Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson is off to a great start in the 2014 season, with wins in the last two events. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Breaking down NHRA pro ranks after first three races of 2014 season

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Sure, we’re only three races into the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, but a lot has happened already.

And if that’s an indication of even more to come, 2014 could go down as one of the bigger seasons in recent memory.

Following this past Sunday’s Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., let’s take a look at who’s strong, who’s struggled and anything in-between among the four primary pro classes:

TOP FUEL:

Three-time Gainesville winner Doug Kalitta, including this past Sunday, is off to one of the best starts ever in his career.

Racking up his first win of the season and 34th overall this past Sunday, the Michigan native now has a win and a runner-up in the first three events.

Ditto for Antron Brown, who lost in Sunday’s finals to Gainesville after winning two weeks before at Phoenix.

Not surprisingly, Kalitta leads the Top Fuel standings, with Brown second, Steve Torrence third and season-opening race winner at Pomona, Khalid alBalooshi.

On the flip side, what’s happened to seven-time champ Tony Schumacher? “The Sarge” has not won a dragster championship since 2009 and is off to an uncharacteristically slow start in 2014.

Schumacher is eighth after the first three events, an already distant 163 points behind the front-running Kalitta.

FUNNY CAR:

The ageless wonder, John Force – who turns 65 in May – is intent on winning a record 17th Funny Car championship in 2014 for several reasons.

First, longtime sponsors Castrol Oil and Ford will be leaving at the end of the season.

Second, although Force is diligently looking for new sponsorship for 2015, he hasn’t made any significant announcements yet.

Third, although we find the likelihood of it happening very unlikely, the rumor mill has Force potentially retiring at season’s end if he doesn’t find enough funds to replace what he’ll lose from Castrol and Ford.

And then there’s the other predominant rumor we keep hearing: Force may be forced – no pun intended – to switch to Top Fuel in 2015 if his hopefully new potential sponsors want it.

Force has veteran TF tuner Jimmy Prock – who has the colorful nickname of “Go For the Jugular” – as crew chief for son-in-law and fellow FC driver Robert Hight this season.

But if Force were to move up to Top Fuel next season, don’t be surprised if he takes Prock with him.

Thus far in 2014, Force is off to a great start. He won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., setting new national event records for speed and elapsed time.

Then at the Gatornationals, Force qualified poorly (last of the 16-car field), but rallied to finish runner-up to Hight – who is also off to a great start himself with a win and runner-up (at Phoenix).

Other drivers that have enjoyed a great start thus far include Alexis DeJoria, who became the first female Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier in the Pomona season opener, and then followed that up with her first national event win at Phoenix.

After a year’s layoff, Tommy Johnson Jr. is solid in sixth, as well.

But very conspicuous by their absences in the top 10 are brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, who have a combined four FC championships between them (two each).

PRO STOCK:

In Pro Stock, it was out with the old and in with the new at Gainesville for Allen Johnson, and he didn’t miss a beat.

The 2012 PS champ jettisoned his trustworthy Dodge Avenger and brought a brand new 2014 Dodge Dart with him to the Gatornationals (as did fellow competitor Jeg Coughlin).

The change made no difference whatsoever, as Johnson roared to his second win in the first three races.

Vieri Gaines (more commonly known as just V. Gaines) is off to one of the best season starts of his career, ranked second behind Johnson in the points standings after Gainesville.

Pomona winner Jason Line is a close fourth, as well.

Coughlin has struggled somewhat in the first three races, ranked eighth, but the five-time and 2013 defending Pro Stock champ is still well within striking distance to get on a hot streak and make a big jump in the rankings in the next several races.

If there’s one driver in the PS ranks you can never count out, it’s Coughlin, indeed.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:

Okay, there’s really not much you can gauge in the bikes, as Sunday’s race at Gainesville was only the first on the 16-race PSM calendar in 2014.

Still, veteran rider Steve Johnson deserves special recognition. Johnson earned his first win on the circuit since 2008.

