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Kanaan set for banner January with Race of Champions, Ford GT debut

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Tony Kanaan turned 42 on December 31, but is doing the opposite of slowing down. He’s speeding up and intensifying what was already serious dedication to his craft.

Since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended on Sept. 18, Kanaan re-signed with NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing, has tested twice in the team’s now Honda-powered car (Gateway in October, Sebring last week), been confirmed for the Race of Champions (Jan. 21-22) and the Rolex 24 at Daytona (Jan. 28-29), and welcomed another new son – Max – into the world (October).

So much for a break in the schedule.

“It’s been great to me,” Kanaan told NBC Sports. “Obviously, hard work pays off. People definitely see my potential I guess, otherwise I wouldn’t be around for this long and I wouldn’t be doing the races I do.

“I’m excited about it. I planned my vacation and the only thing I had to do in January was a test in IndyCar and the Race of Champions on the 21st and 22nd, and then all of a sudden my month filled up completely, which is a good problem to have! I’m excited.”

Kanaan made his debut driving the Ford GT for Ganassi’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship effort at last weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

Kanaan said last year he was keen on eventually getting the chance in the GT, making his confirmation something of a bucket list item. He actually made his Rolex 24 debut in a Tom Gloy-owned Ford Mustang Cobra in 1998, and now is coming around full circle to the GTE-specification beast this year.

At the test, Kanaan only got five laps in Friday’s first session, and a total of 59 for the weekend. Although test times are largely irrelevant, Kanaan got with the program pretty quickly. A 1:44.645 best lap time was third among all drivers in GTLM for the test, only behind his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.

Kanaan has more Daytona race experience than do his teammates in the No. 69 Ford GT, Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell (Tincknell’s a rookie, while Priaulx has raced at Daytona each of the last three years), and won the race overall with Dixon, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson in 2015. However, Kanaan will be drawing on the FIA World Endurance Championship pair’s car expertise to learn the rest of the way.

Kanaan and Priaulx (standing). Photo courtesy of IMSA
Kanaan and Priaulx (standing). Photo courtesy of IMSA

“When you’re sharing a car like this, it’s never going to be enough laps,” Kanaan explained. “I’m here to learn. What I do have, is probably more experience at Daytona than my teammates, which I can help them with that. If they have more than me, it’s more hours in the car. Having done this race for so long, you have to get in the right mentality here. It’s not only your car and it’s not only your time. You have to work as one team and make sure we’re here to win the race.”

“The 69 car I’m driving was the backup car for Ganassi USA team and got put on track and we ran the entire session right away. So that tells you that the preparation here has been very good.”

Kanaan is set for at least the 2017 campaign in IndyCar with the goal of extended that beyond into 2018. While he sees an eye for racing in more sports car races down the road, he doesn’t want to do so until the end of his IndyCar career, which this year celebrates its 20th season after his debut back in 1998.

“I think it’s in my future. I’d probably say it’s in my near future at some point because I’m not that young anymore,” he admitted.

“I’m going year by year in IndyCar. Of course, I still feel I’m very competitive where I’m at, but this will be the next step for sure. With the right opportunity at the right time, I’m pretty sure this is what I’ll be doing in the next chapter of my career. I love this, I love the tradition, I love cars. IndyCar is a race car, but this is like cars you have on the street, some of these cars I own, some are ones I drive every day, so this is something I’ll do, for sure.”

There have been many presents for Kanaan this offseason but the Ford GT call, which came two days before Christmas, was one he truly appreciates.

“I was about to post something to Instagram (before interview) and my caption was a picture of me inside a Ford GT and I said, ‘Life is about challenges and I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunities I got and to do what I love.’

“This was definitely the best Christmas present I got. I got the call two days before Christmas for me to do this. I wasn’t planning on it.

“Of course, I follow it closely because this is home and seeing my teammates at Le Mans last year and the team winning Le Mans. As a driver, you want to be part of it. Winning Daytona two years ago with Ganassi was awesome for me and I secretly wanted to be part of it. I always made sure I told Chip that. With the relationship with Ford, by winning Daytona with the EcoBoost on the DP Prototype a few years back, I think it counted.

“Larry (Holt) of Multimatic and my teammate on the 69 car, Andy (Priaulx), they pushed for this.

“It’s a dream come true, to be honest. The car is a legend itself, it’s part of motor racing history. To be able to drive that and to be able to say this is what I’ve driven, I’ve won Daytona – whether this time or not – but just to be part of this program, it’s awesome. I’m extremely excited.

“It’s funny, the life of a race car driver, we had a vacation planned with the kids. We weren’t doing Daytona this year so let’s take it easy. But the family, I had to jeopardize a little bit, but we’ll do vacation in Daytona – in the infield!”

NHRA shocker in Houston: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.

In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.

It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since Sept. 13, 2008 in Charlotte race, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.

“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.

“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans. I am sorry to all of you fans that I didn’t make it.”

Saturday’s failure to qualify marked only the 22nd time he’s DNQ’d in his 40-year professional drag racing career. He set a drag racing record by qualifying for 395 consecutive events from 1988 until April 2007.

“I am bummed that the boss didn’t get in. That was quite a streak he had going,” Hight said of hoss and father-in-law. “There is nobody better at rallying a team and leading a comeback than John Force.

“He loves the fight and he will do whatever it takes to get his team back on top. It really isn’t something to worry about because two of our Chevys are No.1 and No. 2 right now.

“We have good combinations and we just have to duplicate one of those set ups for John’s PEAK Funny car. He’ll be back next week in Charlotte.”

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As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.

“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”

Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.

Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.

“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”

Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.

Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.

“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”

Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.

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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2. Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703, 322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926, 313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.