AP Photo/John Force Racing, Elon Werner

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

Abt quickest on final day of first Donington Formula E test

PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 22: Daniel Abt of Germany and Audi Sport ABT Formula E Team prepares during the Formula E Championship race on November 22, 2014 in Putrajaya, Malaysia.  (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Daniel Abt made the most of drab conditions at Donington Park on Thursday to close out the first collective Formula E pre-season test at the top of the timesheets.

Overnight rain left the track damp at the start of the morning session, and although the skies remained overcast throughout the day, times were just a few tenths off the benchmark set on Wednesday by Jean-Eric Vergne.

Abt’s fastest lap of 1:30.073 from the morning session held out as the fastest time overall on Thursday despite a late flurry of full-power laps in the afternoon.

Nick Heidfeld finished the day second for Mahindra ahead of Nico Prost, while afternoon leader Vergne was fourth-fastest in the overall timesheets.

Jaguar Racing continued its driver evaluation by drafting in Ford WEC driver Harry Tincknell to partner Adam Carroll. Tincknell finished with a fastest lap of 1:33.927, good enough for P16 in the morning session.

Thursday also saw Indy Lights title contender Dean Stoneman make his first Formula E appearance, driving for NextEV in place of Oliver Turvey – en route to Japan for Super GT – and Nelson Piquet Jr. – who had to leave early to go to the Red Bull GRC event.

Collective Formula E testing resumes at Donington Park next month, with another three days of running scheduled from September 5-7.

Gateway confirmed to return to IndyCar schedule

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 10:  A general view of the race during the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson Indy 250 on August 10, 2003 at the Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Gateway Motorsports Park is back on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, adding another oval and another Midwest track to the 2017 slate.

Next year’s race, which will run August 26, will be the first North American open-wheel race at the facility located in Madison, Ill. outside St. Louis since 2003.

Track owner and CEO Curtis Francois joined Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. (INDYCAR parent company) for the announcement.

“Today is a monumental day for the people of the St. Louis region,” Francois said in an INDYCAR release. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made at my hometown track. I knew someday we’d be making an announcement like this because I have such confidence in the people of this region and their commitment to great sporting events.

“More than a dozen track operators around the country sought this INDYCAR race for their communities,” he added. “I firmly believe we came out on top because of the energy, loyalty and commitment to great sports that sports fans of all kinds demonstrate each day in this community.”

Added Helio Castroneves, who won the most recent race there in 2003, “I think it’s great that we’re going back to Gateway. Personally, I like it because I’ve had success there but also that I used to race for Hogan (a St. Louis-based Indy car team in 1999) which makes it a special place to me. I won there with Team Penske in 2003 and there was an all-Brazilian podium with Tony (Kanaan) and Gil (de Ferran).”

The Gateway return has been several years in the works. Ed Carpenter tested a couple years ago to re-establish the track as a possible testing venue for IndyCar. Track officials, meanwhile, made several visits to IndyCar races in the interim, including this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve always felt Gateway was a great place to host IndyCar. This has been on my mind since 2012,” Francois told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the formal announcement. “I reached out and we had some substantive conversations. But it took time, effort and a lot of discussions to make sure we had the right date, right fan participation and just the overall atmosphere to host the race.”

There were seven prior open-wheel races at Gateway from 1997 through 2003. CART ran on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend from 1997 to 1999 before the race moved to mid-September in 2000. Once the Indy Racing League took over in 2001, the race ran in late August.

There were seven different winners, and all are fairly big names: Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran and Castroneves.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule released

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule has been released on Thursday, which follows on from INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye’s thought process that the calendar would come out “sometime in August” and is definitively earlier than in recent years.

It also features a clear road map for the next two years with most dates and tracks pretty much established through 2018.

A number of tracks or series had already released 2017 IndyCar dates, so today’s release only produces a handful of extra announcements that weren’t already known inside the beltway.

Twelve dates and 13 races were already known either from tracks or other series that have released elements of their 2017 calendars. Additionally, start times for NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR races in the second half of this year gave an idea of what time IndyCar races could start as well.

Here’s the changes of note, then, for 2017:

  • Phoenix moves from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in April, owing primarily to the NCAA Final Four in Phoenix next April 1 and 3. Yes, this makes less logistical sense given that Long Beach is April 9, but you get the move from a TV and local hotel/fan awareness possibility.
  • Texas resumes in its usual June date, as it was intended to this year prior to the rain-delayed and postponed date in late August.
  • Gateway becomes the sixth oval to join the 2017 calendar, back on a North American open-wheel schedule for the first time since 2003 with a Saturday date of August 26. It will be one of two races in August, along with Pocono, which was confirmed for a two-year extension in August this year.
  • Watkins Glen is also confirmed to return as well in a multi-year agreement, this time with a whole year-plus of preparation as opposed to three months since being announced for this year in May as an eleventh hour replacement for Boston.

Otherwise, this is a pretty similar and pretty good schedule for IndyCar in 2017 – which fittingly, will have 17 races.

“The release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule continues to build upon the success INDYCAR has experienced the last three years and establishes continuity and consistency in our event calendar,” Mark Miles, CEO of INDYCAR parent company Hulman & Co., said in a release.

“As a series we are working diligently to create long-term relationships with our promoters to establish date equity and to provide them with the opportunity to initiate ticket renewals and event promotions earlier, which is pivotal to continuing the increase in attendance at our events.”

Per that release, INDYCAR has experienced a 38 percent growth in both television ratings and viewership from 2013 to 2015 and the same numbers are up this season by a total of 7 percent compared to this time last year. Attendance at INDYCAR events is also on the rise, with six events this season drawing crowds at or near record highs.

Broadcast times and start times will be finalized at a later time.

The Mazda Road to Indy will also be present on most of these weekends. But the Andersen Promotions-run and operated three series is yet to put out its full 2017 calendars.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series dates, plus additional content

  • March 12, St. Petersburg (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • April 9, Long Beach (IMSA WeatherTech Championship, Pirelli World Challenge)
  • April 23, Barber (IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup, Prototype Challenge)
  • April 29, Phoenix
  • May 13, Grand Prix of Indianapolis
  • May 20-21, Indianapolis 500 qualifying
  • May 28, Indianapolis 500
  • June 3, Detroit Race 1 (IMSA WeatherTech Championship)
  • June 4, Detroit Race 2
  • June 10, Texas (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series)
  • June 25, Road America (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • July 9, Iowa
  • July 16, Toronto
  • July 30, Mid-Ohio (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • August 20, Pocono
  • August 26, Gateway
  • Sept. 3, Watkins Glen
  • Sept. 17, Sonoma (IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup)

In infographic form:

2017IndySchedule

F1 teams to use prototype Pirelli tires in Belgium practice

GP GERMANIA F1/2016 - HOCKENHEIM (GERMANIA) 31/07/2016
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO PER PIRELLI MEDIA (© COPYRIGHT FREE)
© Pirelli
Leave a comment

Pirelli has confirmed that it will give all 11 Formula 1 teams two sets of prototype tires for use in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend.

Last year’s race at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps saw Sebastian Vettel suffer a tire failure late in the race, while Nico Rosberg also suffered a problem in practice at almost 190 mph.

Over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend in June, further concerns were raised about the strength of the tires supplied by Pirelli after Vettel again suffered a tire failure.

The Italian company tweeted out on Thursday that it would be providing teams with unmarked prototype tires for practice to evaluate and help minimize the effect of external bodies such as debris and curbs.