MotorSportsTalk wishes you a Merry Christmas as we continue our season-ending reviews of the top drivers of the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
Through Jan. 4 (we started this series on Dec. 12), we will feature a daily in-depth review of a driver that finished in the top-five in each of the four professional classes (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle), as well as a compendium of select other drivers that did not finish in the top-five.
The list of drivers we’ve already posted is below.Today, our Christmas present to you is the 2016 season in review of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force:
Driver: John Force
Hometown: Yorba Linda, California
Team: John Force Racing
Sponsor/car: Peak Chevrolet Camaro SS
Crew chief: Jon Schaffer
2016 season statistics: Finished 4th in Funny Car; 24 races, 4 wins, 2 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 5 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier zero times. Round-by-round record: 33 wins, 20 losses.
What went right in 2016: Force earned four wins, most in a season since he won four in 2013, when he captured his 16th and most recent Funny Car championship. … Reached the final round in three of the six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, including wins at Charlotte 2 and Las Vegas (beat daughter Courtney Force in the final round). Lost to Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final round of the season finale at Pomona.
What went wrong in 2016: While the ageless Force showed he’s still one of the most successful and toughest drivers to beat on the Funny Car circuit, he was haunted by 10 first-round losses – nearly half of the 24-race season – including three straight (Seattle, Brainerd and Indianapolis), as well as back-to-back first-round losses in the Countdown (Reading and Dallas). Had Force cut down on the number of first-round exits, he had the potential to win a 17th championship.
What to look for in 2017: Force is rumored to be getting the old band back together: although no official announcement has been made yet, he will reportedly have a number of old faces back with John Force Racing in 2017, including crew chiefs John Medlen and Jimmy Prock. That could be just the thing Force needs to get him over the hump and win title No. 17. Force still has hopes of winning 20 championships in his career, and 2017 has the potential to allow him to move one title closer to that ultimate goal.
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”