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).”

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Takuma Sato captures 101st Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Similar to last year, an Andretti Autosport driver that wasn’t the most discussed or fastest has won the Indianapolis 500.

But after his best month yet at Indianapolis, bravery and tenacity has won Takuma Sato the 2017 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And for Helio Castroneves, finishing second leaves him again, one spot short of his elusive fourth victory.

Rookie Ed Jones was third ahead of Max Chilton, with Tony Kanaan completing the top five.

Meanwhile Fernando Alonso had an engine issue that took him out from a star drive, and Scott Dixon survived a crazy accident early on despite going airborne.

This was a crazy race because it had 11 yellow flag periods, plus a red flag, and 15 different leaders, a record.

Unofficial results are below. More to follow.

Big wreck late in Indy 500 takes out Power, Hinchcliffe, two others

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A major wreck with 17 laps left in the Indianapolis 500 has occurred, involving five cars.

Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe, James Davison, Will Power and Josef Newgarden were involved in the incident, as they exited Turn 1 into the short chute to Turn 2.

All but Newgarden saw their day come to an end in the wreck. Newgarden wasn’t directly involved in the wreck, but spun avoiding the other cars, tapped the inside retaining wall, and spun back onto the racetrack.

Max Chilton is leading the race, with Takuma Sato second, followed by Ed Jones, Helio Castroneves and JR Hildebrand.

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Alonso’s Indy 500 dream ends in all-too-familar Honda engine failure

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From a story that started six weeks ago when he shocked the racing world by announcing his entry to the 101st Indianapolis 500, Fernando Alonso’s dream of winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing came to an all-too-familiar end when he was sidelined by an engine failure late on.

Two-time Formula 1 champion Alonso had been a force at the front of the pack throughout the first half of the race and even looked capable of taking a famous victory at the Brickyard, only for his engine to give up on the main straight and his hopes to go up in smoke.

Given his Indy 500 entry was put into motion as a way to ease his gripes with McLaren’s F1 struggles with ailing engine partner Honda, for it to end in such fashion weighs heavy with irony and, for Alonso, disappointment.

Thrown into a rolling IndyCar race start for the first, Alonso made a slow getaway on the opening lap to lose four positions and sit ninth, only to then pick his way back through the order with some fine overtakes on the likes of Will Power and JR Hildebrand.

A swift first pit stop of 8.2 seconds from the McLaren-Honda-Andretti crew lifted Alonso to third after the opening cycle, with the Spaniard then putting down the hammer to take the lead of the race from Alexander Rossi on Lap 37.

Alonso and Rossi spent the next 15 laps drafting, swapping the lead back and forth in a bid to save fuel, with the McLaren man sitting as race leader when the red flag was thrown for the crash between Scott Dixon and Jay Howard on Lap 52.

Alonso shuffled back to fourth before the next caution was shown following Conor Daly’s crash, and the Spaniard continued to sit in the top five despite being frustrated by former F1 colleague Max Chilton’s bold defense at one point.

Running second behind Andretti teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rossi, Alonso was able to battle his way back through to the lead on the restart with 70 laps to go following Buddy Lazier’s shunt.

Honda’s engine concerns were justified when smoke began to seep from the rear of Hunter-Reay’s car, sparking another caution on Lap 138. While it did rule out one of Alonso’s win rivals, it was one less bullet in the gun for Andretti at the front.

Alonso made his penultimate stop under the caution, dropping him to ninth behind the drivers that opted to stay out. Just a single lap followed when Ed Carpenter’s front wing broke, leaving debris on track, but there was enough time for Alonso to fall back to 12th ahead of the sixth caution.

The loss of position also cost Alonso his net advantage over the field. Now on the same strategy as Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia – all of whom ran ahead – Alonso had ground to make up heading towards the final round of pit stops.

Alonso’s final visit to pit road was sparked by another caution called for a Honda engine failure, this time leaving Charlie Kimball on the sidelines. The majority of the pack came in, leaving the field with a straight sprint to the flag. Sat ninth for the restart, Alonso had to mount a charge with 30 laps to go on the restart.

Having passed James Davison early on the restart, Alonso picked up another spot with a brave move around the outside of Kanaan with 24 laps to go, giving him P7.

As Alonso continued to push, he became the third Honda driver to suffer an engine failure as he came towards the start/finish with around 20 laps remaining, his car grinding to a halt.

First Honda engine issue strikes Hunter-Reay on Lap 137

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INDIANAPOLIS – Reliability was expected to be a major story line in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil but it has taken until Lap 137 before the first Honda engine issue has hit, which came from pre-race concerns in that camp.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who led seven times for 28 laps in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, had his engine drop out on the backstraight as he went onto the apron into Turn 3.

It is the second straight year the 2014 winner has been sidelined short of a possible second win.

Hunter-Reay has diced with teammates Fernando Alonso and Alexander Rossi this race. At the time of his motor dropping out, he was running second to Alonso.

There were eight Honda engine failures this month prior to today, between the INDYCAR Grand Prix race, and Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifying.