Top Fuel driver Antron Brown. (AP Photo/NHRA,Marc Gewertz)

NHRA Top Fuel driver Antron Brown doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘slow’

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No matter what his method of transportation, Antron Brown isn’t just fast, he’s F-A-S-T.

He’s fast afoot: He was quick enough in the 100-meter dash to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials in 1997.

He’s fast on two wheels: During his nine years in NHRA competition in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, Brown came close to winning the championship (finished second) in 2001, won at least one race and finished in the top 10 in the final standings in every season from 1999 through his last season in the class in 2007, was a 2-time winner at the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, and won the Autombile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award in 1999 (NHRA’s version of Rookie of the Year).

He’s fast on four wheels – MUCH faster, indeed: Won his first Mello Yello world championship in 2012, becoming the first African-American NHRA world champion and the first black driver to win a major U.S. auto racing title; he also is the only driver in NHRA history to win races in both the Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle ranks. Also won the U.S. Nationals yet again, this time in a Top Fuel dragster.

And Brown, 38, a resident of Chesterfield, New Jersey, is by no means showing any signs of slowing down.

The driver of the Matco Tools dragster heads into the start of the NHRA’s “western swing” this weekend at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver as one of only seven drivers in the sport’s history who has ever swept all three races of the “swing” in one year, having done so in 2009.

But Brown has higher aspirations than just doing well the next three races. With five wins already in the series’ first 14 events, and a solid second in the Top Fuel points standings, Brown wants his second championship in the last three seasons.

“It’s been actually incredible this year,” Brown said on an NHRA teleconference Wednesday. “The whole competition in Top Fuel this year has been just insane right now. Battling out with Dougie (points leader Doug Kalitta), he’s definitely been the leader of the class so far, but our Matco Tools car is definitely running like gangbusters.

“We’ve been right on track where we need to be. With that being said, we always look forward going on to the Western Swing because right now this time is real crucial for us to get going right now because once you get back from the swing we have the U.S. Nationals and then we’re off to the Countdown to our championship, which is where the championship is won.”

Brown’s dominance this season has only been hindered by three other races where he suffered a first-round loss in eliminations. Had he been able to advance past the opening round on Sunday morning at those three events, he likely would be closer – if not ahead – to Kalitta.

At the same time, Brown is more than poised to make up for those three early exits in the western swing, which along with the U.S. Nationals is the most important part of the season for teams heading into the Countdown to the Championship.

“To win one round of NHRA racing right now is crazy hard,” Brown said. “To get past the first round is crazy hard. There’s no more gimmies. There’s 12 great race teams out there, and to compete out there in it is just it makes it that hard and difficult to try to get it done.”

While winning the championship is his goal, Brown believes that a second western swing sweep would put him in the driver’s seat, so to speak, towards that second Top Fuel crown.

“It’d be huge (to win the western swing again),” Brown said. “You’ll be the first mark in history to do it, you know what I mean, and we came so close to doing it before. We go into Western Swing and we can think about that, but when we go into the first race in Denver, you erase all that from your mind because you don’t let your emotions get the best of you to try to actually get that done.

“There’s so much that you have to have go your way to get that done, if you’re focused on that, you’re not focused on the thing that you need to get done (win the race and come one step closer to the championship).”

Brown is not only an in-demand Top Fuel racer, he’s also known for the motivational talks and speeches he gives, especially to youngsters across the country.

He has several speaking engagements lined up in the coming weeks, and as much as his audience of kids is wowed by Brown’s presence and what he imparts, those talks also help keep him grounded and still hungry for more wins and championships.

“There’s one thing that I can tell you honestly,” Brown said. “It comes down to the heart and determination of the individual. You have to be willing and you have to want it, you know what I mean? That’s the one thing that you can’t teach people today, and like that’s the difference between somebody like Michael Jordan and somebody that comes off the bench.

“You can’t teach ‘want to’ and my deal is I just want it. I can speak for everybody on our Matco Tools U.S. Army Toyota race team is that that’s what I’m telling you; we had a lot of talented guys before even that won the championship. We had great guys. But we have a group of individuals on our team that we make up one whole team together that has that want to, that desire.

“They want to win. The boys are hungry. They’re willing to do whatever it takes, and they’re all about being perfectionists, and that’s what it takes to have a great team and win and they don’t have no attitudes. They’re willing to work together. That’s the biggest thing, that we don’t have one person going a different direction that we’ve got to reel in. We have all of our guys go together, it’s nine of us, and we’re going into the same direction. And that’s something special right there. It’s something really, really, really special. I think that’s what makes the deal so great in doing what we want to do.

“My main deal in me is that I always set my goals real high and I shoot for them and I try to overachieve them, and then when I fall a little short I look back and I feel like I’ve accomplished a great bit of stuff. I think that’s one key to being successful in life is that when you stumble and fall you dust yourself off and you give it another lick and you go at it even harder, but you learn from it and grow from it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.