The 53-year-old Birmingham, Ala. native became the first Suzuki rider to win an NHRA national event since 2011.

And to top it all off, Johnson finds himself leading the PSM points for only the second time in his lengthy career, and the first time since 2005.

Others that looked good in the season opener included Scotty Pollacheck (second in points) and third-ranked Hector Arana Jr.

In an interesting twist, three members of the Arana family are in the top nine in the standings: Hector Jr., family patriarch Hector Arana Sr. and other son Adam Arana (the latter two are part of a four-way tie for ninth-place with Shawn Gann and Katie Sullivan).

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Grace Autosport continuing to build program towards May

L to R: Grace Autosports Team Principal Beth Paretta and race driver Katherine Legge launch an all-female Indy 500 team to contest the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 (PRNewsFoto/Grace Autosport)
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One of the newest teams planning to field an entry at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Grace Autosport, continues its preparations in what could be a hectic month of February.

The primarily female initiative, led by Beth Paretta with Katherine Legge as nominated driver, has gained traction in the last month or so with further meetings, STEM events and Legge’s standout drive in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opening race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

While announced last May, time is of the essence for securing both an engine lease and a team partner, to go along with the crew already established.

The target to confirm both the engine and team partner is coming up next month.

“[We’d need to finalize] by the beginning of March to give it proper time,” Paretta told NBC Sports in an interview following the Rolex 24.

Paretta was on site at Daytona for the Rolex 24 for a number of meetings with manufacturers and other key industry stakeholders, to continue to promote the Grace Autosport message, brand and team.

“Yes, there were a few key meetings – some planned, some impromptu – which went very well,” she said.

“The awareness still surprises me. I was wearing a Grace Autosport hat in the paddock and a few people asked me about the team. Many people in the racing community have said they think the concept is cool and have offered help.

“I get offers for help from some guys that have worked on teams I’ve worked with in the past, which is lovely.”

Legge’s drive at Daytona in the DeltaWing DWC13 coupe didn’t hurt matters, either.

The Tim Keene-led team opted not to qualify in the treacherous, rain-soaked conditions. Legge started the car and went from 13th and last in the Prototype class field up to third within the first 20 minutes, and led by the end of the first hour.

In a career that’s had occasional standout drives, this was one of them, and came at a good time.

“Her drive in the DeltaWing was just fantastic. While she was leading overall I was talking with some other racing drivers in pit lane and one said, almost dismissively, ‘Well, that car was really fast,’” Paretta said of Legge.

“Yes, it was, but she has been an integral part of the development of that car and part of the reason why it’s become faster. Any IMSA fan knows that the DeltaWing project has had a lot of challenges so I think to see it running up front was a nice surprise for many fans. People like an underdog so I think it was really exciting to watch her climb through the field and run up front.”

Legge was due to share the car with Andy Meyrick, Sean Rayhall and Andreas Wirth before Meyrick got caught up in a strange accident, where a radio issue meant Meyrick didn’t fully hear there was another PC car stopped on course in the middle of Turn 1.

Although Meyrick braked earlier than normal to avoid it, proved by the data, he still wound up hitting Chris Cumming’s stranded car which took the DeltaWing out of the race. Cumming’s PC car was also severely wounded.

The DeltaWing aside, where Legge and Grace really seek to make strides is in STEM events. Legge and Paretta recently did an event in Indianapolis with the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc., last week.

The STEM portion is a major component of the Grace Autosport effort.

“STEM and education for girls is the foundation of Grace Autosport. It isn’t a throwaway comment connecting racing with a ’cause.’ It is why we are racing,” Paretta said.

“Even though we have yet to turn a wheel, we are working with different groups supporting educational initiatives for girls and young women. We participated in the Society of Women Engineers’ annual conference, which was held in Nashville in October, and this week Katherine and I will be delivering the keynote address to a conference for science teachers in the State of Indiana.

