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

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

Follow@KyleMLavigne