John Force riding high after Pomona; seeks first Phoenix win since 2005

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John Force popped out of the roof hatch of his Castrol Ford Mustang at Pomona two weeks ago, after taking down rival Matt Hagan in the finals to the NHRA season opener.

The emotion that followed was vintage Force, fueled by the fact he had denied Hagan the chance to sweep all three John Force Racing Funny Cars in the elimination rounds.

“It’s an adrenaline rush, it’s a runaway freight train, and you’re just hanging on, and you just scream what you feel,” Force told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week.

“When you see your daughter (Courtney) get spanked first round, and then you see Robert Hight get beat, and then he’s gonna take you out? No-no. Different ballgame.”

The 16-time champion, Force has more than 100 final round victories. But this one at Pomona, no doubt, ranks near the top of the all-time list because of what it means as Force continues to search for sponsorship to replace Castrol and Ford at year’s end.

It also came after Hagan beat him in the final round season finale, also at Pomona, last November. So all Force did this year was go out, set a national ET record (3.965 seconds) and national speed record (324.12) at the 1,000-foot distance.

“Without a doubt it’s one of the best weekends we’ve ever had,” Force said. “My crew chief Jimmy Prock was on a roll. He works with the braintrust, that’s what makes our team win. We know how to work with each other and we know how to trust each other. And me, I was on my game.”

Heading into Phoenix this weekend, it’s a slightly different world than it has been for years on the NHRA circuit.

The track formerly known as Firebird Raceway is now Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and it’s been completely resurfaced. Force is the all-time winningest driver in Phoenix with eight wins, although none since 2005.

“My guys will be watching the weather,” Force explained, since ambient temperatures this week have already hovered in the 80-plus degree range.

“I probably won more races at Phoenix than anyone. I match raced before going on the NHRA circuit, I was coming up and I was 24 years old. Over all those years of racing, Phoenix, I got a handle on it so when we got to the nationals, we knew the track.

“What’s different this year is all the data we have in the computer, all I know about the dips, and that gives me that edge over the kid who’s coming up who doesn’t know the race track. They’ve spent a ton of money rebuilding the race track. Not only the lighting, the bathrooms, but they rebuilt the surface of the race track and that is big. That’s gonna be either a real aggressive race track or it could have problems. We don’t know until we run on it.”

Much of my 30-minute chat with Force this week was spent on his crusade for safety and pursuit of sponsorship, and he provided an interesting look at all that that entails. The team has agreed to a major associate deal with PEAK Antifreeze, announced at Pomona. More on the safety and business of racing side with JFR will follow in separate posts.

As for this week, it’s a chance for the 64-year-old to start two-for-two in his quest for a 17th championship.

“You the hear the jokes, and they’re always respectful, like, ‘Oh, ‘ol John Force can still win at his age, when he oughta be at Marie Callender’s, getting the discount for being older.’

“And you bounce back and say, ‘Hey, you’re right, I ain’t arguing.’ But in this firesuit, I’m 24. I’m a kid. I become Superman when you give me a hot rod like that.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.