Column: Why NHRA needs to prepare now for the post-John Force era

Photos courtesy NHRA

While the start of the 2018 NHRA season is still a month away, I’m already looking beyond what’s to come and instead thinking about the sport’s future.

I’d like to talk about three things in particular. Think of them as three columns in one – with one key related outcome at the end.

First off, Peter Clifford has been promoted from president of the sanctioning body to its first-ever Chief Executive Officer. And as of New Years Day, Glen Cromwell has been officially promoted to assume Clifford’s former role as president.

Like Clifford, Cromwell is essentially a lifer at NHRA and it is expected he will continue the programs and changes Clifford implemented in his 2 ½ years as president.

But one thing is certain: the future of the NHRA is solidly in Cromwell’s hands.

Second, the NHRA’s own version of P.T. Barnum, the sport’s greatest promoter as well as its greatest driver ever, John Force, will turn 69 in May.

While still competitive and the biggest force – no pun intended – within the sport, one must wonder just how much longer Force will continue racing.

He’s said previously that several of his current contracts will expire at the end of the 2019 season, when he’ll be 70 years old. Will that also mark the end of Force’s career?

John and Brittany Force

Realistically, how long will John Force be able to continue on behind the wheel? That his daughter, Brittany, won the 2017 NHRA Top Fuel title, and son-in-law Robert Hight won his second Funny Car title, as well, is encouraging that John Force Racing will continue for many years to come with Brittany, sister Courtney and Hight (also president of John Force Racing) even if John Force retires at some point.

Yet at the same time, what will the sport become without John Force? You know that day is coming – and perhaps sooner than many of us may want to think about.

John Force has been the face of the NHRA for pretty much the last 30 years. No other driver even comes close to him in wins (148) or championships (16) – and no one likely ever will in the future.

He’s been the biggest asset the sport has had when it comes to selling tickets. Folks oftentimes buy tickets to NHRA events to see Force first and the rest of the other drivers second.

What will the sport become when John finally does hang up his firesuit? Will Brittany, Courtney, or some of the other young drivers in the sport be able to have the marketability, attention-getting and ticket selling prowess that John Force has had?

And thirdly, there’s one of my biggest concerns about the sport going forward – particularly when John Force climbs out of his Funny Car for the last time.

It’s no secret that NHRA, like NASCAR, IndyCar and most other forms of motorsports is hurting when it comes to sponsorship. Let’s face it, the multi-million sponsorship dollars that were so prominent in the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s have been substantially cut.

Peter Clifford (photo) has moved up to become the NHRA’s first CEO. He’s been replaced by Glen Cromwell, who assumed presidency of the sanctioning body on New Years Day.

Even the best-funded teams are hurting in NHRA, oftentimes having trouble finding enough dollars to get through the entire 24-race Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series.

And how many times have we seen less than full 16-car fields in races in the last few years? In 2017, we saw several races with less than full fields in Pro Stock and Top Fuel, and if I’m not mistaken, at least one short Funny Car field. It’s a definite concern, for sure.

So what do all three of those items have to do with one another? Plenty – and the sooner the NHRA starts thinking in that direction, the stronger its future will look.

The NHRA has to decide going forward what it wants to be, plain and simple – or what it needs to be, particularly in the PF era – Post-Force, that is.

Sure, it’s still the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the country, with over 70,000 members, not just its pro ranks, but also its thousands of sportsman racers.

Hopefully, Cromwell will do what his predecessors – Wally Parks, Dallas Gardner, Tom Compton and Clifford – didn’t do: get with the times and evolve the sanctioning body into a modern-day entity, rather than be stuck in the same time warp it has been in for the last 20 to 30 years.

Change must come to the NHRA in several ways, most notably race weekends and event schedules.

Do we REALLY need three-day pro race weekends? Do Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock teams REALLY need four qualifying passes (typically two on Friday and two others on Saturday) in every national event weekend?

