<span class="vcard">Jerry Bonkowski</span>

new indycar series logo for 2016
(Photos by Chris Owens/IndyCar)

Here’s what the best-dressed IndyCar drivers are wearing this year

6 Comments

It’s always a fun day when drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series gather to get their official portraits for the upcoming season.

That took place once again last week during the annual preseason Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

While several drivers didn’t have their uniforms, likely for various reasons (Team Penske didn’t as they’ll roll liveries out throughout the month), we’ve collected shots of every driver expected to race full-time — and others who may only be part-time — on the circuit in 2016.

Here’s how the field will look this season (missing: Juan Pablo Montoya):

Spencer Pigot
Spencer Pigot
Gabby Chaves
Gabby Chaves
Mikhail Aleshin
Mikhail Aleshin
Graham Rahal
Graham Rahal
Jack Hawksworth
Jack Hawksworth
Carlos Munoz
Carlos Munoz
Takuma Sato
Takuma Sato
Will Power
Will Power
Ed Carpenter
Ed Carpenter
Conor Daly
Conor Daly
Helio Castroneves
Helio Castroneves
Sage Karam
Sage Karam
Sebastien Bourdais
Sebastien Bourdais
Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti
Matthew Brabham
Matthew Brabham
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Ryan Hunter-Reay
Scott Dixon
Scott Dixon
Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden
James Hinchcliffe
James Hinchcliffe
Tony Kanaan
Tony Kanaan
Charlie Kimball
Charlie Kimball
Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud
Max Chilton
Max Chilton

NHRA: Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) star in 4-day test in Phoenix

3 Comments

If this past weekend’s Nitro Fuel test in suburban Phoenix is any indication, we’re likely to see a number of speed and elapsed time records set in Top Fuel and Funny Car in the 2016 season.

The four-day preseason test at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park saw a number of drivers show invigorated performance in both elapsed time and speed.

The most notable performances in Top Fuel came from 8-time champ Tony Schumacher, Dave Connolly and Doug Kalitta.

But it was Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, who may have stolen the show in its entirety.

Brittany Force had the first (3.721 seconds at 319.07 mph), fourth (3.747/322.81) and sixth (3.758/317.64) quickest runs in Saturday’s final day of testing. In addition, Force had the fifth and sixth quickest runs (both at 3.721 seconds) of the entire four days.

In a sense, Brittany Force’s performance wasn’t a complete surprise. She has 11-time Top Fuel champion owner or crew chief Alan Johnson – and most importantly, Johnson’s celebrated equipment and motors – now behind her.

And how that improvement showed during the test.

Johnson and driver Shawn Langdon won last year’s season-opening race. And if her overall performance at Phoenix is any indication, Brittany Force could potentially follow in Langdon’s shoes and earn her first career Top Fuel win in the 2016 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 11-14 at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“I am definitely glad we are here in Phoenix testing,” Force said in a media release. “We were here for four days and I needed every single run that we made to make me feel more comfortable.

“Teaming up with Alan Johnson and Brian Husen as my crew chief has been great. They have made a lot of changes to this Monster Energy dragster. They run a whole different system that what we used to run. It takes some time to adjust to that and I am learning the car. It is starting to feel like home. … I am ready to get to Pomona.”

Schumacher had the quickest run of the four-day test (3.683 seconds/325.37 mph), followed by Connolly (3.714/330.15 mph) and Kalitta (3.716/327.35 mph). Schumacher also had the fourth-best run of the test (3.718/320.58 mph).

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. saved the best for last, recording the quickest speed of the overall test on Saturday (3.874 seconds at 318.47 mph).

Had the test been a national event, Johnson would have set a record for quickest run ever in Funny Car. Matt Hagan holds the official record of 3.879 seconds, set at Brainerd, Minnesota last season.

“We had our entire team stay intact after last year and we have sort of picked up where we left off last year,” Johnson said. “The crew worked really hard during the offseason and I am just happy for the guys to make a run like that to close out testing. It’s a good reward for them for all their hard work.”

Other Funny Car drivers that shined on Saturday included Robert Hight (a career-best 3.885 seconds at an overall test-best speed of 329.34 mph and another run of 3.931/323.43 mph), Courtney Force (3.890/323.89 mph and 3.915/323.74 mph), John Force (3.914/327.35 mph, 3.927/323.66 mph and 3.930/328.14 mph) and Ron Capps (3.919/320.66 mph).

“I believe with how we finished the end of the year at Pomona what we learned here is going to make us so much better when we get back to Pomona,” Hight said.” I am so excited to get to the Winternationals. “We made career best runs here and we are in the ballgame.”

Added team owner John Force, “We have had a lot of change over the past couple of years but now I am focused on winning and getting the most out of all these race teams.”

* * *

Below are the quickest performances in both Top Fuel and Funny Car from Saturday at NHRA Nitro Spring Training:

TOP FUEL
3.721, 319.07 – Brittany Force
3.739, 288.87 – Clay Millican
3.745, 325.53 – Doug Kalitta
3.747, 322.81 – Brittany Force
3.748, 319.22 – Richie Crampton
3.758, 317.64 – Brittany Force
3.768, 297.88 – Antron Brown
3.770, 316.08 – Shawn Langdon
3.791, 320.13 – Antron Brown
3.802, 325.69 – J.R. Todd
3.839, 272.72 – Leah Pritchett
3.882, 251.67 – J.R. Todd
3.916, 256.75 – Terry McMillen
3.929, 255.00 – Troy Buff
3.935, 306.05 – Terry McMillen
4.123, 242.19 – Troy Buff

FUNNY CAR
3.874, 318.47 – Tommy Johnson Jr.
3.885, 329.34 – Robert Hight
3.890, 323.89 – Courtney Force
3.914, 327.35 – John Force
3.915, 323.74 – Courtney Force
3.919, 320.66 – Ron Capps
3.927, 323.66 – John Force
3.930, 328.14 – John Force
3.931, 323.43 – Robert Hight
3.962, 326.79 – Matt Hagan
3.972, 320.51 – Alexis DeJoria
3.982, 289.57 – Jack Beckman
3.983, 320.81 – Del Worsham
3.987, 319.29 – Ron Capps
3.993, 322.58 – Alexis DeJoria
3.999, 320.97 – Del Worsham
4.008, 273.94 – Cruz Pedregon
4.015, 316.01 – Brian Hough
4.070, 273.39 – Del Worsham
4.153, 252.24 – Jim Campbell
4.211, 225.60 – Matt Hagan

* * *

Below are the top 10 quickest runs overall in each category from the four-day test session:

TOP FUEL
3.721, 319.07 – Brittany Force
3.739, 288.87 – Clay Millican
3.745, 325.53 – Doug Kalitta
3.747, 322.81 – Brittany Force
3.748, 319.22 – Richie Crampton
3.758, 317.64 – Brittany Force
3.768, 297.88 – Antron Brown
3.770, 316.08 – Shawn Langdon
3.791, 320.13 – Antron Brown
3.802, 325.69 – J.R. Todd
3.839, 272.72 – Leah Pritchett
3.882, 251.67 – J.R. Todd
3.916, 256.75 – Terry McMillen
3.929, 255.00 – Troy Buff
3.935, 306.05 – Terry McMillen
4.123, 242.19 – Troy Buff

FUNNY CAR
1.  3.874, 318.47 – Tommy Johnson Jr.
2. 3.880, 325.77 – Jack Beckman
3. 3.885, 329.34 – Robert Hight
4. 3.890, 323.89 – Courtney Force
5. 3.894, 327.03 – Jack Beckman
6. 3.895, 325.06 – Jack Beckman
7. 3.904, 318.54 – Courtney Force
8. 3.912, 324.20 – John Force
9. 3.913, 326.16 – Robert Hight
10. 3.914, 327.35 – John Force

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Exclusive: Austin Coil returns to ‘help’ John Force in 2016

Austin Coil is coming back to 'help out' at John Force Racing in 2016.
(Photo courtesy NHRA)
6 Comments

The man most responsible for John Force’s career success – other than Force himself – is coming back to lend a hand.

Force exclusively confirmed to NBCSports.com that former crew chief Austin Coil will “help out” during the upcoming 2016 NHRA season.

“Coil said to me, ‘You’ve managed to screw this up, but I can help you’,” Force said with a laugh during a phone interview from NHRA preseason testing in Phoenix. “He’s helping me, to help the people with me, to look at the things we need to get this thing right.”

And even though Force is now 66 and Coil is 70, they believe they can regain some of their old magic together. Force has also brought back former tech whiz Ron Armstrong into the JFR fold.

“We’re putting the old band back together,” Force said with a laugh.

As for what Coil’s role will be exactly, Force was quick to point out Coil will not return to his old crew chief role, nor will he be considered a “consultant” or “advisor” or even an employee of John Force Racing.

Rather, Coil simply wants to “help out,” Force said.

“Coil, I want to be clear, is not going to come out here on the road, he doesn’t want to do that,” Force said. “But he’s helping us with stuff.”

Coil will not have an office at JFR and will work at his own pace, Force said. But given that Coil called the shots for 24 years before, Force is more than happy to let his old buddy “help out” in any way he sees fit.

“I’m really excited to have him on board and helping out,,” Force said. “Just talking to Coil, for me, we’ve only had three or four lunches together, but just talking helps get my heart back right. He made me who I am and I’m never going to forget that.

“I asked Coil what did I do wrong? He said, ‘You’ve been on overload. You had good people and you lost some. What you have to do is get back on track.

“He told me to split the team in half, start building the dragster side (with 11-time Top Fuel champion Alan Johnson overseeing the team with Force’s daughter, Brittany, behind the wheel), and on the other side, build the Funny Car side, and that’s what we’re doing.”

First joining forces in 1986, Force and Coil went on to become the winningest driver-crew chief combination in NHRA history, earning 15 Funny Car championships and 132 national event wins together.

Coil abruptly retired one day after leading Force to his 15th NHRA Funny Car championship in 2010.

Since the breakup, Force has won just one additional Funny Car championship (2013) and 11 national event victories. The veteran driver is coming off an especially tough 2015 season, one he calls “my worst season in 25 years,” finishing seventh in the standings and recording just two wins (Las Vegas 1 and Epping, New Hampshire).

Coil had resisted prior efforts to return to the JFR fold. But when Force came calling over the winter, Coil apparently had a change of heart.

“Over the winter, Robert (JFR president and Force’s son-in-law Robert Hight) and I got together (with Coil) and said, ‘Let’s talk about things,’” Force said. “We knew there were issues. He quit, he walked away, he said he just didn’t want to do this anymore. I thought he might be going to Schumacher (arch-rival Don Schumacher Racing), but that’s not where he went.

“He said, ‘I’ve done my thing, I’ve won’ and we really were best of friends. He said to my face, ‘I love you, Force, I always have. But I’m in a different mode in my life of what I want to do. I’m in retirement, I can’t run to the airports like I used to.’

“He’s the one that put me here 25 years ago. Thirty years ago, we started building it. People give me the credit for it, but no, it’s the people I put around me like Coil, Armstrong, Mike Neff (crew chief for Hight and director of operations for JFR) and with AJ (Alan Johnson) coming in here and Brian Husen (as Brittany Force’s crew chief).”

With Johnson now running the Top Fuel side of JFR, and with Coil’s input, Force is very optimistic about his four-car organization’s chances in 2016.

“I always listen to Austin Coil,” Force said. “He says let Alan Johnson run that dragster, he’ll put your kid in the winner’s circle, and let Mike Neff run that Funny Car. He’s won championships for you and he’s going to build those Funny Car teams to where they need to be.

“So, I’m excited about it. We’re going to be okay. We’re going racing now.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Rolex recap: New Ferrari, Ford rides go in different directions

Photo: IMSA
Photo: IMSA
1 Comment

Even though they’ve been longtime rivals, about the only things Ford and Ferrari have in common is their respective names both start with an F.

But both manufacturers were kind of in the same boat at this past weekend’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, shaking down newly developed turbocharged sports cars.

Ferrari debuted its highly anticipated 488 GTE with two strong performances, finishing 10th and 12th overall and fourth and sixth, respectively, in the GT Le Mans class.

The No. 68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE, driven by Alessandro Pier Guidi, Alexandre Premat, Memo Rojas and Daniel Serra, overcame both a pit lane penalty and falling behind several laps early on to rebound, regain the lead lap, led the race at its midpoint and ultimately finished fourth in class.

The No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari led GTLM early on before contact with another car in the second half of the event caused damage, relegating it to its eventual sixth-place showing.

The third 488, the No. 72 SMP Racing Ferrari, was forced to retire during the 18th hour and finished 10th in GTLM and 41st overall out of the 54 entries in the 54th running of the Rolex.

Another strong point about the new 488 is all three teams that competed in the Rolex led laps at one point.

The 488 ushers in a new era and says goodbye to the old era of the 458 Italia in North American endurance racing. According to a Ferrari media release, the 458 Italia accounted for 12 wins since its debut in 2011, including the 2014 GT Daytona triumph in the Rolex.

This weekend was the last race for the 458 in the GT Daytona class. The No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia rebounded from contact just before the race’s midpoint to finish seventh in the GTD class and 21st overall.

The final Ferrari entry, the No. 51 Spirit of Race 458 Italia, finished 11th in GTD and 26th overall.

As for Ford, high hopes for its new GT didn’t quite work as well as planned. The No. 66 finished seventh in GTLM and 31st overall, while it’s twin, the No. 67, finished ninth in GTLM and 40th overall.

Both cars, part of the two-car effort of last year’s Rolex championship team, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, suffered gearbox issues that caused them to fall behind and never recover.

“We certainly had our share of reliability issues, and that is not uncommon in a brand new car’s debut,” Raj Nair, Ford Motor Company executive vice president, Global Product Development, and chief technical officer said in a media release. “As we have said, the first time these two particular cars hit the road was literally at the Roar (Before the Rolex 24) test here a couple weeks ago.

“Aspects of our total testing program had gone very well, so I think we’re a little surprised at some of the reliability issues we have had.

“The good thing about it all, and the thing we are pleased about, is the car is showing some pace, it is showing some opportunity, and overall we are happy that we have a fast car and we need to work on reliability. That’s a lot better than having a slow car that’s reliable, but you don’t know how to get speed out of it. Overall, this is racing and this is what can happen in racing. If we don’t win every race, we are disappointed, but at the same time we know how to fix our issues and we’ll be better the next time we come out.”

However, Ford enjoyed respectable finishes from its No. 01 and No. 02 Ford EcoBoost-powered Riley Daytona Prototypes.

The No. 01 was Ford’s highest finisher, placing fifth both overall and in class, while the No. 02 finished seventh in class and 13th overall. The latter Ford suffered brake problems three times in the race, the last time putting Kyle Larson into a tire wall and ending its day with less than three hours left in the race.

Dave Pericak, Global Director for Ford Performance, put the overall effort into perspective in a Ford media release.

“I don’t think anyone should think of this race as a failure,” Pericak said. “It’s not the Cinderella story we were hoping for, but this is racing. I’d rather work the bugs out now, then later.

“We will re-group, we will fix it, and then we will go out at Sebring and show what we can do. That’s what this is all about.”

Here are some select quotes from Ford drivers on their Rolex experience this weekend:

SCOTT DIXON: “It was the last ride for this car. I hope Chip has some plans for Prototypes next year or at least being in something next year. This is something I’ve been involved in since 2004. Twelve years doing this racing and it’s a lot of fun.”

TONY KANAAN: “It was a tough race for us. That’s typically a 24-hour problem, right? It’s very unpredictable. The one thing I should say is that I’m proud of this team. The mentality that we have. We were 28 laps down and still setting fast laps after fast laps. We don’t give up. This is how we win – this is how we lose. We don’t know any other way to go racing. All I have to say, I told Chip we have to come back again.”

JAMIE McMURRAY: “It seems like it was a really long weekend for all of our cars. … I had a really good time getting to be part of the race again and driving with Scott (Dixon), Kyle (Larson) and Tony (Kanaan). I hope we get to do it again. Chip always puts together a great program for this race and it’s one of my favorite events each year with the team. You really have to have everything go right for you and we just didn’t catch the breaks we needed this weekend unfortunately.”

RYAN BRISCOE: “It was a pretty tough race for us, but it was the first true test for the Ford GT. We showed awesome speed and competitiveness, so I think there are a lot of positives to take from the race. Obviously, we have a list of items to go through post-race, you know, work on our reliability, but for me, driving the car was so much fun. It’s an awesome race car. It was really comfortable to drive and really racy, so from that standpoint, it was really promising and I’m sure the team and Ford and everyone involved will be able to work out the kinks that we got in our first-ever race with the Ford GT.”

RICHARD WESTBROOK: “It was an amazing start for both the No. 67 and 66 (Ford GTs) and a helluva achievement. To be thrown a 24-hour race as our debut and then to finish with both cars, and to be able to run so competitively at the front as well and for long periods of the night. Obviously there were a few issues during the race with both cars, but that’s to be expected. Everything’s new and it’s only going to be better.”

JOEY HAND: “For me, it was a pretty awesome day. I got to take the first start in this Ford GT. I got to lead the first laps with the Ford GT. The car drove well. We had a couple of little problems that set us back a few laps, but ultimately, the car was good and quick and had a good balance. I think what we take away from this is we have a good race car, we have a good starting point, we finish these little issues and we’ll be major contenders in the long run.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: “It’s a brand new program, so we didn’t expect to run free, but at the end of the day, the car showed some pace and we’ve been able to reach the checkered flag. There’s been a few issues, but one that’s been happening a few times which obviously took us out of contention. That had never happened before. We will just try to understand and fix it and come back stronger.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Rolex recap: BMW kicks off 100th racing anniversary in mixed fashion

Photo: IMSA
Photo: IMSA
Leave a comment

It was a mixed bag of promise and disappointment in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway for BMW as it kicked off its 100th birthday 0f BMW:

* The new No. 25 BMW M6 GTLM finished 11th overall (15 laps down), but fifth in the GTLM class and the first round of the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car championship.

* The No. 97 BMW M6 GT3 finished 20th overall and sixth in the GTD class, 35 laps off the pace. It was the debut of the new GT3.

* Mechanical issues caused the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 to struggle to a 37th place overall finish and 17th in the GTD class, 108 laps down.

* And then there was the No. 100 BMW M6 GTLM, which wrecked in turn one early Sunday morning due to a brake issue. Driver Lucas Luhr was uninjured, but the car was forced to retire. The No. 100 finished 47th overall and 11th in the GTLM class, 360 laps off the pace.

Here’s some comments from some of the more notable names associated with the BMW effort in the Rolex:

Jens Marquardt (BMW Motorsport Director): “Our goal was to finish the race in Daytona – and, if possible, bringing home some good results. Overall I’m happy with the race debuts of the BMW M6 GTLM and the BMW M6 GT3. We knew that the 24 Hours of Daytona would be a tough test right at the beginning of the season. And this is exactly what we experienced this weekend. Walking away from Daytona with P5 in the GTLM class and P6 in the GTD category is a good result and a nice reward for the whole squad.

“The start into our anniversary season on the occasion of the 100th birthday of BMW definitely was a positive one. With car number 100 we had to endure quite a scary moment. Fortunately Lucas Luhr escaped from this accident without a scratch. For the fans it was an extremely exciting and entertaining race.

“Many different cars fought for the lead, several manufacturers performed on a similar level. The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship promises to be a real thriller in 2016. We saw that the basis of our all-new car is very promising. And I’m confident that we will score some really good results over the course of the season.”

Bobby Rahal (Team Principal, BMW Team RLL): “You never know how you truly add up until you get to the first race. The 100 car was having a really good race, so it was a shame that we had a problem that you don’t see very often. Unfortunately it took us out of the race. I think the performance of the M6 was quite good and the guys were doing a great job.

“The same goes for the 25. It is a new car and I think just finishing the race was kind of a victory in its own right. It is disappointing  naturally not to have won, but that was asking a lot of this car on its maiden voyage. The Corvette is a well proven car, the Porsche is the same thing and I think we saw that today. Given that the M6 is a brand new car, with brand new systems – everything – the fact that the 25 car made all 24 hours without a lot of problems says a lot.”

Bill Auberlen (Number 25 BMW M6 GTLM, 5th place):  “The No. 25 M6 ran almost perfectly for 24 hours. We missed a few kilometers per hour on straight line speed to our competitors, but that will be addressed. After a day like today we can certainly hold our heads high.”

Augusto Farfus (Number 25 BMW M6 GTLM, 5th place): “To finish a 24-hour race in a brand new car with no major technical problems is a great achievement in itself. Okay, we may lack top speed and this we need to pass other cars, but I know BMW will work on that as this is just the start of the project.”

Maxime Martin (Number 97 BMW M6 GT3, 6th place): “The M6 GT3 definitely has potential. To finish 6th in its very first race – a 24 hour race – is excellent. In time I know the M6 GT3 will be able to show all of that potential.”

Jesse Krohn (Number 97 BMW M6 GT3, 6th place): “Racing in Daytona has always been one of my dreams. I have always wanted to be here and now I have had the opportunity to come. The M6 GT3 is quite good. It has a lot of potential. It is the first outing for the car in race conditions, so it has been impressive the way we have been able to run with it.”

Lucas Luhr (Number 100 BMW M6 GTLM, DNF): “There was some kind of explosion at the front right that made the bonnet go up, so I couldn’t see where I was going. I believe it was a brake problem. I had two or three good hits. It’s a shame because we were running well and we were right there in the hunt. It is also a shame for all the guys with a new car that had such a good performance for the first time running and they don’t get rewarded.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski