NHRA: John Force rolls to No. 1 Funny Car qualifier in first race without former crew chief Jimmy Prock

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It wouldn’t be a total surprise if John Force thought to himself “Jimmy who?” after Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying of the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In his first race without now former crew chief Jimmy Prock, Force, a record 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ, stepped up his game to grab the provisional No. 1 spot in Friday’s first day of qualifying.

Joining Force at the top of their respective classes were Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

The final two rounds of qualifying for Sunday’s eliminations takes place Saturday.

Having parted ways with veteran crew chief Prock on Oct. 22 after Prock announced he had accepted a job with rival Don Schumacher Racing at seasons end, Force called upon longtime friend and team safety director John Medlen to step in and tune his Funny Car for this weekend’s race.

Medlen will likely continue in that role both this weekend and next week’s season-ending race at Pomona, Calif., as Force attempts to extend his own NHRA record of championships to 17 this season.

Medlen won the Funny Car championship with former Force driver Tony Pedregon in 2003. He left John Force Racing two years ago but returned earlier this year in his new safety director role.

But when Medlen took over for Prock, it was a seamless transition, and Friday’s results speak to that.

Force and his Ford Mustang led all Funny Cars with a pass of 4.039 seconds at 318.54 mph.

Ironically, Force likely gained some additional satisfaction by knocking rival Jack Beckman (4.045 seconds at 318.84 mph) off the top spot on the qualifying ladder, because Prock is now Beckman’s crew chief.

“We got down there so we feel good about the run,” Force said in an NHRA media release. “You’ve got to get every point you can. (Points leader Matt) Hagan picked up points too. When it gets down to the end, points do count. He picked up a point the last session and I don’t want him to get another round ahead of me.”

MORE: NHRA: John Force to announce new sponsor Saturday, new manufacturer Tuesday

The 2011 NHRA Funny Car champ, Hagan was second-fastest in qualifying at 4.044 seconds at 318.02 mph. Hagan still leads Force by 36 points.

In Top Fuel, Crampton shot to the top of the qualifying ladder with a stout run of 3.764 seconds at 322.42 mph. If he can hold on to the top spot after Saturday’s final two rounds of qualifying, Crampton will earn the first No. 1 qualifying spot of his career.

“It’s pretty exciting to leave here Friday night sitting on the top of the ladder,” Crampton said. “We’ve done that before but ended up getting bumped on Saturday.

“We’ll see how tomorrow pans out. I think we are going to have fantastic weather to lend itself to some great elapsed times. We will see how we do.”

Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon was the second-fastest Friday (3.766 seconds at 326.71 mph). It was announced earlier this week that Dixon, who has been running part-time this season for Bob Vandergriff Racing, will assume a full-time driving role next season as team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. steps aside to focus solely on his ownership duties.

In Pro Stock, Enders-Stevens covered the 1,000-foot drag strip in 6.647 seconds at 208.01 mph. Enders-Stevens picked up three points Friday, but still trails points leader Jason Line by 32 points heading into Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions.

“Those baby points are going to matter,” Enders-Stevens said. “They’re very significant especially with as tight as Jason, myself and Dave [Connolly] are right now.

“We were really conservative the first session. If you look at our 60 foot time, we were ninth and then went straight to the top of the page. We’ll throw something at it tomorrow and see what happens.”

Defending Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin was second-quickest Friday (6.653 seconds at 207.69 mph).

And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Savoie, who earned his first career win in the class last month at St. Louis, roared to the top of the heap with a run of 6.946 seconds at 192.55 mph.

“We struggled at the first of the year,” Savoie said. “Fuel injection is a really funny thing. It can help you and it can hurt you. Beginning of the year we were hurting and now it’s helped. It’s a good thing, we’ve been blessed.”

Michael Ray was second-fastest in PSM (6.956 seconds at 193.82 mph).

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FRIDAY’S RESULTS:

Top Fuel — 1. Richie Crampton, 3.764 seconds, 322.42 mph; 2. Larry Dixon, 3.766, 326.71; 3. Doug Kalitta, 3.772, 322.81; 4. Tony Schumacher, 3.784, 326.63; 5. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 320.66; 6. Spencer Massey, 3.802, 325.45; 7. Leah Pritchett, 3.806, 317.42; 8. Billy Torrence, 3.809, 326.24; 9. Steve Torrence, 3.820, 323.04; 10. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.824, 313.95; 11. J.R. Todd, 3.833, 322.58; 12. T.J. Zizzo, 3.835, 316.15.  Not Qualified: 13. Troy Buff, 3.836, 309.77; 14. Brittany Force, 3.893, 314.90; 15. Clay Millican, 3.934, 306.46; 16. Noah Stutz, 3.970, 298.14; 17. Antron Brown, 3.976, 248.98; 18. Bob Vandergriff, 3.988, 302.82; 19. Terry McMillen, 4.218, 206.76; 20. Steve Faria, 4.357, 203.52; 21. Steven Chrisman, 5.003, 153.58; 22. Kebin Kinsley, 6.104, 107.53.

Funny Car — 1. John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.039, 318.54; 2. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.044, 318.02; 3. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.045, 318.84; 4. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.058, 318.62; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.065, 311.41; 6. Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, 4.076, 308.35; 7. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.089, 316.52; 8. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.090, 311.13; 9. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.122, 310.55; 10. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.145, 290.69; 11. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.147, 306.88; 12. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.160, 309.13.  Not Qualified: 13. Cruz Pedregon, 4.164, 294.05; 14. Tony Pedregon, 4.192, 278.98; 15. Paul Lee, 4.273, 279.73; 16. Terry Haddock, 4.309, 284.33; 17. John Bojec, 4.415, 232.51; 18. Jeff Diehl, 4.536, 199.58; 19. Jon Capps, 4.790, 194.72.

Pro Stock — 1. Erica Enders-Stevens, Chevy Camaro, 6.647, 208.01; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.653, 207.69; 3. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.655, 207.75; 4. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.655, 207.72; 5. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.659, 207.59; 6. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.662, 207.62; 7. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.667, 206.92; 8. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.670, 207.15; 9. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.671, 207.46; 10. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.676, 207.43; 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.683, 206.86; 12. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.696, 207.85.  Not Qualified: 13. Matt Hartford, 6.698, 206.32; 14. Larry Morgan, 6.731, 205.38; 15. Aaron Stanfield, 6.746, 204.79; 16. Deric Kramer, 6.794, 203.31; 17. Steve Schmidt, 6.930, 199.64; 18. Jeff Isbell, 6.944, 196.56.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.946, 192.55; 2. Michael Ray, Suzuki, 6.956, 193.82; 3. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.974, 193.02; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.979, 191.59; 5. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.989, 194.07; 6. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.992, 192.30; 7. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.010, 191.95; 8. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 7.015, 190.92; 9. Adam Arana, Buell, 7.016, 192.08; 10. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.025, 189.10; 11. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.035, 188.41; 12. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 7.040, 188.70.  Not Qualified: 13. John Hall, 7.048, 190.62; 14. Shawn Gann, 7.050, 188.38; 15. Freddie Camarena, 7.057, 191.67; 16. Steve Johnson, 7.080, 189.50; 17. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.099, 188.86; 18. Mike Berry, 7.104, 186.85; 19. Redell Harris, 7.115, 190.22; 20. Elvira Karlsson, 7.125, 183.74; 21. Angelle Sampey, 7.127, 187.05; 22. Rhett Lougheed, 7.413, 165.19; 23. Lance Bonham, 7.787, 172.94.

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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.