AP Photo/John Force Racing, Elon Werner

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

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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

Ferrari flop: F1’s famous red cars expected better in 2016

during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Ferrari expected much better than this in 2016.

After ending last season with three wins and promises of pulling closer to Mercedes, Ferrari instead slid backward.

There have been no victories, just one podium finish in the last nine races and Ferrari is once again fending off questions about discord within Formula One’s most popular team.

Just look at last weekend’s race at the U.S. Grand Prix: After a disappointing qualifying in which both drivers started on the third row, Sebastian Vettel finished fourth and Kimi Raikkonen didn’t finish at all when he was forced to return to the garage after leaving a pit stop with an improperly attached wheel.

Judged by race officials as an unsafe release, Ferrari was hit with a fine. Seeing sparks fly as he pulled away, Raikkonen put the car in reverse for a humiliating return drive back downhill as Ferrari slipped further behind Red Bull for second place in the team championship, which it hasn’t won since 2008.

“Far from ideal” is how the deadpan Raikkonen summed it up.

The same could be said about Ferrari’s entire season as Formula One heads to the Mexican Grand Prix this weekend.

Ferrari landed in Mexico last season full of optimism. Vettel’s had scored the non-Mercedes wins all year. He was a regular on the podium and Ferrari was cruising toward a second-place finish in the constructor’s championship.

There’s been none of the same confidence this year. The Ferrari drivers – both former world champions – have made more noise with their mouths than their cars, with Vettel complaining about slow drivers and he and Raikkonen both criticizing the defensive tactics of Red Bull’s brash Dutch teenager Max Verstappen as dangerous.

Luca Baldisseri, Ferrari’s former chief engineer who left the team after last season, caused a stir around Formula One before the U.S. Grand Prix when he told Italian media that Ferrari leadership had created a “climate of fear.”

“They are no longer a team, but a group of frightened people,” Baldiserri said.

Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene dismisses external criticism.

“It’s an old story. Ferrari in Italy is like the Italian football national team. I think pressure is normal, having tension is normal, having criticism is normal, so you have to live with that. Then, sometimes it’s going too far,” Arrivabene said.

“This is part of the job … if you work for a brand like Ferrari, you have to accept all of this, like it or not. The atmosphere inside the house is completely different to what people thought about, or what you are reading sometimes in the newspaper.”

To be fair, Ferrari is far from the panic that had set in in 2014 when Mercedes blew everyone away with their new V6 turbo hybrid engines. Ferrari had scrapped its way back to best-of-the-rest in 2015, making this season’s results so frustrating.

And Red Bull’s resurgence has some thinking that’s the team to knock off Mercedes in 2017. Red Bull teammates Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have the only non-Mercedes win this year and those two are considered likely contenders for future world titles.

Ferrari hasn’t won a driver’s championship since Raikkonen in 2007 and the last time it was seriously in the hunt was 2012 with Fernando Alonso. The pairing of Raikkonen with Vettel, who won four titles with Red Bull, gives Ferrari a powerful 1-2 punch behind the wheel if they can get competitive cars.

Vettel is under contract with Ferrari through next season and said he won’t think about starting negotiations until after this season is finished.

“I don’t think it’s important to look into details as such,” Vettel said. “My contract is all fine for next year.”

The Mexican Grand Prix at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was not a good experience for Ferrari in 2015.

Brimming with confidence from a good drive in Texas his team’s season-long surge, Vettel qualified third but was knocked back by a tire puncture on the first lap, then knocked out when aggressive driving led to a late crash. Raikkonen also didn’t finish after breaking a real axle in a bump with Williams driver Valterri Bottas.

It was the first time since 2006 that both Ferrari cars failed to finish a race.

Column: Should NHRA get with the times to grow sport?

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Drag racing has been one of the biggest motorsport passions of my life.

