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NHRA: After 2 motor explosions, John Force looks for big bounce back at Gatornationals

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The start of the 2018 Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series has started off with a bang – make that two bangs – for 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

Unfortunately, the bangs have not been the good kind, and Force has suffered in the Funny Car standings as a result.

Force had a 10,000 horsepower motor explode on him during qualifying for the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., last month.

Two weeks after that in Phoenix, the same thing happened to Force, only this time he also got hung up in the parachute cords of Jonnie Lindberg and both chassis’ crashed into the wall.

Force was taken by ambulance both times to local hospitals, checked out and returned to race another day in both instances.

John Force after last year’s win in Gainesville. (Photo: Auto Imagery)

Now, as the NHRA prepares for this weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway, there’s a lot on Force’s plate.

First, he hopes his team has been able to figure out why the motors exploded so to prevent a third straight blow-up this weekend.

Equally as important, Force hopes to defend his win in last year’s Gatornationals, the eighth time in his career that he’s won that particular event, one of the most popular races on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule. It’s the most wins by any Funny Car driver at Gainesville in the track’s history.

And there’s one other thing that is very uncharacteristic of Force: he’s not even in the top 10 in the NHRA Funny Car standings.

He’s 11th. You’d have to go way back in his career to find the last time Force was that far down in the rankings.

But there’s also a caveat to that: he’s 99 points behind Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan.

Translated, given we’re only two races into the season, one win could potentially and quickly boost Force up to or certainly close to the top spot in the Funny Car ranks after this weekend’s race in Gainesville.

“I am ready to get back to the race track,” Force said in a media release. “We have had some struggles at the first two races but we are figuring it out.

“My team has been going over my PEAK Chevrolet Funny Car and we’ll be ready. … I am ready to get back to the fans. It was good to have some time off but now the season is really going to get started.

“I really don’t need any motivation. … I get excited every time I drive onto a race track. I won this race a lot but every year is a new year. I go after every win with the same fire in my belly. This race car does the running for me and I love being out at the track with the fans.

“I love going to all the race tracks. Gainesville has a lot of history. I won this race last year and I am looking to get another win this year.”

While Gainesville Raceway has been the sight of many wins and overall strong performances, it also is a bittersweet location for Force and his entire John Force Racing family.

It was on March 19, 2007, during testing after that year’s Gatornationals, that Eric Medlen, a Force protégé, crashed and died four days later after undergoing surgery and a valiant attempt by surgeons to save his life.

“We loved the kid,” Force said of Eric Medlen. “His dad, John Medlen, worked to build a better race car to save lives. We learn from our wrecks.

“That is why I am still in the sport at 68. I ain’t no hero, all I am trying to do is build better race cars and take my knowledge that I have learned and make it better for these kids coming up.

“That is what it is all about, especially with my girls (Funny Car driver Courtney Force and Top Fuel driver Brittney Force, who was involved in a hard crash herself at Pomona, as well, but has since returned to racing).”

Qualifying for the 49th annual Gatornationals are Friday at 2 and 5:45 p.m. ET, and Saturday at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Eliminations begin Sunday at 11 a.m.

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”