grosjean said.

“I had to push all the way and it wasn’t always plain sailing as there was a lot to manage on the car. The calls from the pit wall were great and my pit stops were fantastic.

“I owe a lot to this team and it really feels like a family to me. I hope to be back one day in the future. This has been the best season of my career.”

Teammate Pastor Maldonado’s race ended at the first corner after he was crashed into by Fernando Alonso, leaving him with terminal suspension damage.

“It’s sad to end the race in the first corner because we were looking good for the race,” Maldonado said. “Today we had a good strategy to go with our better race pace, but anyway this is racing and it can happen.

“I didn’t see the contact I just felt it in the back of the car from Fernando. I tried to restart but then I saw the suspension damage. Imagine if that incident had been the other way round, it would’ve been big news then!”