The National Hot Rod Association returns to the track this weekend after a hiatus of more than four months because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but its biggest star and fan draw – 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, along with his entire organization – will not be racing.
The deadline for this weekend’s entry list was Monday afternoon. John Force Racing – including Force, the team patriarch and the winningest driver in NHRA history, as well as teammates Robert Hight, Brittany Force and Austin Prock – are not entered in the event this Saturday and Sunday at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.
NBC Sports reached out to John Force Racing, but neither Force nor the organization had any comment on the situation.
The NHRA issued a statement to NBC Sports: “The John Force Racing team is not registered for the E3 Spark Plus NHRA Nationals this weekend in Indianapolis. We look forward to their return in the future.”
JFR has two bases of operation: its West Coast headquarters in Yorba Linda, California, outside Los Angeles, as well as its Midwest branch in Brownsburg, Indiana, which coincidentally is less than 3 miles from Lucas Oil Raceway.
Still, the organization will be a total no-show there for this weekend’s race.
It is unclear whether JFR will return for next week’s second race weekend of the post-coronavirus hiatus period, which will also be held in Indianapolis, or if/when it may return this season.
Force, at 71 the oldest full-time racer in the NHRA professional ranks, is in an age group that is considered more at-risk for contacting COVID-19. NHRA also has published warnings for this weekend that includes the following:
“An unavoidable risk of exposure to and contacting COVID-19 exists anywhere people are or have been present. COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease that can lead to severe illness, disability, and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, senior citizens and guests with underlying medical conditions are especially vulnerable. Although the NHRA has instituted reasonable practices in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19, NHRA cannot guarantee that you will not succumb to the virus. By attending our event, you voluntarily assume all risks related to COVID-19.”
There are 18 Top Fuel dragsters entered for this weekend, as well as 18 Funny Cars, 22 Pro Stock cars and 16 Pro Stock Motorcycles.
In Top Fuel, in addition to second-ranked Brittany Force and fourth-ranked Austin Prock, 10th-ranked Shawn Reed is the only other driver in the top 10 in the class who is not entered this weekend.
In Funny Car, in addition to third-ranked John Force and defending champion and seventh-ranked Robert Hight, only ninth-ranked Bob Tasca III will not attend. Tasca has been sidelined by COVID-19 and will be replaced by Swedish driver Jonnie Lindberg.
In Pro Stock, all of its top 10 ranked drivers are entered, while Pro Stock Motorcycle will take part in its first race of the season.
This is a very pivotal weekend for NHRA and the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. It’s the first race back since late February when the season was suspended after just two races because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While fans will be allowed to attend the race, there will be stringent health protocols in place including temperatures to be taken of all team members and sanctioning body officials, as well as fans, the wearing of face masks and social distancing will be required.
Because of those social distancing restrictions, drivers are not expected to be able to interact with fans in pit areas around team haulers other than to hand out pre-signed hero cards. That unfettered access has long been one of the sport’s hallmarks and key selling points.