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NHRA: John Force talks about two engine explosions, discounts retirement rumors

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John Force tells it like it is. That’s why the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ has been so wildly popular with drag racing fans over the last 30-plus years.

Force realizes that drag racing — heck, pretty much all sports for that matter — can have facts distorted by rumor, innuendo and yes, social media.

So Force’s team put out a Q&A media release Wednesday afternoon that fully gives John’s side of the story of both his recent engine explosions, including the one during the second round of eliminations Sunday at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix.

He also laid to rest rumors — again, mostly from social media — that he was retiring due to the two recent incidents.

Here’s the full Q&A with Force — and as always, his oftentimes colorful answers:

How are you feeling?

FORCE: “I feel great. I was in the office at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning. Thanks to Simpson. The helmet protected me. I have no complaints. The race car protected me. We build good race cars and we can always try and build them better. John Force is good, I am healthy. I am going to get a couple of check-ups to make sure I am okay. I was already goofy.”

Can you compare the explosion and wreck in Phoenix to your Pomona explosion just a couple weeks prior?

FORCE: “Number one, I want to clarify a lot of people thought I was knocked out at Pomona. I wasn’t knocked out. I remember the race and I remember trying to stay off the wall. All those announcers Dave Rieff and Tony Pedregon do a great job. I got no problem with them. They can only talk about what they see, and they thought I was knocked out because I wasn’t pulling the brake handle. If you look at it, I’ve got my hands on the steering wheel trying to keep it off the wall to save the chassis. That’s my job. I came to a stop and pulled the brake. I was not knocked out. Some of the Safety Safari people, God Bless them. They love us, and they want to protect us, but I was never knocked out. I remember the whole view.

“This week I was knocked out (chuckles) but with my hard head who cares?”

Have you watched the accident?

FORCE: “I’ve watched it over and over trying to figure out what took place. We were lucky we didn’t get into the other driver. It dropped a hole early and was going perfectly straight and in the heat of battle you aren’t going to lift I don’t think. You want to win, and it is going, and you think you are going to win. We had an automatic shutoff that my guy on the starting line activated and it didn’t shut the car off. We are going to address that with the vendor and make sure this thing is working properly.

“I am glad Jonnie Lindberg is okay. I got over in front of him and missed him and got up on the wall and I was lucky I didn’t go over the wall. Then I got all tied up in his parachutes. We were going around in circles out there like we were dancing. Head and those guys are real professionals and they know how to race and at the end of the day we’ll try and get their car in and get it fixed so they can be back in business. They said they had plenty of Toyota bodies for their team and I have plenty of Chevrolet bodies for us.

“Most important in all of this is that the other kid, Linberg, is safe. I know there is financial concern, they are trying to get that chassis back. We built that chassis for them. Jim Head asked if we could get it right back into the shop for them, so we can front half it for them. We’ll do whatever it takes to help another racer. We are a big family out here. Sorry Jonnie there was nothing I could do it was in the lights and I am trying to get a win just like you and it exploded. It did knock me out. The last time in Pomona I wasn’t knocked out and I watched the whole ride. This time I was and the car got over. The NHRA and I are making sure I go through all the tests to make sure my head is OK. The car got over and we were real lucky. I am glad he is okay.”

Have you had a chance to analyze what went wrong?

FORCE: “Without a doubt we have a gremlin in our cockpit. We have been pulling main studs and we are looking at the bolts. We are looking at the studs and how we cap them. (After further analysis, John Force Racing has come to the conclusion that there is not a problem with the ARP main studs. The issue is with the threads in the block). We build our own engines, but a lot of racers are having the same problem it just seems to be biting me the worst. It is only two runs that it has happened on major, but I am meeting with my guys and we’ll figure it out.

“It is not like things have just gone wrong. I don’t believe in that. It night happen one time, but it dropped cylinder leaving the starting line. It had a hole out the whole run and the car usually moves around and tells you something is wrong, but it didn’t move around it went straight as an arrow and it didn’t talk to me. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“My crew chiefs, Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, are already working on it back in Indy. You stick by your people. You know who you got that are good and you just keep working. We got hit in testing and we starting fixing something over here and you change your tune up to fix that and you go through a process and you get lost. Luckily, we got Jimmy Prock and Daniel Hood and Brian Corradi all these guys.”

