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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

Highlights from the the Indianapolis 500, Runnings 91-100

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The Associated Press has compiled a list of highlights of all past Indianapolis 500 races, as the buildup to the 100th running presented by PennGrade Motor Oil took place this May 29.

Now with the 100th running complete, we can complete the links of all of the past AP roundups with rookie Alexander Rossi having taken a shock but amazing first win in the race.

Here are runnings 91-100, from 2007 through 2016.

Past pieces:

RACE: 91st Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 27, 2007

WINNER: Dario Franchitti

AVERAGE SPEED: 151.774 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Once again, rain played havoc with “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” There was a three-hour delay with Tony Kanaan, still chasing his first Indy 500 victory, sitting in the lead. The track was eventually dried and the race restarted, but a crash on Lap 162 between Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti brought out the caution with Franchitti in the lead. He was declared the victor when rain halted the race.

NOTABLE: The race is broadcast in high-definition for the first time, rain delay and all. Less obvious to fans was the change in fuel from methanol to ethanol, and one team was fined for using a mixture of methanol on pole day. It was also the final race with Panoz chassis – Dallara would provide all of the chassis in the field the following year. Fans sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” when Jim Nabors had to miss the race due to illness.

RACE: 92nd Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 25, 2008

WINNER: Scott Dixon

AVERAGE SPEED: 143.567 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: The split that nearly ruined American open-wheel racing was a memory when the flag dropped on the first Indy 500 after unification. Marco Andretti again led the race as he tried to end the “Andretti curse,” but Vitor Meira took the lead on a restart with 41 laps to go. Dixon took the lead and held it the final 24 laps, with Meira finishing second and Andretti third. Helio Castroneves was fourth in his bid for his third victory.

NOTABLE: Ryan Briscoe tagged Danica Patrick as they were exiting pit road on the final sequence of stops, ending both of their days. Patrick tried to walk toward Briscoe’s pit stall before security intervened, and both drivers were summoned to the IndyCar trailer. They were ultimately fined $100,000 apiece and placed on probation. Meanwhile, Dixon became the first New Zealander to win.

RACE: 93rd Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 24, 2009

WINNER: Helio Castroneves

AVERAGE SPEED: 150.318 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Castroneves won from the pole to become the first foreign-born three-time winner of the race. Former winner Dan Wheldon finished second and Danica Patrick, a year after her pit-road dust-up with Ryan Briscoe, finished third for the best result ever by a woman.

NOTABLE: The race began a three-year centennial celebration leading up to 2011, the 100th anniversary of the first edition of the race. Tony Kanaan wrecked when his driveshaft failed him near the midpoint of the race, leaving him visibly shaken afterward. Paul Tracy also returned for the first time since 2002, when his pass of Castroneves for the lead on Lap 199 was determined to have come after the caution flew for a wreck on another part of the track.

RACE: 94th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 30, 2010

WINNER: Dario Franchitti

AVERAGE SPEED: 161.623 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Franchitti took the lead on Lap 192 when the leaders, having chosen not to pit when Sebastian Saavedra spun 31 laps earlier, had to stop for fuel. Franchitti also began to conserve fuel over the final laps, but he was able to hold off Dan Wheldon. Marco Andretti wound up with his third top-three finish in five starts. Ryan Hunter-Reay ran out of fuel on the last lap and was hit by Mike Conway, who broke his leg in the accident.

NOTABLE: It was the first race with four female starters. Danica Patrick finished sixth and Simona de Silvestro won rookie of the year after finishing 14th. Franchitti’s victory eventually gave team owner Chip Ganassi a sweep of the Daytona 500 (Jamie McMurray), the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 when McMurray won at Indianapolis later in the year.

RACE: 95th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 29, 2011

WINNER: Dan Wheldon

AVERAGE SPEED: 170.265 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: American rookie J.R. Hildebrand was poised to take the checkered flag when his car drifted high on the final turn of the last lap and he hit the wall. Wheldon slipped by as Hildebrand skidded down the front stretch, winning his second Indy 500. Hildebrand finished second in his wrecked car.

NOTABLE: The race capped a three-year centennial celebration of the Indy 500. Donald Trump was supposed to drive the pace car but stepped away due to “time constraints,” though there was a public campaign to prevent him from participating. Wheldon won for one-off team Bryan Herta Autosport, much to the chagrin of Hildebrand’s team Panther Racing – which fired Wheldon before the season. Wheldon was killed that October in a wreck at Las Vegas.

