(Photo courtesy NHRA)

NHRA: Ageless John Force takes first step towards 17th title, wins Countdown opener

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Drag racing is a sport of numbers – but 67-year-old John Force proved Sunday that age is not one of them.

The winningest driver in NHRA history, Force kicked off his bid for what he hopes ultimately results in his record 17th Funny Car championship, earning his 146th career national event victory in Sunday’s Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte.

“I love this job,” Force said of his third win of the season. “Being old is all in your head, trust me. We’re going to give you a show in this Countdown. We may not win it, but I’ll be in the hunt.”

Force (3.946 seconds at 324.05 mph) held off a strong run by Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.987 seconds at 315.71 mph) to open the six-race Countdown on the right foot. Force moves up to third place in the standings with the win.

Five races now remain in the playoffs for all four professional classes, with the next race this coming weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis.

In Top Fuel, Antron Brown took the first step towards repeating last year’s championship and to earn his third overall Top Fuel title in the last five seasons.

Brown (3.763 seconds at 319.29 mph) defeated Doug Kalitta (3.811 seconds at 320.28 mph), who is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship, in Sunday’s final round. It was Brown’s fifth win of the season.

“When the competition rises up, it makes us rise up,” said Brown, who recorded his 59th career NHRA win, including 43 in Top Fuel.

It was Brown’s second consecutive win at Charlotte to kick off the Countdown, having also won last year’s event.

“I’m dreaming right now. Somebody needs to come pinch me,” Brown said. “When you come here, this is how you want to start the Countdown off … We just kept digging. That was the key. Just keep digging. The track got to be the hottest it’s been all year long (132 degrees). We had to navigate it and we had to face some of the toughest matchups we’ve had all year … We put the work in today and we were fortunate enough to win.”

In Pro Stock, Jason Line (6.621 seconds at 209.39 mph) earned his series-high eighth win of the season, defeating teammate Greg Anderson (6.639 seconds at 209.20 mph).

“It was a great day for us,” Line said. “If you want to win the championship you’ve just got to come out smoking. To race Greg in the final is a great thing. It’s good, but it’s bad because he’s the last guy you want to see over there in the final. He gets the best of me most of the time, but today was my day.”

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Chip Ellis (6.879 seconds at 194.88 mph) pulled off a huge upset in the final round, defeating defending series champion and points leader Andrew Hines (6.908 seconds at 193.49 mph).

It was Ellis’ seventh career PSM win — but also his first since 2008.