Before you went to the hospital after Sunday’s incident, you gave (daughter) Courtney a pep talk and she went on to win the Funny Car class, her first win since 2016. How important was it for you to have her keep racing?

FORCE: “I came back to see her after the winner’s circle and she came over and all she said was I told her from the hospital to go kick their butts. Nothing personal these are all good guys, but you want to win and, on a day when a lot of stuff goes wrong, we came out with the win and that is what it is all about. She did her job. And she got that paycheck which we can use to buy some parts.

“What is amazing to me is I made some changes and it has really helped us. Hood teaming up with Corradi and to bring in his expertise on these cars. To get Courtney the win that was big for me. I was laying in the hospital and I wanted to get back to the racetrack, but I had to go through the ritual and the routine to go through it. I have been knocked out before. If you drink in bars like I used to over the last four decades you get knocked out for running your mouth. The bottom line is I am back, and my baby girl Courtney Rahal ended up winning the race. That keeps us alive. They always said the best cure for a sickness was an ET slip and boy isn’t that the truth.”

How do you keep a positive attitude after these kinds of issues?

FORCE: “Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in the last two weeks. It makes me question myself but know one thing. I love driving these Fuel Funny Cars. Age is not a factor here. I am 68-years-old and I am not brain dead unless I knocked my brain apart. Bottom line is the car does the running for me and all I have to do is react which is what I have done well all these years. I try to cut a light and get it down the groove A to B. That is what it is all about.

“It is what we do. Like the people in the circus like the trapeze people. I wasn’t like a little league dad who said you are going to play baseball. I was never like that. They were taking welding in high school and they were learning this job before they graduated. I didn’t even know they were taking those classes I was on the road. They wanted to drive these race cars. It’s the greatest show on Earth. We are PT Barnum at 300 miles per hour and we love it. I asked Brittany after she won the Top Fuel championship if she wanted to walk away right now and she said I can’t even believe you are saying that dad. Walk away? This is what we do she was right back in the race car in Phoenix and I’ll be right back in Gainesville. I am lucky because I have a few weeks off.”

How did you feel about Brittany getting back into her car after her wreck at the Winternationals?

FORCE: “I felt like I was going to puke. That is a terrible word. But you know, that’s my baby girl first of all. You worry about what all is going through her head. I know the drill and I have been through it all. I have had all the nights laying there where you can’t sleep because the next day I have to race. I know how it all works because I have lived it. She doesn’t know that, so I know the gut ache of getting back in the car of qualifying was tough. The crash was tough, but it was not as tough as getting back in that race car. That is the hard part. Me, I know how to turn off the switch and do it. I know she struggled with it. What made me so proud was she did it. She got back in the car and did it. I have to give Don Schumacher Racing credit for building that canopy. We’re drag racers we don’t want to get hurt.”

What is the effect this all has had on your wife Laurie?

FORCE: “It is hard on her and she knows the drill with me and what we have been through. We are in the entertainment business. We are PT Barnum at over 300 miles per hour and it is pretty amazing the show that we put on. This isn’t the kind of show we like to put on. We like to put on a show where it is side by side racing. Sometimes drama plays into it but nothing like the police department or fire department and certainly not the people in the military. They live it day to day. Bottom line we are just race car drivers and we love it. That is what we do and we love to entertain you.”

There were rumors by fans on social media that you might be announcing your retirement. Any truth to those rumors?

FORCE: “Why would I do that? I am learning how to do this finally. I am going to meet with my crew chiefs and talk about all of it. I have been struggling with some things and the financial cost but Monster is with us, Advance Auto Parts, Auto Club and PEAK gave me a lifetime contract. I won the round lucky or not. Right now, I have to get my ole race car back on the race track, but we have to analyze it first. Luckily, we got three weeks. It has been a little bit of overload with Brittany. To retire and tell Brittany, who just went through hell in Pomona and then mentally went through hell to get back in the car, which is worse than the crash, to go out there with Alan Johnson, Brian Husen and that Monster Energy team, and step back on the gas, that is the tough one. I have done it a million times, so I know the drill. To tell her I am not going to come back we might as well not even have this conversation. I told you they will drag me out kicking at the end.”

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Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”