Jerry Bonkowski

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NHRA star Courtney Force to drive pace car in Saturday’s NASCAR Clash at Daytona

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When she climbs behind the wheel, NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force is used to going straight on a racetrack.

But Force will be doing a lot of turning this Saturday night when she serves as honorary pace car driver for NASCAR’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway.

The clash is an annual non-points special event that features the top drivers in NASCAR’s premier Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Saturday night’s field will include 2016 pole winners, past Clash champions, past Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full-time in 2016 and last season’s drivers that qualified for the playoffs.

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(Photo: Gary Nastase Photography)

Force, who drives the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car, is the daughter of record 16-time Funny Car champion John Force. Courtney is coming off a strong run in last weekend’s NHRA 2017 season-opening race in Pomona, California, reaching the final round.

She’ll go from a 1,000-foot dragstrip to a 2.5-mile tri-oval on Saturday.

“I’m extremely nervous but honored at the same time to be driving that Chevy pace car before the veterans and young up-and-comers take on the track,” Courtney Force said in a media release. “Being a girl that races the NHRA in a straight line for a living at over 330 mph, I hope I can keep the pace in front of the pack and keep turning left.”

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NHRA: As 2017 season begins, will it be able to top 2016 for excitement and drama?

After chasing a championship for 20 years, can Ron Capps make it back-to-back titles in 2017?
Photo courtesy NHRA
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As the 24-race 2017 NHRA national event season kicks off this weekend at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, California, it’s going to be hard to write a better script than how the 2016 season ultimately played out.

When the final race ended in November, we saw two three-time champions emerge across the sport’s four pro categories: Top Fuel pilot Antron Brown (won three titles in the last five seasons, including the last two) and Pro Stock winner Jason Line.

But it was the two first-time champs in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle that stole the show.

After trying for 20 years and finishing runner-up several times over the years, Ron Capps finally broke through with his first career Funny Car championship.

It was one of the best feel-good stories the NHRA has seen in years – only to see yet another great feel-good story emerge at the same time in the person of first-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie.

Savoie could wind up going down in NHRA history as having one of the most unique paths to a championship of any driver or rider.

First off, Savoie was an aspiring motorcycle drag racer in his teens and early 20s, only to abruptly end racing at the age of 23 when he began to raise a family and grow his business.

And what a unique business it is: Savoie is an alligator “farmer” that oversees a herd of 60,000 gators in the Louisiana bayou.

After nearly 30 years away from racing, Savoie began his comeback of sorts in 2011 and finally reached the pinnacle of his sport last season in dramatic fashion.

After trailing the points leaders for the first 23 races, Savoie roared to win the championship in the season’s final race, holding off multiple championship winners such as Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey (who used to babysit for Savoie’s children before beginning her own racing career).

But 2016 is gone and it’s time to focus on 2017.

Where do we start? How about five questions or things to watch in 2017 for each of the top four pro classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle?

Here goes:

Top Fuel:

  • Can Antron Brown make it three championships in a row and four in the last six seasons?
  • After coming so close to his first championship, can Doug Kalitta finally do so in 2017?
  • Can the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, win his ninth title (and first since 2009)?
  • After overcoming adversity in 2016, including losing her ride early in the season (only to bounce back and catch on with Don Schumacher Racing), could this be the breakout season for Leah Pritchett?
  • And what about Brittany Force, who had a breakout season in 2016? Can she do even better and be a bonafide championship contender?

Funny Car:

  • 16-time champ and the winningest driver in drag racing history, John Force, turns 68 in May. He came close to another championship in 2016, but fell short in the playoffs. Can he capture title No. 17 in 2017?
  • Can former two-time champion Cruz Pedregon bounce back from the worst season of his career and become a championship contender again?
  • Courtney Force struggled in last season’s playoffs. Can she finally earn her first championship in 2017?
  • Tommy Johnson Jr. had an outstanding season in 2016. Can he keep it going in 2017?
  • After more than 20 years of trying, Ron Capps finally earned his first Funny Car championship in 2016. Can Capps do it again in 2017?

Pro Stock:

  • After winning a combined 15 races and back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, Erica Enders failed to win even one race in 2016 and was all but eliminated from the championship after failing to qualify for the first of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Her team goes back to Chevrolet power after one year with Dodge/Mopar. Will that be the ticket to return to the prominence and domination of 2014-15?
  • Will KB Racing continue to dominate Pro Stock like it did in 2016 with series champion Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson, who combined to win 16 of the season’s 24 races?
  • Shane Gray finished third in 2016 and then promptly turned over the keys to son Tanner for 2017. How will the younger Gray fare?
  • Four drivers appear to be ready for breakout seasons in 2017: Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha and Bo Butner. Which one breaks through?
  • Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, Jeg Coughlin, is a five-time Pro Stock champion. But in his return to full-time racing last season, Coughlin struggled just as much as Enders, finishing 10th in the standings. With Elite’s return to Chevrolet after a one-year stint with Dodge/Mopar, will Coughlin be able to get his game back to the way it used to?

Pro Stock Motorcycle:

  • Jerry Savoie had one of the most inspiring seasons – and stories – that NHRA has seen in the last 20 to 30 years. Will Savoie once again roar to win a second consecutive championship?
  • What happened to former champs Andrew Hines and teammate Eddie Krawiec last season? How is it they couldn’t hold off Savoie? Will they bounce back this year and battle each other for the title once again?
  • In her first full-time season back after a long hiatus, Angelle Sampey showed she hasn’t forgotten how to ride, finishing fourth in the championship battle. Could Sampey return to championship form again in 2016?
  • Veteran rider Chip Ellis had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, finishing fifth in the PSM standings. Can Ellis have a similar – if not better – season in 2017?
  • Veteran Steve Johnson, one of the most popular riders on the circuit, failed to make the Countdown in 2016. Can Johnson reach back in 2017 and give fellow riders like Hines, Krawiec, Sampey and Savoie a run for their money?

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NHRA: Leah Pritchett has 2 things in mind in 2017: Top Fuel title and pizza!

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Photo courtesy Don Schumacher Racing
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You might say NHRA Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series Top Fuel racer Leah Pritchett is the quickest pizza delivery person around.

During last weekend’s preseason test for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in suburban Phoenix, Pritchett recorded the quickest unofficial run in NHRA history over a 1,000-foot drag strip at 3.654 seconds.

Now comes word Wednesday that Pritchett will have Papa John’s Pizza as primary sponsor of her Don Schumacher Racing dragster for most of the 2017 season, which begins with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, California.

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Papa John’s will serve as primary sponsor for Pritchett for 20 of this season’s 24 races. The other four races, Papa John’s will serve as an associate sponsor.

In addition, Papa John’s has signed a deal to become the “Official Pizza of the NHRA” in 2017.

Pritchett, who was sponsored for two races by Papa John’s last season, becomes the first female athlete to be sponsored by the pizza brand.

“Last year was the start to a great partnership with Papa John’s,” Pritchett said in a statement. “I’m excited to continue racing my Papa John’s dragster that represents what the Pizza Family has evolved into over the last 32 years.”

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NHRA: Del Worsham returns to family race team for some unfinished business

Del Worsham in a familiar spot: the NHRA Winner's Circle. (Photo: Jason Zindroski)
Photo courtesy Toyota
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After becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win championships in both Top Fuel (2011) and Funny Car (2015), Del Worsham surprised the drag racing world at the end of last season.

Worsham left one of the sport’s top teams, Kalitta Motorsports, and a long-standing, full-season sponsorship with DHL.

The departure was amicable as Worsham chose to fulfill a long-held desire: to return to the family team he started with, Worsham-Fink Racing, where he’ll be reunited with his father and crew chief Chuck, while Del will handle the driving duties.

“There’s always been a little bit of a hole or a little bit of unfulfilledness,” Worsham told NBC Sports. “I really hadn’t did 100 percent of what I set out to do, and that was to try and win the championship with my dad.

“He and I built this team, we raced together for 18 years. … As time went on, I thought if I ever had the opportunity or the time ever came along, I’d give that opportunity another chance.

“At the end of 2016, the Kalitta’s came to me and said they were going to make some changes to the team, and my dad’s car has been running pretty well with Jim Campbell driving it. I thought, ‘You know what, if I’m ever going to do this, while he’s still able, in good health and he still wants to do it and is able to do it, and I can still drive and feel I can still contribute something as a driver, I should do it now.’

“If I wait any longer, either he’s going to get too old and not be able to do it, or I may get to the point where I don’t want to drive and do it and this would never happen.’

“It just seemed like a good time. It was a decision I just had to make. I don’t regret it at all. I feel good about it every day I come into work right now.”

(Photo courtesy NHRA)
(Photo courtesy NHRA)

The reunion between father and son in the family business comes full-circle this weekend in the annual preseason test for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix.

Approximately 30 NHRA teams are expected to be on hand from Thursday through Sunday to prepare their cars and set-ups for the season, which kicks off next weekend with the annual Winternationals in Pomona, California.

Del will be behind the wheel of the family’s Toyota Camry Funny Car, while father Chuck will be tuning the ride as they embark upon a journey to not only compete the entire 2017 NHRA season, but also to chase their biggest dream of winning a championship together.

It’s unfinished business, Del Worsham said.

“Absolutely. Whether we win the championship or not, at least I’m back out here working with him in that direction again.”

Admittedly, there will be challenges. First, the team has primary sponsorship for only the first six races of the 24-race NHRA season with Lucas Oil. It also has a number of associate sponsors that have signed on for the whole season.

Del Worsham unloads his Funny Car Thursday in Phoenix.
Del Worsham unloads his Funny Car Thursday in Phoenix. (Photo courtesy Toyota)

The key – in addition to being competitive on the drag strip, which Worsham is confident he, his car and his team will be – is to find additional primary sponsorship to run the full season, particularly the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

In addition to reuniting with his father, the younger Worsham will also have long-time family friend John Fink back in the fold. A successful businessman, Fink was a partner with Worsham and his father during much of their previous 18-year run of racing together.

Now, after nearly a decade apart, the three will join together again with headquarters in Southern California and a satellite shop in Auburn, Indiana.

Del began racing with his father in 1990 and continued for 18 years until 2008, when he went to drive for Alan Johnson and Al-Anabi Racing, ultimately winning the Top Fuel title in 2011.

But during the 18-year stint of father and son Worsham together, they put up some stout numbers. Del finished runner-up in Funny Car in 2004, and won 16 national events from 2001-2005.

While Chuck Worsham has kept the family team going on a part-time basis the last several years, this year will essentially be getting things back to where they used to be.

Del Worsham is eager to set down a baseline this weekend to see how competitive the team can be once again.

“We’re pretty much going to start off with the setup we have,” he said. “We may push it a little harder to see what it can run. But mostly, I’m just going to go there and just get some confidence we have a car that can qualify, we kind of know where we are, we have a team that can operate and we can do the turnaround in the time we need to do it in.

“And then, we pack it up from there and take it to Pomona and see where we are as far as competition goes, find out if our car is fast enough or not to win or if we’re even in the top 12 or 15. And then as the year goes on, we can adapt to what we need to do to make it more competitive or faster if it needs to be.”

Del Worsham, at 20 years old, at his first NHRA pro race with his father in 1990. (Photo courtesy NHRA)
Del Worsham, at 20 years old, at his first NHRA pro race with his father in 1990. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

There’s no question that Worsham, who turns 47 on Feb. 11, knows how to go fast and win. He has 39 victories and 66 final round appearances in his NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car career. His career best speed in Funny Car is 332.67 mph, while his quickest elapsed time in a NHRA national event is 3.832 seconds.

While getting the family livery into winning form in 2017 is key, Worsham is definitely up for the challenge. Given his long success as a driver and his father’s expertise as a tuner, thoughts of potentially pulling off an upset win at Pomona next weekend in the team’s reunion is something that is definitely on Worsham’s mind.

“That would be amazing,” he said of winning at Pomona. “I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t think I’ve ever won at the Winternationals. I’ve runner-upped there multiple times. It would be something else I could check off my list. I wouldn’t believe that would be a plateau of any sort. I would say that would set the bar for where I would expect to finish the year.”

While he could have stayed with Kalitta Motorsports, Worsham knew this was the right time to make his leap of faith.

“I’m very determined,” he said. “When you decide mid-to-late November that you’re going to make a career-changing move like I did, and you know that every corporation’s (sponsorship) budget is already set for 2017 and there’s not a whole lot of funds out there, then you start digging away.

“I spend six to eight hours every day on the phone and emailing, trying to put funding together for the car. And then I go to the shop and work with my dad and the team. I’ve worked as hard at this as I’ve probably worked at anything in the last 30 years.

“It reminds me of (the mid-1990s) an awful lot. The only difference between now and then is people take my calls now, where back then it was hard for anybody to take my call.”

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SPM, Hinchcliffe, Petro-Canada Lubricants relationship extended

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motosports Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports announced Wednesday that it has extended an agreement with Petro-Canada Lubricants as an associate sponsor on James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The Canadian lubricant company firm first partnered with SPM and Hinchcliffe last season. It will continue that role for all of 2017 with enhanced branding on Hinchcliffe’s race car as well as other SPM team assets.

“From the outset last year, one of the drivers behind my partnership with Petro-Canada Lubricants was being able to proudly represent a Canadian company which has a unique reach across North America,” Hinchcliffe, a native of Oakville, Ontario, Canada, said in a media release.

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Added SPM co-owner and Canadian Ric Peterson, “We are extremely happy to have Petro-Canada Lubricants on board with us again in 2017. Their increased relationship with us this season continues to show the value of our race team has in the IndyCar Series; that is something we are very proud of.”

Hinchcliffe enters his seventh season in the IndyCar Series in 2017. He has four series wins: St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo and Iowa (all in 2013) and New Orleans (2015).

He also earned the pole for last season’s milestone 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

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