Notebook: NHRA honors Terry Chandler; John Force Racing, Kalitta Motorsports struggle

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JOLIET, Illinois — It was a rough weekend in many aspects for many of those at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois:

* First, Terry Chandler, a philanthropist who had spent the last several years personally bankrolling Jack Beckman’s “Infinite Hero” and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr.’s “Make A Wish” Funny Cars, was honored prior to the start of Sunday’s eliminations.

A five-minute video retrospect of Chandler’s life was played on the video screens at the track. Chandler was a beloved member of the NHRA family who passed away July 4 at the age of 65 after a courageous battle with brain cancer.

The late Terry Chandler and one of the drivers whose team’s she sponsored, Tommy Johnson Jr.

Chandler is the sister of former NHRA racer Johnny Gray, aunt to Shane Gray and great-aunt to current Pro Stock racer Tanner Gray.

“You already knew how much she was loved,” Funny Car driver Ron Capps said of Chandler. “I saw her standing at the back of my car (during the first round today). I had to shake my head because I was so used to seeing her standing there.

“This was her life, making kids smile. Drag racing is all she talked about. It was a very emotional weekend and bittersweet.”

Capps gave the winning trophy to team owner Don Schumacher and his family, who will then give it to Chandler’s family.

* John Force Racing struggled miserably in Sunday’s final eliminations. All three JFR Funny Car drivers — Courtney Force, Robert High and team patriarch John Force — lost in the first round and all for the same reason: they smoked their tires (lost traction).

Courtney Force lost to J.R. Todd, Hight lost to Jim Campbell and John Force lost to Tommy Johnson Jr. It’s the first time this season that all three JFR Funny Cars have lost in the first round.

The fourth JFR driver, Top Fuel pilot Brittany Force, made it out of the first round, but lost in the second round in an upset victory by T.J. Zizzo.

John Force took the unusual step after the race of issuing a statement to fans of his, Hight’s and his two daughters’ respective teams.

“We’re moving in the right direction, and it’s a long way to the Countdown (the NHRA’s six-race playoffs),” Force said in a statement. “I can’t say thanks enough to my guys. I know they’re bummed right now, but I don’t want them to take it home. I love them all. Let’s get ready and go to Denver (the next race in two weeks, which kicks off the annual three-race ‘Western Swing’).”

Added Hight, who came into Sunday as the event’s No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car, “The good news is our performance is there. What we have to quit doing is beating ourselves, and that’s what we do every week. We’re not getting outrun, ever. We drop cylinders, we smoke the tires. There haven’t been any races when we’ve went out there side by side and gotten beat. We’re not getting beat by the competition; we’re getting beat by ourselves. We have to eliminate that.”

* Zizzo’s Cinderella story came to an end in the semifinals when he lost to Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence. It was the first race for Zizzo and his team in nearly 10 months (last time was at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, early last September).

But the local driver (from north suburban Lincolnshire, Ill.) has no reason to hang his head. It’s the third time the little team that could has taken out the No. 1 qualifier at Route 66 in the last five seasons: defeated eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher after he qualified No. 1 in the 2013 race, beat 2014 No. 1 qualifier Spencer Massey and then 2017 No. 1 qualifier Britney Force.

In addition, Zizzo recorded the two best speed showings of his Top Fuel career (324.36 mph in his first round win over Pat Dakin and his second-round upset (324.75) of Brittany Force.

* Another of the sport’s super teams, Kalitta Motorsports, also struggled Sunday. Doug Kalitta smoked the tires and lost to two-time defending Top Fuel champ Antron Brown in the first round. Troy Coughlin Jr. also lost in the first round of Top Fuel to Leah Pritchett. Shawn Langdon reached the quarterfinals before falling to Clay Millican.

In Funny Car, Kalitta Motorsports driver J.R. Todd upset Courtney Force in the first round, but lost to Tommy Johnson Jr. in the second round. Ditto for Alexis DeJoria, who won her first round match with Cruz Pedregon, but lost to Matt Hagan in the second round.

(Photo courtesy SteveJohnsonRacing.com)

* Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson, one of the most popular drivers in the sport, had a bittersweet day.

On the positive, he celebrated his 400th career start in an NHRA event. On the negative, the Alabama resident lost in the first round and was sent home early.

* The oldest driver in NHRA competition, 86-year-old Chicago resident Chris Karamesines, is a big local fan favorite.

But he struggled during the four rounds of qualifying on Friday and Saturday, unable to do better than 4.690 seconds at 165.42 mph, and was the only driver of the 17 Top Fuel pilots entered for the weekend that failed to qualify.

However, 74-year-old driver Luigi Novelli, of nearby Crete, Ill., qualified 16th, the final spot on the Top Fuel ladder, but lost in the first round to No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force.

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GAINSCO partners with JDC-Miller for Simpson, Goikhberg

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The bright yellow No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson, nicknamed the “JDC Banana Boat,” will morph into the latest incarnation of the bright red “Red Dragon” for 2018.

The now GAINSCO Auto Insurance-backed No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson will run the full 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, and the new livery will be revealed at the Roar before the Rolex 24.

GAINSCO revealed last month it wouldn’t run its own team, having partnered with Bob Stallings Racing for more than a decade with great success in GRAND-AM Rolex Series competition. But it was still going to partner with a team and received multiple proposals from other teams. The initial deal with JDC-Miller Motorsports is one year for 2018 with an option for 2019, but both parties envision this growing into a multi-year deal.

The last few years the team has run only on-and-off, with a one-off appearance in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona as Alex Gurney scored pole, but a devastating accident for Memo Gidley having left him seriously injured. Gidley has made significant strides in his recovery.

Since that point, GAINSCO/BSR moved into Pirelli World Challenge, running first a Hyundai Genesis, then a McLaren 650S GT3, and then a Porsche 911 GT3 R with Gurney’s longtime co-driver Jon Fogarty. The same level of success was hard to find and while the team scored several podium finishes, wins eluded them over two years.

Alas, this provides John Church’s quality operation a major supporter both from visibility and agent standpoints, as GAINSCO is one of the biggest at-track activators in the sport. Primary drivers Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg continue for the full season with Chris Miller the third driver for Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds.

A fourth driver will be named later (likely within the next week to 10 days), but won’t be Jon Fogarty, as Bob Stallings offered him the opportunity but Fogarty declined owing to other business commitments.

“We offered Jon Fogarty the opportunity, took a couple days (to think), he couldn’t feature anyone else driving but him… he has successful business ventures and that takes priority at this time,” Stallings said.

Church and Stallings. Photo courtesy of GAINSCO Racing

Stallings, Executive Chairman of GAINSCO, as well as the founder of the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Race team, recently decided not to run his own race team, but is committed to continuing the legacy of the Red Dragon by partnering with an organization capable of a long-term winning program.

“We had many opportunities to continue our quest for championships and JDC-Miller MotorSports was an easy pick,” said Stallings of the Minnesota-based team. “John Church and John Miller have established themselves as a team to be reckoned with, even against the formidable competition in IMSA.”

“We are very honored to gain the support of GAINSCO Auto Insurance and to carry on the livery of the No. 99 Red Dragon,” Church added. “It was immediately evident that the GAINSCO folks are as committed as we are.  This is a tremendous opportunity for JDC-Miller MotorSports and we look forward to the season ahead.”

Andy Jordan, Sr. Vice President of Marketing and Business Development led the search for the GAINSCO’s 2018 racing partnership.

“We were amazed and flattered by the amount of interest we received from teams who felt their racing programs would be elevated by an opportunity to partner with us and run the famous “Red Dragon” livery.  There were several important considerations for GAINSCO; the team had to compete at the highest level, and it had to feel like the kind of family we could be a part of and believe in.

“JDC-Miller Motorsports was the team we kept coming back to.  They race prototypes, they are great people, they are committed to win and the parallels between JDC-Miller Motorsports today and GAINCSO/Bob Stallings Racing in 2006/2007 were abundant.  I couldn’t be prouder and more excited to join John and his team for the 2018 season and hopefully beyond.”

JDC-Miller is adding a second car this season, with Simon Trummer its first confirmed driver and Robert Alon having tested with the team at Daytona earlier this month. This car will maintain the “banana boat” livery and will announce the rest of its program later.

Church said there “hasn’t been a discussion” in terms of adding Bob Stallings Racing personnel to JDC-Miller’s lineup as it sits, but it could be integrated.

The JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA