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

Alonso, Vandoorne get grid drops in Baku after power unit changes

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McLaren Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne are set to start this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix from the last row of the grid after the FIA confirmed that both will receive a 15-place drop from their qualifying position.

Alonso and Vandoorne are yet to score a single point through the opening seven races of the season amid ongoing difficulties for engine partner Honda, whose power unit has lacked both performance and reliability so far this season.

Alonso’s struggles continued in practice in Baku on Friday as he was forced to park up at the side of the track during FP2 with an apparent engine issue, adding to McLaren’s ongoing plight.

The Spaniard said in McLaren’s race preview that he expected to take a grid penalty for changing a number of parts on his power unit, with the drop being officially confirmed by the FIA on Friday.

Both Alonso and Vandoorne will take a 15-place grid drop from their final qualifying position on Friday, meaning they are likely to start from the final row of the grid.

The only other driver with a grid penalty in Baku is Carlos Sainz Jr., who will drop three places as punishment for causing a collision at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Wickens set for IndyCar practice debut after last-minute hustle

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – It hasn’t even been 24 hours yet since Robert Wickens got the call that he’d be deputizing, temporarily, for Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda in today’s practice sessions for the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

But the 28-year-old Canadian out of Guelph, Ontario is fully stoked for the opportunity that he’ll be in at least today, and potentially further if Aleshin is unable to make it time for the weekend.

Wickens said repeatedly in a brief media availability that he is taking this weekend “day-by-day” and will look to gather data today in his first official running in an IndyCar, and second ever following his test at Sebring in March.

“First off, I’m excited to be here. It was definitely a last-minute trip!” Wickens said Friday morning. “I found yesterday at 2 p.m., then got on a flight, got to the hotel last night at 10, and got here as soon as the gates opened.

“I haven’t been here since 2007 when I raced in Atlantics. It’s a steep learning curve! But I know how exciting the car is and I’m super excited to drive it.”

The aforementioned 2007 Atlantics race is, surprisingly, Wickens’ only start at Road America, even though he starred in Formula BMW prior to his graduation to Atlantics as part of Red Bull’s Junior Team with Forsythe Racing. Fittingly, he beat James Hinchcliffe in that Atlantic race – Wickens was seventh and Hinchcliffe was 14th.

His running this morning will come only after a whirlwind period of getting the call to drive, then clearing it with his necessary Mercedes-Benz and HWA bosses.

“I was supposed to be in Europe… so I was home in Toronto. I thought I’d have a relaxing weekend at home before next race in Germany, as DTM is my priority,” he said.

“I had to call the HWA CEO who’s my first call in demand, but he’s more than happy for me to get seat time, he understood the situation, and said drivers driving different cars will make you better in our day job. So he called Toto (Wolff).

“I was more nervous about the timeframe, as this all happened extremely last minute. He’s in Azerbiaijan; and we needed a quick answer, yes or no. Five minutes later he called me back, and said, pack your helmet and have fun. It wasn’t that hard to convince him.”

Wickens said the fluid nature of the weekend has already changed his objective. Naturally, he wants to go through and race this weekend although he understands that if Aleshin makes it back, the Russian will be in the car.

“It’d be bittersweet if I can’t run the race; I’m excited to do an IndyCar race,” Wickens said. “My idol growing up was (the late) Greg Moore. I always watched CART, Champ Car, IndyCar. So it’d be cool to tick that box.

“But Mikhail and I were teammates at Red Bull. I feel for his situation. As an international driver it’s not easy with immigration.

“Obviously to be blunt, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t do the race. But then again yesterday, I was on my way to a relaxing weekend, now I’m at Road America.”

Wickens will enter into a field where he’s actually raced a lot of drivers before in either or both of the North American and European junior formula championships.

Included among that list are Hinchcliffe, Aleshin, Esteban Gutierrez, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden, among others.

“It’s pretty cool. Rossi and I go pretty far back. We always karted in same championship. And I think we raced the first time against each other in GP3 in 2010. We did 3.5 as well. Him and I were in the top three of the championship.

“I haven’t seen any of my friends yet other than Hinch! But then there’s Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden, Esteban Gutiereez and more. It’s so cool to see guys can make career opportunities here in IndyCar.”

Wickens, who is using a seat formerly used by Simon Pagenaud when he was at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports through 2014, will look to add to the team’s data collection this afternoon.

If he practices but doesn’t race, he’ll be the first driver to do so since Rocky Moran Jr. in Long Beach in 2015. Moran was announced to make his race debut with Dale Coyne Racing but sustained a hand injury in practice, which opened the door for Daly to fill in and make his road or street course debut.

That being said, Wickens wants to race. He told NBC Sports he and the team have not discussed further race weekends yet; it is worth noting that the DTM calendar does not conflict with any remaining road or street course races this year.

“I’m in the car, not 100 percent comfortable but short time frame, it’s pretty good,” he said. “The team just wants simple data. If Mikhail shows up, he’ll have a car that’s better off.”

Verstappen fastest in second Baku F1 practice, crashes late on

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Max Verstappen continued his impressive start to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend by topping the second Formula 1 practice session in Baku on Friday evening, only to suffer a late crash in the final minute of running.

Verstappen set the pace for Red Bull in FP1 earlier in the day, and continued to lay down an strong pace through the second session as teams completed a mix of qualifying and race simulation runs.

Verstappen turned in a fastest lap time of 1:43.362 to finish one-tenth of a second clear at the head of the field, edging out Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.

Verstappen’s impressive pace was underpinned by Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who ended up third, just 0.111 seconds off the pace.

However, the team’s day took a late hit when Verstappen slammed side-on into the barrier at Turn 1 when trying to steer his way out of a spin, causing damage to his RB13 car that will leave his mechanics with a busy night of work.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished fourth and fifth for Ferrari, the latter being involved in a number of on-track incidents as he and many others struggled to find grip.

Besides Verstappen, a number of drivers had off-track excursions and took to the run-off area, with Vettel and Williams’ Felipe Massa both going off at Turn 8 at one stage, causing a traffic jam.

Jolyon Palmer was the only driver to end up in the wall, offering a repeat of Sergio Perez’s FP1 crash by slamming into the barrier at Turn 8, bringing out a red flag.

Palmer’s shunt prevented a number of drivers from completing qualifying simulation runs, including Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who finished the session 10th-fastest.

Lance Stroll put in an impressive display for Williams to finish sixth overall ahead of Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat, with Esteban Ocon taking ninth position.

Besides Palmer, Fernando Alonso was also forced to miss the latter part of the session after suffering an apparent engine failure while out on-track, forcing him to park up at the side of the circuit.

Scott Dixon makes young IndyCar fan’s day (VIDEO)

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After his significant accident in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Scott Dixon was almost more frustrated with the fact his Chip Ganassi Racing team would have to build up a new chassis to replace his one that flew several hundred feet after catapulting over Jay Howard.

But a young fan named Lucy put the accident into its proper perspective, as was discovered by Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query in IndyCar’s fan mail.

Query got together with the IndyCar PR team and Dixon to eventually make Lucy’s dream come true, as she got to meet her favorite driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The full story from IndyCar.com is linked here; the full video is linked here.

This was highlighted during Thursday’s NASCAR AMERICA show on NBCSN, which you can see above. You can see Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix coverage from Road America live, Sunday on NBCSN at 12:30 p.m. ET.