“This is the most important win of my career, just for (team owner Junior) Pittman,” Ellis said. “I’m really proud to be a part of his team. It’s an amazing deal. We work really hard, putting in a lot of hours … Our bike is amazing. Our guys are doing a great job on the bike and it showed this weekend.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown; 2.  Doug Kalitta; 3.  Wayne Newby; 4.  Pat Dakin; 5.  Brittany Force; 6.  Leah Pritchett; 7.  Steve Torrence; 8.  Cameron Ferre; 9.  Shawn Langdon; 10.  J.R. Todd; 11.  Scott Palmer; 12.  Ike Maier; 13.  Clay Millican; 14.  Tony Schumacher; 15.  Richie Crampton; 16.  Chris Karamesines.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  John Force; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 3.  Del Worsham; 4.  Ron Capps; 5.  Matt Hagan; 6.  Robert Hight; 7.  John Bojec; 8.  Tim Wilkerson; 9.  Courtney Force; 10.  Chad Head; 11.  Jack Beckman; 12.  Dave Richards; 13.  Cruz Pedregon; 14.  John Hale; 15.  Bob Gilbertson; 16.  Alexis DeJoria.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line; 2.  Greg Anderson; 3.  Vincent Nobile; 4.  Alex Laughlin; 5.  Bo Butner; 6.  Chris McGaha; 7.  Jeg Coughlin; 8.  Shane Gray; 9.  Curt Steinbach; 10.  Allen Johnson; 11.  Matt Hartford; 12.  Kenny Delco; 13.  Shane Tucker; 14.  Drew Skillman; 15.  John Gaydosh Jr; 16.  Alan Prusiensky.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Chip Ellis; 2.  Andrew Hines; 3.  Jim Underdahl; 4.  Angelle Sampey; 5.  Steve Johnson; 6. Hector Arana Jr; 7.  Karen Stoffer; 8.  LE Tonglet; 9.  Jerry Savoie; 10.  Matt Smith; 11.  Eddie Krawiec; 12.  Shawn Gann; 13.  Cory Reed; 14.  Melissa Surber; 15.  Mark Paquette; 16.  Hector Arana.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Antron Brown, 3.763 seconds, 319.29 mph  def. Doug Kalitta, 3.811 seconds, 320.28 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.946, 324.05  def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.987, 315.71.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.621, 209.39  def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.639, 209.20.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.879, 194.88  def. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.908, 193.49.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Leah Pritchett, 3.840, 310.20 def. Richie Crampton, 7.051, 97.33; Antron Brown, 3.762, 318.99 def. Clay Millican, 5.606, 117.33; Brittany Force, 3.759, 321.81 def. Chris Karamesines, Broke; Doug Kalitta, 3.768, 324.20 def. Ike Maier, 5.535, 128.37; Cameron Ferre, 4.138, 226.73 def. Tony Schumacher, 6.860, 99.72; Steve Torrence, 4.416, 240.47 def. Scott Palmer, 4.849, 152.16; Wayne Newby, 3.982, 246.71 def. Shawn Langdon, 4.121, 263.36; Pat Dakin, 3.811, 319.90 def. J.R. Todd, 4.667, 173.85; QUARTERFINALS — Newby, 3.849, 316.90 def. Torrence, 3.843, 280.25; Dakin, 5.327, 127.65 def. Ferre, Broke – No Show; Kalitta, 3.817, 320.20 def. Pritchett, 3.836, 320.13; Brown, 3.796, 319.60 def. Force, 3.797, 320.97; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.879, 311.13 def. Newby, 4.096, 225.41; Brown, 3.870, 311.85 def. Dakin, 6.090, 101.73; FINAL — Brown, 3.763, 319.29 def. Kalitta, 3.811, 320.28.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 5.330, 132.70 def. Bob Gilbertson, Chevy Monte Carlo, Broke; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.972, 318.99 def. John Hale, Charger, 26.289, 23.60; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.965, 324.75 def. Dave Richards, Ford Mustang, 4.295, 271.19; John Bojec, Toyota Solara, 4.059, 308.78 def. Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, Foul – Centerline; Del Worsham, Camry, 3.976, 321.12 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.275, 220.37; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.029, 312.28 def. Chad Head, Camry, 4.172, 253.99; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.916, 327.51 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.828, 175.25; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.975, 323.89 def. Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.024, 308.85; QUARTERFINALS — J. Force, 4.013, 319.90 def. Wilkerson, 7.401, 103.50; Capps, 3.983, 314.31 def. Hight, 4.008, 320.51; Worsham, 4.045, 317.34 def. Bojec, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.970, 320.74 def. Hagan, 3.992, 322.11; SEMIFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.949, 321.19 def. Worsham, 3.990, 322.27; J. Force, 3.957, 323.27 def. Capps, 4.003, 317.57; FINAL — J. Force, 3.946, 324.05 def. Johnson Jr., 3.987, 315.71.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.689, 207.72 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.718, 208.52; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.649, 208.97 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.708, 207.75; Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.687, 206.76 def. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.703, 207.98; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.658, 208.36 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.714, 207.40; Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.624, 209.17 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.736, 205.94; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.639, 208.94 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.715, 207.46; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.642, 209.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.762, 205.35; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.637, 208.49 def. Curt Steinbach, Camaro, 6.700, 206.07; QUARTERFINALS — Anderson, 6.663, 208.39 def. McGaha, 6.690, 208.10; Line, 6.642, 209.01 def. Butner, 6.672, 209.75; Nobile, 6.660, 207.94 def. Coughlin, 6.705, 206.61; Laughlin, 6.681, 208.78 def. Gray, 6.952, 209.01; SEMIFINALS — Anderson, 6.673, 208.59 def. Laughlin, 6.674, 209.36; Line, 6.630, 209.20 def. Nobile, 6.646, 209.30; FINAL — Line, 6.621, 209.39 def. Anderson, 6.639, 209.20.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.29 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.895, 194.21; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.920, 193.07 def. Matt Smith, 6.915, 192.03; Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.875, 194.74 def. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.959, 191.92; Angelle Sampey, Buell, 10.044, 97.19 def. Mark Paquette, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.971, 190.16 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, 7.073, 188.15; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.884, 195.25 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.997, 192.30; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.932, 194.18 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.948, 193.74; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.901, 194.86 def. Hector Arana, Buell, Broke; QUARTERFINALS — Underdahl, 6.956, 192.49 def. Stoffer, 7.011, 193.32; Sampey, 6.896, 194.02 def. Arana Jr, 6.954, 193.74; Ellis, 6.905, 194.24 def. Tonglet, 7.125, 174.93; Hines, 6.921, 193.29 def. Johnson, 6.926, 192.74; SEMIFINALS — Hines, 6.955, 191.40 def. Underdahl, 6.972, 194.44; Ellis, 6.890, 194.16 def. Sampey, 10.377, 77.18; FINAL — Ellis, 6.879, 194.88 def. Hines, 6.908, 193.49.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,226; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,184; 3.  Steve Torrence, 2,126; 4.  Brittany Force, 2,110; 5.  Tony Schumacher, 2,099; 6.  J.R. Todd, 2,074; 7.  Shawn Langdon, 2,067; 8.  Leah Pritchett, 2,054; 9.  Clay Millican, 2,052; 10.  Richie Crampton, 2,046.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,194; 2.  Del Worsham, 2,152; 3.  John Force, 2,144; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,132; 5.  Matt Hagan, 2,122; 6.  Courtney Force, 2,094; 7.  Robert Hight, 2,093; 8.  Jack Beckman, 2,084; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,067; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,036.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,233; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,183; 3.  Vincent Nobile, 2,129; 4.  Bo Butner, 2,123; 5.  Allen Johnson, 2,095; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,082; 7.  Shane Gray, 2,081; 8.  Drew Skillman, 2,073; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,052; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,020.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Andrew Hines, 2,205; 2.  Chip Ellis, 2,161; 3.  Angelle Sampey, 2,156; 4.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,120; 5.  LE Tonglet, 2,106; 6.  Jerry Savoie, 2,099; 7.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,083; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,052; 9.  Matt Smith, 2,042; 10.  Cory Reed, 2,032.

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American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida