John Force looks to shake off winless drought and cook in Hotlanta

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Given how hot his overall race team has been thus far in the 2014 NHRA season, there couldn’t be a better place for John Force Racing to compete at next than Hotlanta.

Ok, so it’s actually Commerce, Ga., about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, Ga., but close enough as JFR prepares for this weekend’s (May 16-18) Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals.

The chairman of the board, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, has had a longtime love affair with Atlanta Dragway, earning a record seven wins there, more than any other driver at that particular track in NHRA history.

But there’s a downside to that story, as well: As much as he’s dominated at Atlanta Dragway, Force has not reached victory lane there for nearly a decade – eight years to be exact.

He hopes to change that this weekend, while also extending the overall hot streak that all JFR drivers have been on thus far this season, particularly Force’s son-in-law and JFR president Robert Hight, who has reached the final round in each of the last five races, coming away with three wins.

Hight, who is still riding the momentum of his win two weeks ago at Houston, is also atop the NHRA Funny Car points standings, as a result.

Force, meanwhile, has reached the final round in eight of his last 11 races, dating back to last season, with wins in four of those. He also set both ends of the NHRA elapsed time (3.966 seconds) and speed (324.12 mph) records for a Funny Car earlier this year in this year’s season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

“We have been on a tear, and our other cars (Courtney Force in Funny Car and Brittany Force in Top Fuel) are coming around,” Force said. “I feel as a whole team we have come together, and the brain trust will keep us alive and winning.

“We have been to every final going back to Indy last year, which is 13 finals in a row. Winning is where the focus is, and we won’t forget safety.”

Force last won at Atlanta Dragway in 2005, a lengthy drought that he hopes to snap this weekend.

“Atlanta can be tricky because of the heat,” Force said. “We have adapted and with (crew chief) Jimmy Prock, that seems like one of the places where he does well.

“But Jimmy and I have never run this track together, and I am excited about that. I also love the people because they are really into their racing.”

Not only will he be battling Hight, Force will also take on two-time Atlanta winner and 2012 world champ Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Alexis DeJoria, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon for top honors in Funny Car this weekend.

“I need to do well, and it is not just because we are up there in the points,” said Force, who turned 65 on May 4. “It’s a matter of you have to learn how to run by the time you get to the Countdown [to the Championship]. We say it every race at the team meetings, ‘This is the race you have to start winning.'”

Also of note this weekend, an NHRA milestone could be achieved by one of several female racers, as the next win will be the 100th career win by a woman driver or rider in the sanctioning body’s history.

Among those hoping to put their name in the NHRA record books: Pro Stock points leader Erica Enders-Stevens, DeJoria and Courtney Force in Funny Car, Brittany Force in Top Fuel, and Katie Sullivan and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

But of course, as a proud papa, John Force hopes one of his daughters sets that historic mark.

“I was thinking about Ashley (daughter Ashley Force Hood, now retired from competition) and how no woman had ever won a Funny Car race until she beat me in 2008 in Atlanta,” Force said. “That will go down in history, but to also be the 100th female winner will be huge.

“What is really cool is Brittany and Courtney are overdue. To win that 100th race is a landmark, and I hope one of them gets it.”

Qualifying begins Friday with sessions at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. ET. The final two qualifying sessions take place Saturday at 12:30 and 3 p.m.

Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday.

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).