UPDATED — NHRA stunner: Jimmy Prock out as John Force’s crew chief

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UPDATED: Ex-John Force crew chief Jimmy Prock hired by Don Schumacher Racing

 

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In a stunning move that could potentially threaten his bid for a record-extending 17th NHRA Funny Car championship, John Force announced Wednesday that veteran crew chief Jimmy Prock has resigned, effective immediately.

In an NHRA teleconference Wednesday afternoon where many reporters believed he would announce a new sponsor and new car manufacturer for next season, Force instead said an unnamed rival team owner had reached out to him earlier this week and said he was interested in hiring some of Force’s employees, including Prock.

“I approached (Prock) and he couldn’t give me an answer,” Force said. “I said, ‘Jimmy, I need to know if you’re with me or you’re not.’ We danced around for a few days and finally I said I need to know, that I have sponsor contracts that have been signed or are on the table, selling this powerhouse race team of four teams. You and (fellow crew chief) Mike Neff lead my charge. I need to know where I stand.

“Jimmy Prock said, ‘I’m probably going to leave at the end of the year. Basically, I need a change.’ I know he had been talking with others (team owners).

“He turned in a resignation yesterday for the end of the year. I met with my brain trust and told Jimmy Prock I would accept his resignation, but I was accepting it now. I’ll take it right now.

“As of right now, Jimmy Prock is no longer employed by John Force Racing. I know it’s in the middle of the Countdown (to the Championship) and you think I’m committing suicide, but I’m not.”

Force is currently second in the Funny Car standings, 36 points behind series leader Matt Hagan. Two races remain this season, in Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.

Force admitted Prock’s decision to leave caught him by surprise and resulted in the decision to let Prock leave now rather than after the season, regardless of how that might affect Force’s championship bid this season or sponsorship contracts that have already been signed for 2015 or are close to being signed.

“I race from the heart,” Force said. “I’m about principle, camaraderie (and) loyalty. If a man’s heart is not here with me, his job is to protect his family, he has to do what he has to do and John Force has to do what he has to do.”

And perhaps the biggest thing Force has to do is rally his team and go forward with his championship hopes, although it likely will cause some scrambling and greater interaction and use of employees, including those who may work for Force’s two racing daughters, Brittany and Courtney, and racing son-in-law Robert Hight.

“I am going after this championship and I am going after it with the people that will stay with me for the long haul. That is what I owe my sponsors and fans,” Force said. “As much as I want No. 17, not even for a championship will I race with somebody that I know is leaving me.

“I am a big boy and I’m going to put this team back together. I am going to fight, win or lose. If we get No. 17, great, but if we don’t I know I will have gone down with people that believe in me, that trust in me and that will stand by me, not just in good times but in bad times. I am not just racing for this championship; I am racing for the next 10 years.”

Prock has been with John Force Racing for nearly 16 years. He previously had been crew chief for Hight, but came over in the middle of the 2013 season to become Force’s crew chief, leading him the remainder of that season to three wins in the Countdown for the Championship and ultimately Force’s 16th championship.

One thing Force likely will not do is bring back former crew chief Austin Coil. Together, the pair won 15 of Force’s 16 championships. Coil retired after Force’s 2010 title and a team source said Coil has no interest in returning to the sport.

That means Force will likely have long-time employees John Medlen, the organization’s director of technology and safety, and Dean Antonelli (who works on Brittany Force’s Top Fuel dragster).

Medlen was crew chief when Tony Pedregon won the Funny Car championship in 2003 while driving for John Force Racing.

“I’ve got about a week,” Force said. ”I’m addressing the employees (later today). If they’re going to stay, I’ll know that, I’ll have a commitment that they’ll stay through the Countdown. If not, I’ve got a week to build a complete race team.”

Force added later, “This is the hardest call I’ve ever made. I have to go on, he (Prock) needs to go on.”

Force said he would reveal more about his new sponsors and car manufacturer at the Las Vegas race next weekend and at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show the following week, also in Las Vegas.

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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”