NHRA: John Force’s new crew chief just 27 years old

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Jon Schaffer will be stepping into some very big shoes when the NHRA season-opening Winternationals begin in Pomona, Calif., Feb. 6-8.

Schaffer was announced Wednesday as the new crew chief – and successor to Jimmy Prock and John Medlen – for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force.

(Prock and Medlen left Force’s operation after lengthy stints at or near the end of last season and have joined rival Don Schumacher Racing.)

Schaffer is only 27 years old, which will provide quite a contrast with his 65-year-old driver, who will wheel a new car manufacturer (Chevrolet Camaro) with a new primary sponsor (PEAK Antifreeze).

But Force has always been a team owner and driver who likes and encourages young team members.

“We have developed the next generation of drivers and now I want to do the same thing with our crew chiefs,” Force said Wednesday in a team media release. “We have so much young talent I want to start giving these guys a chance to grow and develop their talents.”

Schaffer had previously served as assistant crew chief with Mike Neff, who is crew chief for Force’s teammate, son-in-law and president of John Force Racing, Robert Hight. Long-time crewman Tim Fabrisi will step in to fill Schaffer’s role and assist Neff on Hight’s Auto Club Camaro SS Funny Car.

“We will always have a braintrust and our lead man will be Mike Neff,” Force said. “You have to have stability and that is one thing that we have had over the past couple of decades.

“You don’t win as many championships as we have with as many different guys without a great core group. I know crew chiefs will move around. That is the nature of this business. I want to continue to develop talent inside John Force Racing and continue to keep winning.”

Other promotions or new hires include:

* Nick Casertano is the new car chief for John Force’s PEAK Camaro SS Funny Car team.

* Ronnie Thompson has been hired to assist Todd Smith, crew chief on Force’s daughter Brittany’s Top Fuel team. Thompson comes to JFR after working for Al-Anabi Racing, which suspended operations two weeks ago.

* Courtney Force’s Traxxas Camaro SS Funny Car will continue to be led by Ron Douglas and Dan Hood.

* Long-time crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli has been promoted to general manager of Force’s shop in Brownsburg, Indiana. One of Antonelli’s key tasks will be future expansion of JFR.

“Mike Neff, Ron Douglas, Dean Antonelli, Todd Smith and Dan Hood have a lot of experience and we want to continue to grow and be competitive at a championship level,” Force said. “Guys like Jon Schaffer and Tim Fabrisi, as well as new hires Ronnie Thompson and Nick Casertano, will keep us young and on the cutting edge.”

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994