Notebook: NHRA honors Terry Chandler; John Force Racing, Kalitta Motorsports struggle

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JOLIET, Illinois — It was a rough weekend in many aspects for many of those at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois:

* First, Terry Chandler, a philanthropist who had spent the last several years personally bankrolling Jack Beckman’s “Infinite Hero” and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr.’s “Make A Wish” Funny Cars, was honored prior to the start of Sunday’s eliminations.

A five-minute video retrospect of Chandler’s life was played on the video screens at the track. Chandler was a beloved member of the NHRA family who passed away July 4 at the age of 65 after a courageous battle with brain cancer.

The late Terry Chandler and one of the drivers whose team’s she sponsored, Tommy Johnson Jr.

Chandler is the sister of former NHRA racer Johnny Gray, aunt to Shane Gray and great-aunt to current Pro Stock racer Tanner Gray.

“You already knew how much she was loved,” Funny Car driver Ron Capps said of Chandler. “I saw her standing at the back of my car (during the first round today). I had to shake my head because I was so used to seeing her standing there.

“This was her life, making kids smile. Drag racing is all she talked about. It was a very emotional weekend and bittersweet.”

Capps gave the winning trophy to team owner Don Schumacher and his family, who will then give it to Chandler’s family.

* John Force Racing struggled miserably in Sunday’s final eliminations. All three JFR Funny Car drivers — Courtney Force, Robert High and team patriarch John Force — lost in the first round and all for the same reason: they smoked their tires (lost traction).

Courtney Force lost to J.R. Todd, Hight lost to Jim Campbell and John Force lost to Tommy Johnson Jr. It’s the first time this season that all three JFR Funny Cars have lost in the first round.

The fourth JFR driver, Top Fuel pilot Brittany Force, made it out of the first round, but lost in the second round in an upset victory by T.J. Zizzo.

John Force took the unusual step after the race of issuing a statement to fans of his, Hight’s and his two daughters’ respective teams.

“We’re moving in the right direction, and it’s a long way to the Countdown (the NHRA’s six-race playoffs),” Force said in a statement. “I can’t say thanks enough to my guys. I know they’re bummed right now, but I don’t want them to take it home. I love them all. Let’s get ready and go to Denver (the next race in two weeks, which kicks off the annual three-race ‘Western Swing’).”

Added Hight, who came into Sunday as the event’s No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car, “The good news is our performance is there. What we have to quit doing is beating ourselves, and that’s what we do every week. We’re not getting outrun, ever. We drop cylinders, we smoke the tires. There haven’t been any races when we’ve went out there side by side and gotten beat. We’re not getting beat by the competition; we’re getting beat by ourselves. We have to eliminate that.”

* Zizzo’s Cinderella story came to an end in the semifinals when he lost to Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence. It was the first race for Zizzo and his team in nearly 10 months (last time was at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, early last September).

But the local driver (from north suburban Lincolnshire, Ill.) has no reason to hang his head. It’s the third time the little team that could has taken out the No. 1 qualifier at Route 66 in the last five seasons: defeated eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher after he qualified No. 1 in the 2013 race, beat 2014 No. 1 qualifier Spencer Massey and then 2017 No. 1 qualifier Britney Force.

In addition, Zizzo recorded the two best speed showings of his Top Fuel career (324.36 mph in his first round win over Pat Dakin and his second-round upset (324.75) of Brittany Force.

* Another of the sport’s super teams, Kalitta Motorsports, also struggled Sunday. Doug Kalitta smoked the tires and lost to two-time defending Top Fuel champ Antron Brown in the first round. Troy Coughlin Jr. also lost in the first round of Top Fuel to Leah Pritchett. Shawn Langdon reached the quarterfinals before falling to Clay Millican.

In Funny Car, Kalitta Motorsports driver J.R. Todd upset Courtney Force in the first round, but lost to Tommy Johnson Jr. in the second round. Ditto for Alexis DeJoria, who won her first round match with Cruz Pedregon, but lost to Matt Hagan in the second round.

(Photo courtesy SteveJohnsonRacing.com)

* Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson, one of the most popular drivers in the sport, had a bittersweet day.

On the positive, he celebrated his 400th career start in an NHRA event. On the negative, the Alabama resident lost in the first round and was sent home early.

* The oldest driver in NHRA competition, 86-year-old Chicago resident Chris Karamesines, is a big local fan favorite.

But he struggled during the four rounds of qualifying on Friday and Saturday, unable to do better than 4.690 seconds at 165.42 mph, and was the only driver of the 17 Top Fuel pilots entered for the weekend that failed to qualify.

However, 74-year-old driver Luigi Novelli, of nearby Crete, Ill., qualified 16th, the final spot on the Top Fuel ladder, but lost in the first round to No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force.

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Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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