Here’s a warning to the Long Beach city council: be mindful of an extremely short man with flowing gray/white hair. Bernard Charles Ecclestone will bleed you of money and laugh all the way to HIS bank.
Next Tuesday, the city council in this city, which is preparing to host the 40th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach April 11-13, will consider whether to automatically extend the current contract beyond 2015 for another five years. This contract lies with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach (GPALB) and its head Jim Michaelian. It can also consider a request for proposal (RFP) that would include the possibility of bringing back Formula 1 to these city streets.
F1 lived here from March of 1976 through 1983, following an initial co-sanctioned late September 1975 SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 race. The initial years of the F1 race were financially precarious – and that’s being kind. Most years, until Toyota came on-board 35 years ago to become the naming sponsor at Long Beach, it was touch-and-go as to whether sanction fees would be paid and if the race would actually go on.
Former travel agent Chris Pook gets the bulk of credit for bringing racing to the moribund, former Navy town of Long Beach, where strip bars, nasty movie houses and tattoo parlors lined now pristine Ocean Blvd. He had some heavy hitters working with him like Dan Gurney and Phil Hill, both of whom raced in F1 (Hill was the 1961 champion). With their help, in some cases physically as everyone pitched in to get the circuit built in time for the 1975 contest, the show made it to the road. Michaelian, who has been with the race since it started, knows the history well and, for that reason, he’s not a fan of an F1 return.
Why not? In a word, money. The costs of putting on an F1 race are prohibitive these days; not that it wasn’t in the middle to late 1970s and into the 1980s, but now this race will break a city trying very hard to get back on its feet after the Great Recession. Until recently, Long Beach had a horrible deficit (like most California cities, after the state bled their funding capacity), which was erased by the current mayor on the backs of cuts for police, fire, education, public safety and the arts.
To go forward with an F1 race now – and maybe any time – would break the bank.
Long Beach has been making money with CART, Champ Car, IRL, IndyCar since it changed horses in 1984. The costs to produce and promote F1 would be multiplied at least four-square and the returns would be extremely small by comparison.
F1 requires permanent garages and there is nowhere near the current circuit where those can be built; F1 requires a billiard table raceway – these city streets aren’t good enough for that now and the city has been lax in repairing its infrastructure during these dismal financial times. F1 requires grand hotels – and we’ve got a few here, but certainly not enough within the general area to satisfy Mr Ecclestone and his thousands of circus-mates.
There will be a closed-door session of the city council to discuss the matter this coming Tuesday, March 4. Michaelian explained to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “What will transpire Tuesday night is that the city council will vote on whether they wish to issue an RFP to determine whether Long Beach will continue with the IndyCar weekend and with the [GPALB], or consider another party that wants to conduct a Formula 1 race. We are asking the city to extend this very productive relationship for another five years if the RFP is denied.”
Pook, who is an advisor to Mr Ecclestone, is part of the group looking to return F1 to what was once known as Iowa by the Sea. While it’s true the city has been, as the paper put it, “modernized and revitalized by auto racing,” this change has not been at great cost to city hall.
There is a current F1 race at Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas, a purpose-built facility for F1 (at over $345 million); racer Leo Hindery has been trying to placate Mr Ecclestone’s desire for a New York City backdrop on F1 with an event at Port Imperial which seems to be stillborn after being on the provisional calendar from 2012 through this year but failing to make the bell at Port Imperial, New Jersey.
As one who has worked every single Long Beach race – and I live two blocks from the former Linden Leap where James Hunt drove over half the field in the first turn – I think this idea has more machinations behind it than is immediately evident. I realize Mr Ecclestone was not happy about Long Beach leaving the F1 scene and he’s got a bone to pick with this town. He’s using Pook as his representative, thinking the city council will do whatever Pook says is right.
They shouldn’t. Mr Ecclestone, an 83-year-old man who is under indictment in Germany right now and fighting court battles left and right over his financial dealings, is looking to pad his pockets even further. While Pook told the Press-Telegram that “this market is very important to him,” I’m not sure he’s on the up-and-up. And I don’t know all the financial details, but I’m figuring it would take nearly $100,000,000 to get the race started in Long Beach and, at minimum $25 million to keep it going every year.
“We’ve always met or exceeded our commitment to the city and we’ve continued to be a substantial contributor to the overall economy of Long Beach,” Michaelian said. I sure hope it continues that way.
By Anne Proffit
Anne Proffit photo
Racing is the only type of sport I can think of where men and women can – and do – compete at the same level.
This is true especially in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, where being a female driver isn’t a quirk at all. Witness the success of three-time Top Fuel champion Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Anderson, Melanie Troxel, three women named Force (Ashley, Brittany – who raced to her first final at Phoenix last Sunday – and Courtney), Erica Enders-Stevens, Leah Pritchett – and now first-time pro Funny Car winner Alexis DeJoria.
DeJoria is in her third season of professional competition and went to only her second final round in the 30th annual Carquest Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsport Park on Sunday. After becoming the first woman to race a Funny Car in less than 4 seconds at the season opener in Pomona two weeks earlier in her Toyota Camry, DeJoria served notice with four good qualifying attempts on Friday and Saturday.
She was one of a very few drivers to register consistent times on the newly resurfaced Phoenix-area drag strip, one that has new promoters anxious to make the NHRA drag racers feel at home. The new surface presented unique challenges for the tuners that prepare these cars for battle, as they have to harness as much as 10,000 horsepower to keep a machine churning down a 1,000-foot drag strip.
For Tommy DeLago, the victory was one that he needed after not standing in NHRA’s Winner’s Circle since tuning Matt Hagan to his 2011 Funny Car championship. DeLago, an intense and hands-on safety activist in the NHRA paddock, never lost his ability to tune; he just didn’t have the right surroundings to activate his talent.
He’s found it with Kalitta Motorsports, a family operation based out of deepest, coldest Ypsilanti, Michigan – far from most Brownsburg, Indiana based teams – and its pair of Funny Car and Top Fuel entries. Tuning Alexis DeJoria, DeLago is now back on-stride and it’s evident in his his body language and his smile.
As for DeJoria, a winner in the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks, well, she’s quietly emerged as a true competitor in Funny Car. What started out as looking more like PR for her father’s Patron Spirits tequila brand has morphed into a truly professional operation with Alexis herself showing the way.
DeJoria got her chops by working with now-teammate Del Worsham in her first year of Funny Car. Worsham, who had stepped out of the driver’s seat after winning the Top Fuel championship with Al-Anabi Racing in 2011, taught Alexis a lot about driving one of these beasts which, by virtue of their shorter wheelbase than the dragsters and their drag inducing bodies are truly a race car that must be manhandled, to use a tired phrase. It was a good task for a strong woman – and Alexis DeJoria fits that bill.
Now she finds herself with a Funny Car Wally trophy, becoming the 90th NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car winner, the fourth female Funny Car driver to win in the category and the first woman to win in both Funny Car and Top Alcohol Funny Car. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time she’s hoisting a Wally over her head, as Alex DeJoria is focused on her work and achieving joy in her success.
By Anne Proffit
While the news of French-Canadian CART and Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve’s return to the Indianapolis 500 has been floating about over the past week, it wasn’t until Wednesday, Feb 26 that the news became official. The 1995 Indy 500 winner joins Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a third entry for the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He joins season regulars Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin on the Indy-based team.
While not on hand for the announcement as he prepares to race in the upcoming FIA World Rallycross Championship, Villeneuve participated in a teleconference through the magic of video. Villeneuve has only two starts on the Brickyard’s iconic 2.5-mile oval: he finished second as a rookie (winning rookie of the year honors along the way) and won the race in his second try, coming from two laps back to drink his milk, after Scott Goodyear passed the pace vehicle and declined to pit, rendering his entry disqualified.
Citing “memories I have there will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Villeneuve declared he’s “excited to create new memories in 2014.” It’s been 20 years since Villeneuve drove an Indy car on an oval and 21 since his first time at the track. In the ‘90s Villeneuve drove a Ford-powered car on Goodyear tires; he’s about to step into one of Honda’s twin-turbocharged V-6 Indy cars shod on Firestone Firehawk rubber when it’s time for his refresher course.
HIs FIA World Rallycross Championship team, Albatec Racing released Villeneuve to work the race even as it clashes with the Lydden Hill round of the campaign on the same day as Indianapolis. Albatec Racing will allow Villeneuve to come to the US after he competes in his World Rallycross debut at Montalegre the weekend of May 3-4, which means, should he want, Villeneuve could actually do the Indy double, competing on the road course the following weekend. (He professed not to know anything about that race during the teleconference)
With his entry, Villeneuve adds his name with former Indy 500 champs on the current entry list, joining Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan and, presumably Buddy Lazier in the Memorial Day classic.
“I’ve been trying to get back to those memories, to the speed of driving on that track on the edge,” Villeneuve said. “There is no other form of racing that has that level of excitement” that Indianapolis produces. “It is the biggest race event in the world.”
The agreement between Villeneuve and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has been very quick in coming together – in just a few weeks, Villeneuve said – and for him, “It happened at the right time. I’ve been watching IndyCar last year and certainly it’s very exciting with the new cars. I was jealous I wasn’t racing,” although he’s been active since leaving CART after his 1995 championship season, racing in Formula 1, NASCAR, off-road and now rallycross. “I wasn’t considering going back to something I’d already done but it seems that IndyCar is going back to its glory days with exciting racing, a great field of drivers that are more impressive every year.
What Villeneuve always enjoyed about his open-wheel experience hasn’t been part of F1 – or even IndyCar – until recently. “The cars look fast, they’re aggressive and difficult to drive – what I love about racing.” As this agreement came together quite quickly, neither the SSM team nor its newest driver have figured out what their testing schedule might be for the 500-mile race.
Villeneuve thinks his bigger adjustments will be getting used to the downforce and the stiffness of the open wheel Indy car after driving cars over the past few years that don’t offer the same type of experience. The power level? “I’ll get used to it,” he said. He also said the track time afforded all drivers at Indianapolis will help him get acclimated. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the racetrack but it feels like yesterday.”
The addition of a third car is a big step for owner Sam Schmidt, who first entered the IndyCar Series in 2011 and had a fifth place series result in 2012. Last year with Pagenaud (and rookie Tristan Vautier), the team earned third in the championship as well as winning two contests with Pagenaud at the wheel. For Canadian co-owner Ric Peterson, having Villeneuve on the team is a dream. “The Villeneuve name is synonymous with winning and this is very special. I watched Jacques from Formula Atlantic through Formula 1 and, with a few other Canadians employees on the team, we’re especially excited.”
By Anne Proffit
The No. 99 GAINSCO “Red Dragon” Corvette DP led from pole at the start of the Rolex 24 at Daytona
Bob Stallings’ GAINSCO Racing intended to run a limited schedule in this year’s inaugural TUDOR United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC), intending to contest only the four-race North American Endurance Championship (NAEC) that began with the Rolex 24 at Daytona in late January.
The idea had merit and Stallings was pretty smart with his intentions. After all, his is a single entry that’s gone up against other teams with much larger backing. While he’s had two of the best drivers in the series – since it was Grand-Am – in Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney, Stallings wanted to get a better idea of how this mixture of American Le Mans Series (ALMS) P2 open cockpit prototypes and Grand-Am’s closed coupe formula would interact together before he put together a full-season attack.
It all started well enough with pole position at Daytona for the “Red Dragon” Corvette DP, the first of four Corvette DPs on the large, 17-car Prototype grid – of 67 cars total. Stallings and his crew were confident pre-race and he even acknowledged that, should they win this 52nd mid-winter classic twice-around-the-clock competition he might be open to a full-season assault. But within three hours everything changed when driver Memo Gidley came upon Matteo Malucelli’s stopped GTLM Ferrari F458 Italia and leapfrogged it.
Gidley was severely injured in the accident and remained in Halifax Hospital for nearly a week before being transported back to his Northern California home. Stallings was by his side for nearly all of that week, reminding one and all why we appreciate his worth as a member of the sports car community. Memo’s got a long road to health, that much is certain, and Stallings used this time to reflect on his own plans for the balance of the NAEC racing season.
It took nearly a month to make the decision, but Bob Stallings has elected to suspend operations of his Prototype team through the 2014 season and regroup for next year. He’s released both Fogarty and Gurney to find rides with other entries as he makes his plans to compete again in 2015.
“It is with great regret that we will have to suspend operations for the balance of the 2014 season,” Stallings explained. “Since Daytona, priority one for us has been on Memo’s recovery. Everyone on the team has been focused on his care and comfort, and it has meant the world to see such support from the fans and the racing community at large.”
While Stallings realizes that Gidley has a long road ahead, “The worst is behind him and it has allowed us to step back and take a look at the program at large. With both the personal and economic strain this has put on us, we feel it’s in the best interest of everyone to sit out this year, with a firm focus on a return in 2015.”
