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

Photo: John Force Racing
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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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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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.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

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.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“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.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

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.”