Funny Car legend John Force faces significant challenge in pursuit of 17th NHRA title

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Closing in on 65 in less than three months, drag racer John Force is at an age where he’s outlasted, outraced and outperformed all of his rivals over the last 30-plus years.

And yet while many of those same rivals have long since retired – including legendary drivers such as Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Frank Hawley, Raymond Beadle and so many more – Force shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Last season was a perfect example. En route to further extending his own record of National Hot Rod Association Funny Car championships to 16, Force compiled four wins, five runner up finishes and six No. 1 qualifying positions on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule.

His driver’s license may say he’s 64, but Force is driving like he’s still in his 20s.

“I love this sport with a passion,” Force said on an NHRA teleconference earlier this week. “Cars are all I know. I love them. I’ve got a romance with the highway, trucks and cars. It’s just what I do. I have no reason to quit.

“Health may make me (quit) some day, and I’m going to race as long as I can do the job. And when I can’t do the job, I’m going to figure out how to get in the race car, test them, and at least learn how to make them safer.”

Preparing for the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., which begin Thursday, Force is ready to not only defend last season’s championship, he’s eyeing yet another title in 2014.

Even with his age, it’s hard to bet against Force. Since winning his first NHRA Funny Car championship in 1990, Force has won 16 titles in the last 24 seasons, including a run of 10 straight from 1993 to 2002.

And while last year’s championship was his first since 2010, Force proved he’s as formidable as he’s ever been.

“I set my goals to continue to win,” he said. “(The) hardest thing for me is I have drivers like Robert Hight, and my girls Courtney and Brittany, they want to win too. But if I’m going to sell myself, I’ve got to continue to win to dominate. At my age, I’m no spring chicken. If I’m going to stay in the fight with these guys, that’s what I have to do.”

But Force also comes into 2014 on the verge of perhaps the biggest challenge he’s faced in his lengthy career.

First, this will be his final season with support and sponsorship from Ford and Castrol Oil, relationships that have propelled Force to become the greatest driver in NHRA history.

And while he’s hoping to secure similar support and sponsorship for 2015, Force is also aware that this could possibly be his last season in the NHRA ranks.

“I’ve always said if somebody’s got to sit out 2015, it will be me,” Force said. “My daughter, I’ve set her on fire; I’ve crashed her. I’m not going to tell Brittany, ‘You can’t race that dragster.’ I may have to move her into a Funny Car.”

Even though Ford and Castrol will still be around in 2014, the most popular driver in the NHRA for the last two-plus decades has already begun the search for their replacements.

“We’re working hard, we’re having meetings,” Force said. “I’ve got to bring a manufacturer back. But I’ve got to look at can I ever get my funding back where it was? I was a $24 million program, $24 million. I can’t count on the world to come save me.

“So if I don’t get it all back, I go out of business, and I will not go out of business. I have too much invested.”

Force is even starting to look at a potential NASCAR-like scenario, where he’ll sell sponsorship to a certain number of race events with one sponsor, another number of events with a second sponsor – and more if he has to.

“We’re chasing manufacturers, we’re entertaining them,” Force said. “We’re looking at not just trying to find a major sponsor that will buy a whole team, we’re going NASCAR (and how it) has rewritten how it’s done. They might have four or five sponsors during the year. … They’ve rewritten the way to go to business, and I’m following it.”

Second, Force – now a grandfather – wants to enjoy the racing careers of daughters Brittany and Courtney, who have followed in the footsteps of their father.

Another daughter, Ashley Force Hood, was one of the sport’s most popular stars less than a decade ago before retiring to begin a family. Ashley works with yet another Force daughter, Adria, in running their father’s multi-million dollar operation in Yorba Linda, Calif.

While he right now may be without sponsors for 2015, Force is not without options. He talks about potentially going back to barnstorming throughout North America if necessary, returning to his match-racing roots of running at any dragstrip that will pay him.

He also could move into the ESPN TV booth, and for the first time in his career is considering selling motors to other teams, much like Hendrick Motorsports does in NASCAR.

“To drive a race car, I don’t care if it’s Pro Stock, Pro Bike — I don’t care what it is — a Fuel Dragster, I want to be able to race and be with my family and be with the fans,” Force said. “If corporate America says, ‘Here’s where we want you,’ I find a way to go there.”

“Everything I do is around racing. I have opportunities to go other places I am addressing. If I take my motor program, and I sell to Funny Car teams and I sell to dragster teams, that’s a no-brainer. I can stay in business. But then they all come back and beat me with my technology.

“I’m going to make money in TV and in racing and with my endorsements, I can afford to pay for one car. I can spend $3.5 to $4 million for my daughter’s car. But I have to find a sponsor for me. I’ve got money in the bank, but in three years, I’d be flat broke. So, nope, I’m chasing it.”

Force is  even looking outside the U.S., essentially anything to survive and keep his company’s doors open, his teams racing and his employees working. At an age where most people are slowing down, Force is perhaps working harder than he ever has. It’s a matter of survival.

“Corporate America global says do you race in Canada, Mexico, England, Dubai?” Force said. “Well, I will, if that’s what it takes. … I know they want me. They’ve been trying to get me back for years. So going to have to stay in business. If I’m going to race NHRA, and that’s who I race for, then I’ve got to do a lot of work to make it happen. Then throw in a TV show, it’s a heart attack in the making. But I’ve got no choice. It’s where I’m going.”

With retirement inevitable, Force feels much of the NHRA’s future survival after he stops driving rests on his shoulders. The sport and sanctioning body have been so good to him and his family that his fierce loyalty won’t let him just call it quits and say “thanks for having me. See ‘ya.”

Rather, he’s sincerely and deeply worried about the future of the sport and is bound and determined to keep it alive for many more years after he’s gone.

“The sport, where is it going? What is good? What is bad? What are we doing wrong?,” Force said. “Everybody’s trying. NHRA is trying, PRO (Professional Racers Organization) is trying.

“I’m continually trying to grow the sport. Continually trying to grow the JFR brand as well as NHRA. The first one was the toughest when you win your first championship because you don’t know how to do it and you learn. But I read a letter from a man named Jim Jannard, and he said you’ve got to continue to reinvent yourself. That is true. That’s what I’m trying to do with my business as well as myself.

“The sport that made me financially stable in life that I could send my kids to college and I can retire right now, I owe the sport (and) NHRA. I owe the fans, and I owe it to protect these kids (keeping up-and-coming drag racers safe in their cars, one of Force’s biggest passions after nearly being killed in the worst crash of his career seven years ago).

“NHRA is my home. It’s where I want to race. I know they work hard. They can only do so much, and the rest of us got to work. We’re not going to fail. I will not fail because I’ve got nowhere to go. This is what I love, and I won’t fail my kids. I put them in this business. NHRA has a great product, and we’ll fight our way out of this hole.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”