Life’s a drag: NHRA kicks off 2014 season with this weekend’s Winternationals

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Like the swallows that return to nearby Capistrano every year, the early bird will likely catch the worm as the NHRA Mello Yello Series kicks off its 24-race 2014 season this weekend.

The Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., have traditionally been where championships begin.

Defending Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon is the perfect example of that: he began his quest for his first NHRA pro title by winning last year’s Winternationals.

And then, as if to add emphasis – if not to clinch the championship – Langdon returned to his home track (he grew up about 20 miles away in Mira Loma) last November to win the season-ending finals.

Judging by preseason testing, Langdon is prepared to maintain his stranglehold on that championship trophy in 2014, as well. Once you get a taste of being the best of the best, it grows on you, and that’s certainly the case with Langdon.

Even if you’ve won a record 16 championships, as Funny Car legend John Force has done, the hunger for No. 17 hasn’t changed one iota. If anything, Force may be more determined than ever to win yet another Funny Car crown for several different reasons.

First, he’ll turn 65 in May. He became the NHRA’s oldest champion across all pro classes when he won the Funny Car title last season, his first since 2010, but also his 16th in 24 seasons.

Even though he’s a senior citizen, Force is still driving like a 20-something. And that should be no different this season, which leads to the second reason why this year will be one of the most significant and poignant of his career.

Force will part ways at the end of the season with long-time sponsor Castrol GTX motor oil, as well as car manufacturer Ford. Both companies announced in the offseason that they would be ending sponsorship of Force’s car and will likely allocate those resources in other areas.

Given his fierce loyalty to Castrol and Ford, Force would like nothing better than to have them go out in style with yet another championship.

And, who knows, if his bid to find a new primary sponsor and new manufacturer doesn’t go as smoothly as he hopes – he said in a recent NHRA teleconference that his yearly racing budget for all the teams under the John Force Racing umbrella is $24 million – it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think Force may also end his relationships with Ford and Castrol by also going out as a champion.

In other words, 2014 could potentially be Force’s last season as arguably the greatest drag racer the NHRA has ever known. He’s at a point in his life that watching daughters Brittany and Courtney build their own respective drag racing careers has become his top priority.

Brittany Force is coming off a Rookie of the Year season in Top Fuel.

There’s also a chance that John Force may switch rides with daughter Brittany next season: she would drive a Funny Car and he would compete in a Top Fuel dragster for the first time in his career.

It wouldn’t be the first time a driver has switched classes. Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi and Tommy Johnson Jr. (who returns to a full-time ride this season in Funny Car for the first time in five seasons) are among only 15 drivers that have won national events in both fuel categories.

Of all the things he’s done in his career, that’s one thing Force has not achieved, and could provide incentive – not to mention possibly start him writing yet another chapter of his life story – if business reasons (i.e., sponsorship) dictate such.

If Force foregoes a possible switch to Top Fuel – which he’s thought about off and on for more than 15 years – there is also the possibility (dare we even think it, let alone say it) that Force may not be at the 2015 Winternationals … as a participant, that is.

In the Pro Stock ranks, defending champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., is already on the hunt for his sixth championship. Winning two races in last year’s Countdown to the Championship clinched the title for the Ohio native, who amassed four wins overall in the season.

One driver Coughlin won’t have to worry about, at least early in the season, is four-time Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson, who surprised the sport earlier this week when he announced he would miss the first three months of the season (likely six events) to undergo and recuperate from non-life threatening heart surgery.

The Winternationals kicked off Thursday and will continue with two rounds of qualifying for pro drivers on Friday and Saturday, with final eliminations set for Sunday.

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Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

Follow@KyleMLavigne