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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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.