RACE: 96th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 27, 2012

WINNER: Dario Franchitti

AVERAGE SPEED: 167.734 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Franchitti was getting pushed by Takuma Sato on the final lap when Sato challenged him low in Turn 1. Sato lost control as the cars touched, sending him into the wall. Franchitti went on to victory with Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon finishing second. The victory was Franchitti’s third at Indy.

NOTABLE: Franchitti dedicated the victory to two-time winner Dan Wheldon, who had been killed in a crash at Las Vegas the previous October. The race featured the new Dallara chassis and reintroduced turbocharged engines. It also marked the return of engine manufacturer Chevrolet. Tony Kanaan led the race during a late caution as he tried to secure his first win, but he faded on the restart and finished third.

RACE: 97th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 26, 2013

WINNER: Tony Kanaan

AVERAGE SPEED: 187.433 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: After 11 failed attempts and numerous close calls, Kanaan finally got his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. The popular Brazilian overtook Ryan Hunter-Reay on a restart with three laps to go, then led Carlos Munoz and Hunter-Reay across the finish line when Dario Franchitti crashed to bring out the final caution. Marco Andretti finished fourth in yet another close call for his famous family.

NOTABLE: The average speed made the race he fastest in Indy 500 history, beating the mark set by Arie Luyendyk in 1990. There were an astounding 68 lead changes and 14 different leaders, both records, and the 26 cars running at the finish was also a record. Chevrolet dominated the month of May and swept the top four spots, breaking Honda’s streak of nine consecutive Indy 500 wins. Jim Nabors was back at the Brickyard to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” after missing the previous year with an illness.

RACE: 98th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 25, 2014

WINNER: Ryan Hunter-Reay

AVERAGE SPEED: 186.563 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Trying once again to join the exclusive club of four-time winners, Helio Castroneves pushed Hunter-Reay hard in the final laps. The first American to win the Indy 500 since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 held off Castroneves by 0.600 seconds, the second-closest finish in race history.

NOTABLE: The month began with the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course, which was won by Simon Pagenaud. Ed Carpenter won his second straight pole, but it was Kurt Busch who made headlines in his bid to run the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Busch finished sixth in the Indy 500 but could not finish the NASCAR race because of a blown engine that night in Charlotte. Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the 35th and final time.

RACE: 99th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 24, 2015

WINNER: Juan Pablo Montoya

AVERAGE SPEED: 161.341 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: His career at a crossroads, Montoya returned to open-wheel racing from NASCAR with Penske Racing. He swapped the lead with Scott Dixon and Will Power four times in the final 13 laps, the final move coming with four laps to go as Montoya slipped outside of Power in Turn 1 for the lead. He held off Power for the remaining three laps to win his second Indy 500.

NOTABLE: Three crashes during practice sent cars outfitted with new aerokits airborne, forcing safety to the forefront for IndyCar. Among those hurt in a crash was James Hinchcliffe, who nearly lost his life after his leg was impaled by a piece of equipment. Some changes addressed the issue by race day. An a cappella group sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” after the retirement the previous year of Jim Nabors.

RACE: 100th Indianapolis 500

DATE: May 29, 2016

WINNER: Alexander Rossi

AVERAGE SPEED: 166.634 mph

WHAT HAPPENED: Rossi was a 66-to-1 longshot, an IndyCar rookie who had chased a ride in Formula One since he was 10. Stuck without one, the California native returned to the U.S. and landed a ride with Andretti Autosport. He stunned his faster rivals by outlasting them in a fuel-mileage showdown, his car running out of gas during his victory lap.

NOTABLE: Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when they got tangled with each other on pit road. It was the first sellout in Indy 500 history, with more than 350,000 in attendance, and the race was televised locally for the first time since the 1950s.

Haas, Renault forego supersofts in Canadian GP tire selections

during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 15, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.
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With today being the Tuesday two weeks before the Grand Prix, it means the tire selections are in for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Pirelli’s ultrasoft compound takes precedence for the run at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

So much so, in fact, that the Haas F1 Team and Renault Sport F1 Team have gone only for ultrasofts as their alternate compound, and foregone the supersofts.

See Pirelli’s full breakdown below and my colleague Luke Smith’s more humourous take on the breakdown below.

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NBCSN’S Townsend Bell’s 10th Indy 500 fun to watch, but ends P21

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INDIANAPOLIS – NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell seemed poised to break through several times in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but a finish of 21st place wasn’t what the doctor ordered.

Driving the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda for Andretti Autosport, Bell started fourth, then ran third for most of the opening stint before his first stop.

