NHRA king John Force charging as hard in boardroom for new sponsors as on the dragstrip

1 Comment

Wanted: Good home for easily excitable, uber-friendly, record-setting 16-time NHRA champion. Comes with massive fan base and plenty of references. Media darling. Will talk your ear off.”

We all know how difficult it has been over the last six or seven years for teams in all forms of motorsports to obtain sponsorship. While it’s difficult for small teams, it even impacts the biggest of the big, too.

NHRA Funny Car legend John Force is in such a predicament. After nearly 30 years with Castrol Oil and more than 15 years with Ford, drag racing’s biggest star ever will be losing both high-profile and high-dollar associations at the end of this season.

NASCAR’s Jeb Burton lost his trucks ride because his sponsor pulled its money just six weeks before the current season began. But Force was lucky because he was given a year’s notice by both Castrol and Ford that they were heading in a different direction with their marketing and sponsorship strategies.

“Last year was a wakeup call because I’ve always had a ride,” Force said recently. “I’ve been with Castrol 28, 29 years, Ford 16 years. All of a sudden, Robert’s (teammate, son-in-law and president of John Force Racing, Robert Height) got a ride, Courtney’s (daughter Courtney Force) got a ride with Traxxas, and John Force at the end of the year won’t.

“Sometimes you take it for granted and then you forget about the money that you even take for granted. That’s Corporate America. (Wife Laurie) said to me when all of this went down in August, ‘The first time in all these years, John Force over 25 years is going to be on the market.’ ”

And while sponsorship dollars have gotten a bit better to come by in NASCAR, Force is still beating the bricks, pitching his NHRA multi-million dollar, multi-championship and multi-team empire to some of the biggest corporate names in the business world.

“I run continually chasing money and trying to keep the rest of the ship on track,” Force said.

Force has reason for optimism, relating what an executive at his marketing agency, Just Marketing Inc., told him, “You’ll (normally) make a hundred calls and you’ll be lucky to get 10 or 15 returns. … With John Force, his name, (potential sponsors) are calling back.’ He’s excited about it. We’re all looking at the economy, what it’s done to us, okay.”

Force isn’t just trying to save his empire, he’s also trying to single-handedly resurrect the NHRA, which has slumped in attendance and TV ratings in recent years due to the downturn in the economy.

He recently spent five hours at his Yorba Linda, Calif., compound meeting with NHRA president Tom Compton and other NHRA officials to talk strategy, review demographics and data and try to package everything that’s positive about NHRA to use in meeting with potential sponsors not only for Force, but also for the sanctioning body and other teams looking for sponsors, as well.

“I’m getting hammered with questions about the state of NHRA drag racing, the state of our TV package,” Force said of questions Corporate America is peppering him with. “We’re not in bad shape. We’ve got to make changes. We’ve got to put people in the stands. … We have our problems. Tom Compton admits (it).

“… I want data, and I want to know the facts and where are we going in the future? What are we doing to protect this sport? How are we helping the kids? Get the younger generation in there. It’s all being addressed.”

In the season-opening Winternationals, he set a new elapsed time record in Funny Car. It’s clear he’s lost nothing in terms of reaction time and ability in his 40-plus years of racing.

Force turns 65 in less than two months. At a time when many of his peers have slowed down and retired, he remains in perpetual motion, both on and off the track.

“It isn’t just winning on that day that you’re going to get your mind right and go to the starting line,” Force said. “It starts with working with your team. And if anything I’m guilty of, I got so big, six corporations, could be seven now, the Eric Medlen Project, and building chassis, TV shows, a lot of stuff that I’ve done. Sometimes you get so overloaded in the office, that’s why I split and gave Robert Hight where he takes over the day-to-day stuff he runs.”

Coming off his record 16th Funny Car championship, Force isn’t entertaining retirement any time soon. As he likes to say, he’s too busy to retire. He also has dozens of employees relying upon him for their livelihoods.

He’s selling himself today much like he did when he first started racing more than 40 years ago, a simple truck driver from Bell Gardens, Calif.,  looking for sponsors who believed in a guy who had a dream to become the biggest and best drag racer ever.

“I can’t go back,” Force said. “I have to go back to work, do more shows, more appearances. Because to change these programs that we have created, hell, the crew chiefs that run them, if they went back wouldn’t know how to run them the other way.”

So Force is back to knocking on doors, shaking more hands than a politician and extolling the virtues of a company that is arguably one of the biggest pieces of the NHRA foundation. Without Force, who knows where professional drag racing would be today – or where it will be in the future if he goes away.

Even at his age, Force is even considering an unprecedented move – if he has to: switching from Funny Cars to the sport’s biggest and baddest beasts, Top Fuel dragsters.

It’s not like Funny Car is a dying class, but Top Fuel would present a new challenge and new attraction for fans to see how he matches up against veterans like multi-champion Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and more.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Funny Car driver moved to Top Fuel. Kenny Bernstein did so in the 1990s, becoming the first driver to win championships in both of NHRA’s premier classes. So did Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and others.

“It’s called reinventing yourself,” Force said. “I didn’t create the concept. Somebody else did. But I lived by it for years, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m reinventing myself, my race teams, and we’ve got the (2013) championship that was critical, hoping to have sponsorships locked up before the next championship.

“But I ain’t taking no chances, I’m going after it. Me and Robert, my son-in-law, is president of my company. I made it clear to him, I’m racing. You’ve got a job, and you need to win for (primary sponsor) Auto Club, but I need a job, so don’t get in my way. Don’t anybody get in my way, because if I fail, I’m out of business and I can’t. So I’m going to find them (new sponsors to carry on the Force legacy).”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”

Pirelli: Slow puncture caused Vettel’s British GP tire failure

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Pirelli has determined that a slow puncture was the cause of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 tire failure towards the end of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix.

Vettel suffered a failure on his front-left tire on the penultimate lap of the race at Silverstone while running third, forcing him into a late pit stop that ultimately left him P7 at the checkered flag.

The incident was just minutes after Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen had also hit trouble with his front-left tire, although Pirelli stressed after the race that the incidents were unrelated.

Pirelli announced on Friday that, after conducting extensive analysis of the tire, it could confirm that its initial belief that Vettel had suffered a puncture was indeed correct.

“As appeared clear since Sunday afternoon, a full investigation has now confirmed that the original cause of the failure was a slow puncture,” Pirelli said.

“The consequent driving back to the pits on an underinflated and then flat tire led to the final failure.

“Kimi Raikkonen’s damaged tire shows less evidence of what occurred, so further tests and analysis are still ongoing in Pirelli’s laboratories and indoor testing facilities.

“It will take a few more days to reach a definitive conclusion.”