NHRA: As 2015 season concludes, John Force’s future looks bright again

(Photo courtesy Gary Nastase/John Force Racing)

As the 2015 NHRA season draws to an end in this weekend’s Auto Club Finals, it has been a reflective time for legendary driver John Force.

The winningest driver in NHRA history knows he will fall short of extending his own record of Funny Car championships to 17. He comes into this weekend also knowing the highest he can finish in the final season standings will be fifth place.

But given all the transition and change that this season brought for both Force and his four-car John Force Racing operation, it’s ending on a high note – and with the promise of an even better 2016 for himself, daughters Brittany (Top Fuel) and Courtney (Funny Car) and son-in-law and JFR president Robert Hight (Funny Car).

JFR went through more change in 2015 than it had in the previous three decades. A 30-year relationship with Castrol Oil ended in 2014, replaced by Peak Antifreeze.

Then, Ford – which had powered Force for nearly 20 years – also decided to go in a different direction after 2014. Chevrolet stepped up to the plate in a big way and, between the car manufacturer and Peak, Force’s operation is in good shape for the next several years.

That’s a far cry from how Force was feeling a year ago, when JFR’s future appeared uncertain at the very least. It was bad enough to lose a sponsor that he had a 30-year relationship with.

But Ford’s departure after Castrol was such a double-whammy that for the first time in decades, Force wasn’t sure if the racing empire he had built could continue – and for how long.

Things got to the point where Force even talked about stepping aside if it meant keeping his daughters and Hight in their respective rides.

There were also changes in crew chiefs and crew members for Force’s own team, as well as changes for Brittany’s team, including picking up Monster Energy as primary sponsor after the season began. JFR also scaled back on the number of employees it had, a first for the organization.

But when the 2015 season began at Pomona, the same place it will end, with Peak and other secondary sponsors on board as well as Chevy, JFR was back in business and looking ahead to the future.

Force has repeatedly said that the adversity and uncertainty he faced has only served to make him and his organization stronger and more determined.

And while the end result for the four JFR drivers was not what they had hoped for heading into this season, they end the 2015 season with optimism for 2016, knowing that the future is much more secure and promising than it was at the end of the 2014 campaign.

“I knew this year was going to be tough but I am proud of this Peak Chevrolet team,” Force said in a team release. “We had a bunch of new sponsors and I was breaking in a new crew chief in Jon Schaffer.

“He did a great job and all my crew guys really kept me in the championship hunt until the very end. We got some wins and that is what the sponsors want and I feel like we have some momentum coming into the Auto Club Finals.”

Force uncharacteristically won just two races this season, but he has high hopes of leaving Pomona with a third.

While Funny Car counterparts Del Worsham, Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr., will be fighting for the championship, Force can focus solely on ending the season as a winner, which would build momentum heading into 2016.

He also is assured of his 30th consecutive season of finishing in the top-10 in the Funny Car standings.

“You can’t hurt the heart of a champion,” Force said. “I race from the heart and that is where I get my motivation. These young guys that have been working on my race car all year motivate me and when I put on my fire suit I feel like I am 20 years old again.”

Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, has been Force’s home track ever since he began drag racing more than four decades ago. Not only is it his favorite track, it’s also the one he’s earned the most success at with 16 victories.

While he fell short of his 17th championship this year, a 17th career win at one of drag racing’s most legendary facilities is definitely within reach.

“Auto Club Raceway is my home track,” he said. “I sleep in my own bed and I just love driving out to the track and seeing the mountains.

“I remember driving out to the track at the start of the season and I was just excited to be racing. I will feel the same way every day driving to the races this weekend.

“I love what I do and I am lucky I get to race with my family and amazing sponsors. We are going for the win and hopefully we can have an impact on this Funny Car championship.”

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Santino Ferrucci will drive No. 14 for AJ Foyt Racing full time in 2023 IndyCar season

Santino Ferrucci AJ Foyt
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Santino Ferrucci will return to full-time racing in the NTT IndyCar Series next season, joining AJ Foyt Racing.

Ferrucci had made eight IndyCar starts with three teams since his last full-time season in 2020 while also racing part time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year.

He will drive the storied No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt’s team, which will field the car from its Waller, Texas headquarters.

“It’s incredibly exciting to be back in the INDYCAR Series full time,” Ferrucci said in a team release. “Being a part-time driver over the last two years has been hard for me, personally. I’m a race car driver, and I want to compete. Working with different teams has been exciting, and I’m proud that no matter which car I’ve raced, I’ve always shown speed and consistency. I couldn’t be more excited to join AJ Foyt Racing in the 14 Chevy. I can’t wait to make the best of it.”

Ferrucci, 24, had finished a career-best fourth in IndyCar four times, including the 104th Indy 500 in 2020. He was the 2019 Indy 500 rookie of the year with a sixth.

In nine Xfinity starts since 2021, Ferrucci has a career-best finish of 13th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I am thrilled to welcome Santino to the team,” Larry Foyt said in a release. “He’s shown a knack for getting toward the front of the field, and I think he is a racer who moves forward on race day. A.J. sees the fire in him and has enjoyed their meetings together. I think Santino’s experience will help his rookie teammate as well, so he is a great addition to our roster.”

Ferrucci will be teamed at AJ Foyt Racing with Benjamin Pedersen, who finished fifth in the 2022 Indy Lights standings. The team has yet to specify the number for Pedersen’s entry, which will be fielded out of its Indianapolis race shop.

Foyt’s two full-time drivers last season were Dalton Kellett and Kyle Kirkwood, who is moving to Andretti Autosport.