Sons pick up drag racing baton from retired NHRA Funny Car driver Johnny Gray

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The passing of the torch began at the end of last season and still continues in drag racing’s Gray family.

Last season, team patriarch Johnny Gray won an individual single-season high four of his seven career NHRA Funny Car national events, including the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

And while the Carlsbad, N.M. driver ultimately didn’t win his hoped-for first Funny Car championship, he was able to retire from racing at season’s end knowing he had one of the best campaigns of his lengthy and versatile (competed in seven different classes in his NHRA tenure) drag racing career.

A two-time former divisional Top Alcohol Funny Car champ in 1997 and 1998, Gray became the first driver in NHRA annals to exceed 200 mph in a gas-powered car.

Now, the elder Gray will watch from the Gainesville sidelines as sons Shane and Jonathan carry on their father’s legacy.

Shane debuts a brand new 2014 Chevrolet Camaro during the opening round of qualifying Friday at this weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville.

And even though Shane races in a different NHRA car class than his father, he still recalls the excitement when Johnny won last year at Gainesville.

“It was really cool seeing him win last year,” Shane Gray, sixth in the 2014 Pro Stock standings, said of his father’s Gatornationals win. “He certainly paid his dues, so anytime he won, it was real important to me. Last year was special, and it all kind of started at this race for his team. Hopefully this year we’ll go to Gainesville and make him proud.”

Meanwhile, brother Jonathan will also begin his bid to carry on the family racing tradition, making his Pro Stock career debut in this weekend’s race as well. The ink on the younger Gray’s PS license is literally still wet: he just earned his competition license for the class this past Monday in a test session in Florida.

“It’s tons different than my old Comp car,” said Jonathan Gray, who previously raced a Pontiac GTO in NHRA’s Comp eliminator class in 2012. “There is a lot more going on.

“You have to think about throttle control a whole lot more, changing gears, keeping it straight. There is just a whole lot more to worry about in the Pro Stock car than the automatic car, that’s for sure. It was a big sense of relief getting the first burnout out of the way. I know I can do it now, but we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”

While he’ll likely lean on big brother Shane and dad Johnny for advice and tips, Jonathan is as ready as he can be to make his Pro Stock debut.

“I’m as comfortable as I know how to be in the car right now, and I’m just going to keep chipping away at it, keep getting runs and getting more comfortable,” Jonathan said. “Really and truly, not a whole lot excites me. I’m pretty even. But this does. This excites me.”

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F1: Max Verstappen provides late-lap thrills at U.S. Grand Prix

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Leave it to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to provide some late-race thrills at the U.S. Grand Prix.

Verstappen’s key block on Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton late in Sunday’s race denied Hamilton a chance to maybe chase down Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to win. And it helped deny Hamilton’s bid for the season championship.

Verstappen’s defensive skills allowed the Red Bull driver to finish second, his best result yet at the U.S Grand Prix, his fourth podium in six races. By keeping Hamilton third, it kept the season championship alive, even if just another week to the Mexican Grand Prix.

Last season, Verstappen had surged past Raikkonen on a final-lap pass to finish third. It was the kind of aggressive move that earned him the “Mad Max” nickname. Before he could even reach the podium, race officials declared Verstappen’s move illegal and bumped an angry Verstappen down to fifth.

The Circuit of the Americas this week installed a new curb on the same corner, dubbed “Verstoppen,” to punish drivers who tried anything similar this year. It worked when Verstappen hit it hard enough in qualifying to knock his car out of the session with a damaged suspension and gear box. He started Sunday’s race 18th.

The Dutch driver launched a furious attack through the field and found himself in the thick of things late Sunday. His move to block Hamilton wasn’t on the same corner with the curbs, and it came with him playing defense instead of being the aggressor.

Verstappen had to make multiple moves to keep Hamilton behind him and finally drove the Mercedes wide, forcing Hamilton to finally concede the position and the race.

“I was trying to get close to Kimi but at the same time keeping an eye on Lewis in my mirror. It was close, but we managed to hang on,” Verstappen said. “It is safe to say today went a lot better than expected.”

Knowing Verstappen’s aggressive nature, Hamilton said there was too much at stake to risk a collision.

“The key to me was to make sure I finished ahead of Seb. I don’t care when you win a championship, just that you win,” Hamilton said. “”For Max, to come back from so far, he did a great job.”

Verstappen has been just as aggressive at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

In 2016, race officials ruled he improperly left the track to gain an advantage on Vettel to finish third and he was bumped from the podium. Last season, Verstappen’s strong start sent him into the lead out of the first turn, while Hamilton and Vettel bumped each other. The collision ruptured one of Hamilton’s tires.

Verstappen won the race while Hamilton limped home in ninth place, but still won the season championship.