J.R. Todd wins Gatornationals to end DSR streak, spoil John Force Racing’s return

NHRA Gatornationals Todd
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — J.R. Todd won the season-opening Gatornationals, ended the longest NHRA winning streak by one juggernaut and spoiled the much-hyped return of another.

Todd beat Robert Hight in the Funny Car finale Sunday at Gainesville Raceway, crossing the finish line first after both drivers had trouble getting traction on a hot and slippery track.

Hight was looking to give John Force Racing a dramatic return to the drag-racing series after the team sat out most of last year because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it was Todd celebrating with a Wally Trophy in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. Todd cracked open a can of beer in his pit stall as he reflected on one of the biggest wins of his career at a track where longtime friend Eric Medlen died in 2007. Todd already had notched wins at three of the NHRA’s four majors: the U.S. Nationals, the Winternationals and the NHRA Finals.

“Being able to win all the majors that are left on the schedule, that’s pretty special,” Todd said.

By the time Todd and his Kalitta Motorsports team made the Funny Car finale, Don Schumacher Racing already had started packing up for the day. The powerhouse team had won 14 consecutive events in Funny Car, the longest streak in NHRA history.

Schumacher was forced to cut his four-car team in half this season, parting ways with Tommy Johnson Jr. and 2012 champion Jack Beckman because of sponsorship issues. Defending champion Matt Hagan and No. 1 qualifier Ron Capps were left to try to extend the streak. Bob Tasca knocked out both in the elimination rounds Sunday, essentially clearing the way for Todd.

“We were definitely getting tired of getting our butts kicked by them last year, but 2021 is a new year,” Todd said. “It’s a good way to start off the season with a win in one of the biggest races of the year.”

Josh Hart, who lives in nearby Ocala, was the surprise winner in Top Fuel. The owner/driver beat Shawn Langdon to win his first national series event.

Greg Anderson won the Pro Stock class on his 60th birthday, and Matt Smith won the Pro Stock Motorcycle division.

Todd raised some eyebrows last week by saying, “winning this year, there won’t be an asterisk.”

“I’m not knocking the competition, by any means, because DSR cleaned house last year,” he said. “But we didn’t get to run a full schedule, and the Force cars weren’t out there.

“Everybody out there in Funny Car is tough, but in my opinion, Robert Hight is the best driver in the category, and that team sets the benchmark for the rest of us. When they’re out here competing and you beat them in a final round, you feel like, you’re like, `Ah, that’s something.’ ”

It was Todd’s 10th victory in Funny Car, becoming just the 18th driver to reach double digits in the class. This one looked a lot like his first one in 2017, when he won a spin-fest in Sonoma, California.

“I thought for sure he was going to be driving away from me,” Todd said. “I never seen him. Just kind of rolled back into the throttle and went all the way down with it and turned on the win light. Pretty special to do here in Gainesville.”

Josh Hart won the NHRA Top Fuel division during the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports).

Hart had been scheduled to make his Top Fuel debut last year with Bob Vandergriff Racing. But after the pandemic, Vandergriff and Hart decided it would be best for Hart to own his own team.

“Obviously, it’s not always going to be this easy,” Hart said.

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”