Ever since the first time I went to the now-defunct U.S. 30 Dragstrip in northwest Indiana – with the famous loud and echoing radio liner, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, at beautiful U.S. 30 Dragstrip, where the GREAT ONES Runnnnnnn!” – in the early 1970s, I’ve been a big fan of the quarter-mile.

(By the way, for those in the Midwest who remember U.S. 30, which closed nearly 30 years ago, efforts are under way to bring it back. But I digress.)

As a reporter, I’ve covered drag racing since the early 1980s. I still get as excited today following the sport as I did back then.

But … and you probably figured a but was coming.

While the changes Peter Clifford has brought about since becoming NHRA president nearly a year and a half ago have been very positive, I’m troubled by something – and some of those in the sport as well as a number of fans feel the same way.

For background, the NHRA was founded in 1951 in Southern California by the late Wally Parks. When NHRA began holding large national events in the 1960s, it became almost a standard element that race weekends lasted three or four days. And five or six days when it came to the biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day Weekend near Indianapolis.

I’ve long heard – and continue to hear today – from numerous past and present NHRA officials that they will never NOT race on Sundays. That was non-negotiable, by Parks’ edict.

But as the 2016 season has gone by, and with just two races remaining (this weekend in Las Vegas and Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California), I’ve noticed things that are making me wonder whether additional change to the structure and even tradition of the sport is necessary to make it grow even more.

And that means potentially changing long-held practices like mandatory racing on Sundays.

Please indulge me explanation:

This season started out stronger than most other seasons since perhaps the mid-to-late 1990s. A new TV deal with Fox Sports 1 offered promise of greater visibility and reach. And more fans were coming out to race tracks from Pomona to Gainesville, and from Indianapolis to Sonoma.

But over the last few months, things have begun to regress, including TV ratings. Also since August, NHRA has laid off several employees. Other sanctioning body employees have left on their own.

One thing I take pride in is talking regularly with not only officials of the sanctioning body but also drivers, team owners and team officials to see what’s happening in the sport.

NHRA teams are not like their NASCAR counterparts. They don’t have $20 to $30 million budgets. They don’t have as many well-heeled sponsors. Money is seemingly always tight.

Thus far this season, there have been four sellouts (and two other near-sellouts) on Saturdays at various NHRA national events. That’s quite admirable and commendable. To see the stands packed on Saturday at the U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis for the first time in years this past September brought a huge smile to my face.

But of all the 24 races on the schedule, there has been just one full sellout of final eliminations on Sundays (at Sonoma).

While it’s great to have sellouts for qualifying on Saturday, a lot of those same fans don’t come back to watch the best part of the show on the following day – who winds up winning the event in their respective classes. Part of the reason is fans can’t pay the additional cost to return Sunday, they have to travel back home, etc.

One other thing that continues to be a big fan lure is when NHRA pro qualifying is held at night. It’s one of the best fireworks shows you’ll ever see, with flames spewing from engine headers and sparks shooting out when the cars bottom out on the track and more.

In light of the significant recent TV ratings drops, and at-track attendance taking a hit on recent Sundays when NHRA goes up against the NFL or MLB, I think it might be astute for NHRA to do some significant schedule adjustments going forward.

NHRA says it would prefer to keep weekends at the same length, says Terry Blount, NHRA Vice President of Public Relations:

Every event is subject to review at the end of the season, which we do every year. However, we believe our events work well as three-days shows. It allows our fans the option of buying full-event tickets or choosing a day that works best for them and their family.”

This is the first season in a decade where NHRA has seen sellout crowds and near sellouts at many of our events, including fall races during football season. And our attendance is up overall from a year ago, along with the incredible increase in our TV ratings for our first season on FOX Sports. It’s an indication to all of us that NHRA is trending upward and truly is the fastest growing motorsport in America.

With that, I’ll pose three questions to you, the fans, and I’d love to get your feedback in comments below this story:

1) Is it really necessary to have four qualifying rounds split over two days, and then a third day for final eliminations?

2) Might it be more affordable for fans and teams to have NHRA cut several – if not the majority – three-day race weekends to two, with one day dedicated to, say, three qualifying runs and the second day would be four final elimination rounds?

3) Do you agree that night qualifying – and potentially a few final elimination rounds run at night – would present a show that would enhance the NHRA’s popularity – not to mention become a great lure to bring more fans to the track or in front of their TVs?

Let’s hear your thoughts and we’ll potentially have a follow-up column soon.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Here are your Mexican Grand Prix times on NBC, NBCSN

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The Mexican Grand Prix runs this weekend from the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

As with most races, FP1 and FP3 will be run on NBCSports.com via live stream, with FP2, qualifying and the race televised live in their entireties.

Mexico shifts its clocks back one hour at 2 a.m. local time on Sunday for Daylight Savings Time, so although the time in Mexico City is still the same time zone as U.S. Central Time, it is not actually the same time.

The race rolls off at 1 p.m. local time in Mexico City, which is 2 p.m. CT and 3 p.m. ET in the U.S.

A full breakdown of times and details are below:


Hamilton continued his dominance at Circuit of the Americas in the United States Grand Prix this past Sunday, taking the checkered flag for the fourth time in five races at the venue since 2012. Hamilton gained seven points on Rosberg, who finished in second place and now holds a 26-point lead with three races remaining. This Sunday’s race will have significant implications on the outcome of the 2016 championship, and Rosberg has an outside chance to clinch the title if he wins the race and Hamilton finishes worse than 10th. Rosberg won last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, while Hamilton finished in second place.

Live coverage begins exclusively on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app on Friday at Noon ET with Practice 1, followed by NBCSN’s live coverage of Practice 2 at 3 p.m. ET. Streaming coverage on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app continues with Practice 3 on Saturday at Noon ET, followed by qualifying on NBCSN at 2 p.m. ET.

Live Mexican Grand Prix race coverage begins Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC with F1 Countdown, and F1 Extra will recap the Mexican Grand Prix on NBC at 5 p.m. ET. NBCSN will air an encore presentation of the race on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Lead play-by-play announcer Leigh Diffey will call this weekend’s action, and will be joined by veteran analyst and former racecar driver David Hobbs, and analyst and former race mechanic for the Benetton F1 team Steve Matchett. Townsend Bell will sub for F1 insider Will Buxton on-site from Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City.

In addition to this week’s live motorsports coverage, NBCSN continues its weekly Thursday Night Motorsports Block tomorrow, with a two-hour block of Grudge Race beginning at 8 p.m. ET. Tomorrow’s motorsports coverage also features a Mecum Top 10 marathon which begins at Noon ET.

Following is this week’s NBC Sports Group motorsports coverage schedule:

Fri., October 28 F1 Mexican Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming Noon
Off The Grid NBCSN 2:30 p.m.
F1 Mexican Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 3 p.m.
Sat., October 29 F1 Mexican Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming 6:30 p.m.
F1 Mexican Grand Prix – Qualifying NBCSN 2 p.m.
Sun., October 30 F1 Countdown NBC 2:30 p.m.
F1 Mexican Grand Prix NBC 3 p.m.
F1 Extra NBC 5 p.m.
F1 Mexican Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.

Astronaut has different kind of out of this world experience in an Indy car

HOUSTON, TX  - MARCH 4: NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly speaks to the media after returning from a one year mission in space aboard the International Space Station, at the Johnson Space Center March 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas. Kelly's his record-breaking yearlong mission was intended to provide critical data to understand how to keep astronauts healthy during long space voyages.  (Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images)
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Retired astronaut Cmdr. Scott Kelly has had a number of out of this world experiences, particularly serving three stints on the International Space Station.

There’s not much that can top that.

But to hear Kelly tell it, his recent visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and taking a ride around the legendary 2.5-mile oval in a two-seat Indy car – may have come pretty close.

Kelly and NASA PR rep Amiko Kauderer both took to Twitter to tout their respective rides that day, along with another tweet from IMS president Doug Boles.

Check them out:

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