John Force looks to shake off winless drought and cook in Hotlanta

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Given how hot his overall race team has been thus far in the 2014 NHRA season, there couldn’t be a better place for John Force Racing to compete at next than Hotlanta.

Ok, so it’s actually Commerce, Ga., about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, Ga., but close enough as JFR prepares for this weekend’s (May 16-18) Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals.

The chairman of the board, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, has had a longtime love affair with Atlanta Dragway, earning a record seven wins there, more than any other driver at that particular track in NHRA history.

But there’s a downside to that story, as well: As much as he’s dominated at Atlanta Dragway, Force has not reached victory lane there for nearly a decade – eight years to be exact.

He hopes to change that this weekend, while also extending the overall hot streak that all JFR drivers have been on thus far this season, particularly Force’s son-in-law and JFR president Robert Hight, who has reached the final round in each of the last five races, coming away with three wins.

Hight, who is still riding the momentum of his win two weeks ago at Houston, is also atop the NHRA Funny Car points standings, as a result.

Force, meanwhile, has reached the final round in eight of his last 11 races, dating back to last season, with wins in four of those. He also set both ends of the NHRA elapsed time (3.966 seconds) and speed (324.12 mph) records for a Funny Car earlier this year in this year’s season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

“We have been on a tear, and our other cars (Courtney Force in Funny Car and Brittany Force in Top Fuel) are coming around,” Force said. “I feel as a whole team we have come together, and the brain trust will keep us alive and winning.

“We have been to every final going back to Indy last year, which is 13 finals in a row. Winning is where the focus is, and we won’t forget safety.”

Force last won at Atlanta Dragway in 2005, a lengthy drought that he hopes to snap this weekend.

“Atlanta can be tricky because of the heat,” Force said. “We have adapted and with (crew chief) Jimmy Prock, that seems like one of the places where he does well.

“But Jimmy and I have never run this track together, and I am excited about that. I also love the people because they are really into their racing.”

Not only will he be battling Hight, Force will also take on two-time Atlanta winner and 2012 world champ Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Alexis DeJoria, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon for top honors in Funny Car this weekend.

“I need to do well, and it is not just because we are up there in the points,” said Force, who turned 65 on May 4. “It’s a matter of you have to learn how to run by the time you get to the Countdown [to the Championship]. We say it every race at the team meetings, ‘This is the race you have to start winning.'”

Also of note this weekend, an NHRA milestone could be achieved by one of several female racers, as the next win will be the 100th career win by a woman driver or rider in the sanctioning body’s history.

Among those hoping to put their name in the NHRA record books: Pro Stock points leader Erica Enders-Stevens, DeJoria and Courtney Force in Funny Car, Brittany Force in Top Fuel, and Katie Sullivan and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

But of course, as a proud papa, John Force hopes one of his daughters sets that historic mark.

“I was thinking about Ashley (daughter Ashley Force Hood, now retired from competition) and how no woman had ever won a Funny Car race until she beat me in 2008 in Atlanta,” Force said. “That will go down in history, but to also be the 100th female winner will be huge.

“What is really cool is Brittany and Courtney are overdue. To win that 100th race is a landmark, and I hope one of them gets it.”

Qualifying begins Friday with sessions at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. ET. The final two qualifying sessions take place Saturday at 12:30 and 3 p.m.

Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

Follow @KyleMLavigne