The days of fans coming to Friday, Saturday and Sunday for an NHRA event weekend are all but over. Between ticket prices, travel and potentially 2-3 nights of hotels, food, gas, etc., many fans have been priced out of going to tracks from Pomona to Epping.

Plus, the NHRA’s old business model of mixing the pro ranks with sportsman classes simply isn’t working any more. Don’t believe me? Have you been to a NHRA national event over the last few years? What happens when the pros finish up a particular round and hand the track over to the sportsman drivers?

Answer: the stands typically empty by at least half. Usually the only folks left in the stands are either fans or friends of some of the sportsman drivers.

When the sportsman drivers attempt to show their skills, most other fans go out to the food court or product midway. Sure, those racing fans eventually go back to the stands, but usually not until the next pro round of qualifying or eliminations.

While it may be difficult to make changes for 2018, certainly 2019 could – and should – see some major significant changes, provided NHRA starts listening to its drivers, team owners, crew chiefs, media and fans, all who have been clamoring for change rather than the same old, outdated thing.

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell, who assumed his new position on New Year’s Day.

That’s been easier said than done over the sport’s history. For too long, it’s been NHRA’s way or the highway. That has to change, lest the sport will slip into virtual anonymity, particularly after John Force retires. Why do you think the NHRA wants Force to stick around forever? Even if he stops being competitive, his name and appearance will still sell tickets – and money is often the name of the game with the NHRA.

I’ve covered NHRA for more than 30 years and during that time I’ve easily talked to hundreds of competitors and team owners, not to mention countless fans. They’re almost unanimous in their comments on the fate and future of the sport.

Based upon many of those conversations, here’s some suggestions for changes the NHRA should implement, as well as my own personal perspective.

1) Cut most national event weekends to two days. Do we really need to have four qualifying/practice runs? Can’t we get along with one day of qualifying of two rounds (including one round at night for the visual effect fans love) and then final eliminations on the following day? I firmly believe fans would be more amenable to attending two days of national events this way, given they wouldn’t have to pay for a third day – not to mention the race-related expenses (like travel and hotels) they’d incur.

2) It’s long overdue to split the pro ranks from the sportsman ranks. If NHRA still wants to have sportsman drivers compete in national events, let them race on Fridays (and potentially even on Thursdays), if not at their own separate races and locations. Leave Saturday and Sunday to the pros only.

3) In addition, run NHRA’s so-called semi-pro cars on the same days as the pros to fill in the time that would previously have been filled by sportsman drivers on track. In other words, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car, along with Pro Modifieds, would not only easily fill the Sportsman driver hole on Saturday and Sunday, it’s no secret they already have a very healthy and loyal fan base that sportsman drivers just don’t have. I’d also increase the number of events for Pro Stock Motorcycles from 16 to 20 races per season.

4) NHRA has to decide what kind of organization it is going to be under Cromwell’s leadership. It no longer can be all things to everybody, pro and amateur driver alike. If, by shortening race weekends or revamping them entirely, it will definitely save money in the process – which almost every team is clamoring for – and that’s for the betterment of everyone: the organization, its teams and its fans. A perfect model to follow would be the example set by NASCAR. It’s version of sportsman drivers – those in the ranks including the K&N Pro Series, Whelen Modifieds, etc. – have their own series and racing venues. Sure, there may be a Cup race weekend or two that the lower-level drivers will have a race to compete in, but for the most part, they’re their own standalone entities. NHRA should pursue that path.

Many of you know how passionate I am about motorsports, particularly NHRA. It was my first exposure to any form of racing back as a teenager, and it’s a love affair that I have happily continued for several decades since.

But this is a different day and different era than when I and so many of you fans were kids or teens and when we first fell in love with drag racing.

As much as we wish he would be immortal, the reality is John Force isn’t going to race – or live – forever. It’s time the NHRA makes significant changes in preparation for the Post-Force era before it happens so that it can preserve its own future.

Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)