Photo courtesy John Force Racing

NHRA legend John Force shows he’s still got it — on drag strip and also on pitcher’s mound

Leave a comment

With a record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships and another record 148 wins in his career, there’s no question John Force knows how to make things go straight down the middle.

And it’s that kind of philosophy Force relied upon when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch Wednesday at Wrigley Field for the game between the World Champion Chicago Cubs and visiting Tampa Bay Rays.

Force admitted to MotorSportsTalk Thursday that he was nervous heading to the mound. He’s only thrown a first pitch a couple of times in his 50-plus year drag racing career, the most recent time coming several years ago before a Giants game in San Francisco.

John Force, left, with teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight.

Force didn’t want to embarrass himself or his sponsors, so he kept visualizing the task in his mind for the last couple of weeks as a way of preparation.

When the time came for Force to rear back and let the ball fly, he wound up throwing an impressive strike.

John Force throws out the first pitch at Wednesday’s Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

Cubs pitcher Eddie Butler served as the catcher for Force’s toss and gave the driver some advice.

“Butler said to go back to your childhood when you throw it,” Force said. “I got out there on that mound and with all the cheering from the crowd, and just like going into the finals of a race, I tried to blank it all out and just got into my zone.

“So I had this big old wind-up and I threw that son of a gun as hard and as solid as I could throw it and it was a strike.”

As it turns out, Butler is a big drag racing fan and especially a Force fan.

It’s kind of hard to judge who was more excited about the event, Force for throwing the pitch or Butler getting to meet his favorite drag racer for the first time.

“Other than throwing out those other two first pitches, it’s been about 40 years or more since I last threw a baseball,” Force said. “I didn’t want to throw it in the dirt.”

Butler and several other Cub players signed the ball for Force as a memorial of the day, and Force — who is competing in this weekend’s Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois — then gave the ball to his grandson, Jacob.

“I did something for my grandkids that I’ll likely never be able to do again,” Force said. “It was really cool.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”