“So STEM education isn’t a pet cause for us, it is the cause for what we are doing. We will be making a few more announcements in the coming months that we will explain how we will connect our message to the community and the classroom.”

Jake Eidson steps up to Pro Mazda with Cape in 2016

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Jake Eidson came up short of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship last year, losing out to Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing’s Nico Jamin.

Now, at the next step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, they’ll be teammates.

Jamin was confirmed last week with Cape for his step up from USF2000 into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and this morning Eidson, the 20-year-old out of Littleton, Colorado, was confirmed as Cape’s second driver.

“I’m extremely grateful and excited to enter my first season of Pro Mazda and to rejoin Cape Motorsport with Wayne Taylor Racing,” Eidson offered.

“After finishing second in last year’s USF2000 championship, we weren’t sure if moving up to Pro Mazda was possible. When the season was over, we tested with the Capes and quickly knew that they have a winning team. Fortunately, we were able to make the 2016 season achievable.

“I know that my goal, as well as the team’s goal, is to aim for the top spot in the Pro Mazda championship and I have a lot of confidence in their ability to make it happen. This is a dream come true and I can’t wait to get started!”

It’s a natural progression for Eidson, who ran two full seasons in USF2000. His first came with Cape in 2014 where he finished third in points, before he moved to Pabst Racing and was one of only two drivers (Aaron Telitz) to pose a threat to Jamin as the year progressed.

Eidson is supported in his efforts by Rising Star Racing, DA Lubricants Company, Bell Helmets, OMP, Team USA Scholarship, and SafeisFast.

The top three USF2000 drivers all moving up to Pro Mazda is important for the second rung on the ladder; they’ll race arguably the championship favorite in Garett Grist plus his three young, hungry teammates at Juncos Racing, with other driver announcements to come in the coming days.

Red Bull GRC confirms Wild Horse Pass for season opener

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Phoenix was listed as the season opener for the 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross season, but a location was not confirmed.

Today though, the series has confirmed where the Phoenix round will be held: at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway.

It’s in Chandler, Arizona, technically, but it should still be a good spot for the season-opening doubleheader round.

The full release is below:

For the first time in series history, Red Bull Global Rallycross will visit the state of Arizona during the 2016 season. Red Bull GRC Phoenix, the season opener and first of four doubleheaders on the schedule, will take place at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, one of the most diverse motorsports playgrounds in the United States.

“The southwest is a crucial market for Red Bull GRC, with many of our most passionate fans located in the region,” said Red Bull GRC CEO Colin Dyne. “The opportunity to bring our unique brand of racing to the Phoenix market for the first time was something we couldn’t pass up. Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is the perfect setting for us as we look to open our finest season yet.”

Located just off of I-10, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is located only 15 minutes from downtown Phoenix, with ample parking and amenities on-site. Fans will be treated to a challenging and fast mile-long track, featuring the series’ signature 70-foot jump, and will be able to see all the action from great spectator areas overlooking the entire facility.

This will be the first time that a Red Bull GRC season begins with a doubleheader. Performing well in the opener has been a constant step towards winning a title, as no Red Bull GRC champion has ever finished worse than fourth in the first race of the year. Defending Supercar champion Scott Speed and defending GRC Lites champion Oliver Eriksson finished second and third in class, respectively, in last year’s opener; both drivers are expected to begin their title defense in Phoenix.

In no great surprise, McLaren also passes crash tests

xxxx during day four of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.
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The new McLaren chassis, the MP4-31, has passed its crash tests ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 season, the team has confirmed today.

This means all 11 teams have had their new chassis complete the crash test and thus be ready for action starting with the first test of the winter February 22-25 at Barcelona, in Spain. Sauber has already indicated it will debut its new chassis at the second test.

McLaren, of course, will be looking for a better start to its season with race drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button and reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne. Alonso’s mysterious accident last spring at Barcelona ruled him out of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.