His car was even better after the first round of adjustments as he got into second immediately after and then into the lead on Lap 42. Bell for seven laps then and a further five laps (57, 113 to 116) while maintaining a top three position.

It marked the first laps Bell has led since the only prior lap led in his IndyCar career, one lap in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 then driving for Panther Racing.

Bell had several interesting moments during the race. At one point when defending against Josef Newgarden, Bell took a low line into Turn 1 and Newgarden drove well to avoid contact.

On Monday morning, Bell addressed a tweet from Ryan Briscoe, a veteran IndyCar and sports car competitor.

Then, on Lap 93, Sage Karam had gotten up to fourth in the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing with Bell back to fifth.

Bell got back by into Turn 1, while Karam ran high following minor contact and then crashed hard into the Turn 1 wall. The 21-year-old American had started 23rd and gained 19 spots in the car that Bell had driven last year.

Bell was still in win contention until the final death knell for his race occurred on Lap 117, when making another round of pit stops, and it came after he and teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay were running one-two.

Bell and Hunter-Reay launched at nearly the identical time, with Bell then trying to accelerate out into the fast lane in trying to avoid Hunter-Reay, but also hitting Helio Castroneves, who continued unscathed.

Meanwhile the two Andretti Autosport teammates two collided and spun in the pit lane. At that point, arguably two of the best cars in the race – went down a lap and fell to 25th and 26th, respectively.

For this incident, Bell was assessed a pit safety infraction penalty and issued a stop-and-go penalty.

“It was a pretty straightforward day,” Bell told NBC Sports on Monday. “We had a race-winning car, running at the front. We saved fuel early on while Hinch and RHR took chance to lead. We tried to get ourselves in position for end of race.

“I had control off the car throughout the entire stint. Then I came in for the pit stop from the lead. Came off the jacks, the crew sent me, then RHR, then I thought, ‘I don’t want to hit my teammate,’ and he was going aroud Newgarden. Then I had no idea Castroneves was there. It just ping-ponged at that point. I fought hard to get us back on the lead lap. But from there, our day was pretty much done.”

Here were Bell’s quotes via Sunday’s post-race release:  “He (Ryan Hunter-Reay) was pulling out and I’m not going to stop. What a shame. We had a great race car and we were saving fuel early on. The pit stops seemed pretty good.

“All of a sudden I’m leading, I think, when I come in. We pit, I get out before Ryan and he starts going. So I’m going around him outside and I didn’t know a car (Castroneves) was coming down. I guess the three of us were trying to occupy space for two cars. It took me and Ryan out. I’ll look at it but I don’t know what I could have done differently.”

Hunter-Reay’s post-race comments sung a similar tune: “Something out of our control happened. They said, ‘Go, go, go!’ It looked like Townsend (Bell) got into Helio (Castroneves) and bounced into me. At that point I would have just have waited until they got by. As a driver you can’t see anything (beside you in the pits). When you’re released, you go.

“The car was so strong. The only time we ever spent any time (slower) was because I was saving some fuel. Other than that, it was a rocket ship. Such a shame when you have a car like that. The car was great. We could have won this thing today.”

Bell briefly made it back to the lead lap despite a second penalty assessed for entering a closed pit on Lap 158. He was on the lead lap until his last stop and ultimately ended 21st; Hunter-Reay was 24th.

In the next couple weeks, Bell will resume his NBCSN broadcast booth responsibilities for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Firestone 600 (June 11, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Texas Motor Speedway, and is also preparing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Scuderia Corsa. He has both the test day (June 5) and the race (June 18-19) scheduled.

He and his teammates, Sweedler and Jeff Segal, were all present together this month at IMS for qualifying.

Sunday’s result will likely be a tough one for Bell to swallow, because he had a fantastic month with Andretti Autosport, but ultimately too many incidents that reduced a potential winning run to a forgettable finish.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29: The safety car leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, and the rest of the field at the start during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s wet Monaco Grand Prix brought out the very best of Lewis Hamilton. After a tough start to his bid for a fourth Formula 1 championship, the Briton finally kick-started his season with an exquisite victory around the streets of the principality.

Hamilton picked up his first victory since last October’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, while also cutting the gap to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship.

While Hamilton basked in his second Monaco success, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was left to wonder what could have been after a pit error cost him a likely victory.

The Australian was left to settle for second place ahead of Sergio Perez, who claimed just the fourth podium finish in Force India’s history with a superb run to P4.

Debriefing with all of the post-race interviews and analysis, Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.