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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Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”