NHRA: What’s wrong with John Force this season?


It’s one of the most frequently asked questions in the NHRA today: What’s wrong with John Force

The 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion is mired in his worst performance slump in more than a decade.

Even worse, he’s an almost unthinkable 12th place in the Funny Car standings, a massive 348 points behind leader and daughter, Courtney Force.

John Force, who turned 69 on May 4, is doing everything he can to right a ship that has seen three motor explosions already this season, a crash and also failed to qualify for one race (at Houston in April), snapping a string of qualifying for 221 consecutive races dating back to Sept. 13, 2008.

As the NHRA moves on to the middle third of its 24-race season – in this weekend’s JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Joliet, Illinois (about 50 miles southwest of downtown Chicago) – John Force is hoping to begin a massive turnaround and comeback.

Time is running out, though. There are only 12 more races to qualify for the 10-driver field for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. If the Countdown began today, John Force would not make it for the first time in his career.

Force is closing in on 150 Funny Car wins in his four-plus decade career. He comes into this weekend’s race with 148 wins.

But he’s also not won a race in more than a year (March 19, 2017 in Gainesville, Florida). Thus far this season, he’s reached just one final round, finishing runner-up at last month’s NGK Spark Plus NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina.

Force comes into this weekend’s race with three wins at Route 66, but hasn’t won there since 2006 (beat teammate Robert Hight). His last final round appearance there was a runner-up finish to Matt Hagan in 2013.

Will that toddlin’ town be kind to Force this weekend and see him at least move back up the rankings into 10th place (he’s 29 points behind current 10th-ranked Jonnie Lindberg)?

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk, Force spoke at length about his team’s struggles this year and how he hopes to begin turning things around:

1) How frustrating of a year has it been for you? Is the worst behind you?

Force: “I am sure hoping it is. First though, understand something. I have been down this road. In the early days I had problems. I had fires. I had explosions but I never had anything that took place from testing in Phoenix in January all the way through Gainesville in March. It had me talking to God. I know the drill. I know what happens. I know the people, the tune-ups and the parts. I just couldn’t get anything right. My people worked really hard on it. We found our way out of it. I have a job to do for PEAK and all my sponsors. I want to deliver. I don’t just ride a wave of success from the past. Even at my age I want to win races and win championships. I have everybody looking at this car. My crew chiefs have made changes in the engine program. (Auto Club crew chief) Jimmy Prock is my lead and we are running his combination and it can be tricky. We found an issue. It wasn’t anything that had to do with safety, just something going on with the car. We addressed it. I have never been snake-bit that long. When I was talking with God I was asking him if I had done something wrong and maybe this is how it is going to work out. It started to come around. In Houston it wasn’t qualifying and I can’t get it to the lights without my crew chief shutting it off early from the starting line. We have been through a lot but I am going to leave it behind me and I am going to Chicago with a whole new attitude.”

2) How have you taken your mind off the frustration?

FORCE: “Let me tell you something. I went down to Barona (California) with my grandkids for a Junior Dragster race, even though it was long days. It was like going back to my roots in a crew cab and Chaparral trailer. It was like watching myself out there. Learning and seeing them race for the first time really was a mind changer for me. You get so caught up in your problems of financial. I am financially good right now. I am very strong with Auto Club and Chevrolet and Advance and Monster and PEAK. I just mentally get into too much and I just had to get back to my roots.

“I was at that little track in Barona for a Junior Dragster race and Autumn (Hight, Robert’s daughter) won her first race. Jacob (Hood, Ashley and Danny Hood’s son) put out the top bulb up there during a race staging. It was great. He is learning. It was a wake-up call. I came home satisfied. I was like ready to go to Chicago. I needed that. I am going to be OK.”

3) Are fans talking to you about the slump?

FORCE: “You know what is funny? So many of the race track people and the fans were coming up to me telling me I was going to be OK. I was thinking ‘What are they talking about? Do I not look good?’ They watch our TV show and they care about you. That is what motivates me more than anything. It’s the fans and the friends and other racers down there even though they are in Junior Dragster. They know what we do and they love it. I have a big following out there and I am not going to let them down. My mind is right. It took a junior dragster race in Barona to get my mind right. Trust me.”

4) You just turned 69. Did you have doubts about your career when all these things were going on?

FORCE: “I can drive a race car. I know how to do the media. I know how to run teams even though Robert Hight has become my lead. Sometimes you get caught up after you have done this for 40 something years. You get caught up in it. It is like being tired and you don’t realize it. You just think your health is going. Then all of a sudden you take a quick nap in the middle of the day like I have done before and you wake up with a whole new attitude. There are times when I felt like I couldn’t do a meeting or an interview but I go get a nap for an hour. I did it in Indy. I told my staff I was going to get a quick nap and I would be right back. You don’t realize that you are getting tired because you are working all the time and you love it. You have to remember that. You think you can go days and days. We work every day like so many people on this team. My mind is always going. I don’t ever get away from it. This is good timing for this call because I am in a great mood. Before Barona we had been racing and I would come back for meetings about TV shows and sponsors and I just had no energy. That weekend with the grandkids really brought back the old John Force. I get sleep at night at least seven or eight hours. I know I am getting older but I really don’t think that is the issue.”

5) This is the longest you’ve been out of the top 10 since 2007, before your bad crash at Texas. Are you concerned about being outside the top 10?

FORCE: “No I don’t worry about that. Hell, I might not make it. I never thought there would be a day when me and (former crew chief ) Austin Coil wouldn’t qualify at Indy. Sh** happens. I know my race car. I know what my other cars can do and they are winning races. They are setting records. No, it isn’t me and I have a lot on my plate, but right now I am a round and a half out of the top 10 but I will get there. That is my job and that it what I owe to do for my sponsors.”

6) You’re heading to Chicago and start a stretch of four races in a row. That’s four straight weekends of racing. How do you feel?

FORCE: “That is when I will find my zone. I will find my groove. I have run these race teams for 40 years and I have more championships than anybody. I am going to Chicago and PEAK’s headquarters. I am going there and I want to show my stuff. I only blame myself for anything that we have done wrong. Sometimes you make decisions and they are wrong. And then you make more decisions and those might not be the right calls but you keep going until you figure out the puzzle. This race car is like a giant Rubik’s cube. You have to keep turning and twisting the pieces until you find your way. I don’t claim to be a genius but I listen to my people. We are working together to go down this road. I can put together a team that can win. Robert (2017 Funny Car champ Robert High) has proven that and Brittany (2017 Top Fuel champ Brittany Force) has proven that. Courtney has won three races so far this year so they are proving they have a good team. I thought my team would be a no-brainer but we are the ones that got snake-bit. I am going to be OK. Four in a row is exciting. To go from one town to the next is like the old days. Robert and I aren’t even going home we are just staying out there. You want to get into that mood with the team. I might even drive one of my 18-wheelers to a race. I drove the trailer to Barona and it was a great two-hour trip. It was something I needed. I am very positive. The biggest thing is I feel rested and ready to go to work.”

7) Is it safe to say that if you don’t have a strong race at Chicago, that there may be some changes within the team?

FORCE: “Every now and then you get snake-bit. You look at Monster last year. They were struggling a little bit but we fought through it and won the championship. We have shuffled teams in the past and won races and won championships, but we have a really good combination now with my people. I know what I am doing. I had the problems at the start of the year and maybe I should have taken a race off, but I kept working and racing. The doctors said I was OK so I kept working and running full-speed. I knew it would take a while to get back to 100 percent. I feel like now I am putting a lot of that stuff behind me. I have been hard to live with. I am going through what the doctors all told me, which is you’ll have good days and bad days. Nothing major but my body is still healing and it has been getting better ever since Gainesville. It has been about 60 days since that last explosion and I am getting back to feeling good.”

8) Can you draw any comparisons between this year’s struggles and those you experienced in 2007?

FORCE: “Nothing compares to 2007. You live every day since we lost Eric (Medlen) with the responsibility and keeping his memory alive. Eric is gone (killed in a crash during a test session at Gainesville earlier that year). I had my crash (at Texas later that season) and I felt like if he crashed then I should have crashed too and he saved my life. We worked to build better race cars. We fought our way out of that. That was enough to make anybody quit but we knew we couldn’t give up because of Eric and John Medlen (Eric’s father and former crew chief for Force). You have to give John Medlen so much credit for his strength. I had a couple crashes this year and it has taken me a few months to recover. It took some time here and there and maybe I should have taken more but I am a fighter. I have a job to do and I love my job so much that I can’t fail. It has been hard on me physically but I got through a lot harder physical issues in 2007.”

9) Last question: While it has been a frustrating season, you still have the runner-up finish at Charlotte. Can you get some of that same magic here in Chicago?

FORCE: “I am glad you brought that up. Going to the final at the four-wide and being in the hunt there was big. I have had some time to get past the explosions and we have been working things out with the headers. I don’t want to make any excuses. I am ready for these four (races) in a row. I have been through a lot. I have been through down times like 2007. Losing Austin Coil as my crew chief was a down time for me to regroup. I have always found a way because that is what I do. Racing is what I do. It ain’t a job to me. I don’t need to do this to make a living. I could retire. I am putting some of my own money back into my race teams to keep winning. I have gotten some rest since I have been home for over a week.

“Now, I am going to Chicago with the right attitude. The attitude is back. I feel good. I can’t wait to get going at Chicago.”

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IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianapolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”

Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.

Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500