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

NHRA
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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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Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”