The team’s primary Corvette DP was destroyed – I’m not sure that there were any pieces that could be reused in competition – in Gidley’s accident. To build a new car for three remaining North American Endurance Championship races was not in Stallings’ best interest. In addition to the drivers, he has released the crew “for opportunities with other teams.”
While it’s a darn shame for TUSCC to lose Grand-Am’s two-time champions (2007-2009), Stallings is doing (what I think is) the right thing in stepping back and regrouping. The team owner had reservations about running at all this year, something he expressed in 2013, as he wanted to see just how a combined series would “shake out” before committing resources and personal energy. If and when he decides to return, it will be with a strength and resolve.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit
I’ve got a lot of take-aways from this weekend’s 54th annual NHRA Circle K Winternationals, held per tradition on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona drag strip.
Just for starters, 64-year-old John Force really is 24, as he says, when he pulls on that helmet. What Force did this weekend reinforces the fact that a big sponsor needs to adopt this guy and his team for the next 10 years – at least. Let’s see now, how about running the table in Funny Car? Force and tuner Jimmy Prock – the Prock Rocket – have some crazy synergy. That team’s hooked up, no mistake about it.
Force started the cool weekend with a track E.T. record in initial qualifying Friday afternoon, putting his Ford Mustang atop the sheets at 3.983/317.72. In the night session – what was supposed to occur at 3:30 was pushed to dusk – he went for the national record at 3.966/324.12 in both E.T. and top speed categories. The only time Force didn’t make it down the 1000-foot track was Saturday’s first session or with his final chance to move the needle even farther, but the die was cast.
On Sunday Force was hungry: he devoured Paul Lee, Tommy Johnson Jr, Bob Tasca III and Matt Hagan, setting a second national record in the finals at 3.965/323/58 en route to his 139th Wally. As anyone that follows drag racing already knows, John Force Racing loses two lucrative partnerships at the end of the year as both Ford and Castrol are departing the professional side of the sport.
These pending occurrences mean that every time Force speaks, he mentions that he needs money to continue to race – will someone please give this guy some sponsorship so he can just move it along and work toward his 17th title? We just don’t want to hear it over 24 races, to be quite honest, but any marketing genius worth their retainers knows that having Force as a pitchman – as well as having daughters Courtney and Brittany to help out – means plenty of media attention. And results.
And another thing: this weekend Alexis DeJoria became the first NHRA female Funny Car driver to make a pass under four seconds. DeJoria’s team started coming together the middle of last year with Tommy DeLago doing the tuning. There have been quite a few changes to the car – noticeably a new paint scheme that replaces familiar Patron green with purple colors to celebrate Patron’s XO Cafe drink on her Toyota Camry Funny Car.
DeJoria took to the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona drag strip early Saturday afternoon, blasting down the 1000-foot distance in all of 3.997 seconds at 318.32mph during the third qualifying session, in cool and sunny conditions. As the low ET of the session, she gained three valuable bonus points in the process. While there was no way she could attain the No. 1 position with Force flexing his muscles at 3.966 sec, DeJoria did place third in qualifying. She was ousted by local driver Gary Densham in his Dodge Charger in the first round, but she was happy with her progress – and should be.
DeLago, who tuned Matt Hagan to the Funny Car title in 2011 came to Kalitta Motorsports and DeJoria last season from Don Schumacher Racing. As he told me, it takes a while to figure out a new car, new team and driver; it just doesn’t happen in a day or even half a season. And with Funny Car being such a very tight class, catching up to the perennial leaders isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. It appears this team is on an upward swing and, with former DeJoria tuner and now teammate Del Worsham pointing the way, look for this lady to make strides in 2014.
Pro Stock is in a year of change. With four-time champion Greg Anderson out for at least six races due to heart surgery, KB Racing’s Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro race cars are being wheeled by European champ Jimmy Alund and two-time NHRA champ Jason Line. Line won the Wally this weekend but Alund did a good job his first time out. While the Swede uses KB engines when he’s racing at home, the team, the cars, the tires and the tracks are somewhat different for him – despite a 2010 visit to these shores.
Line looked a bit lost without his wingman Anderson as they tune each other’s cars for each round of racing, but he still managed to take the challenge of working with Alund and he took it to the house – with team owner Ken Black in the house. The Summit Racing team has been a force in the Pro Stock ranks but couldn’t claim a title the last two years against Allen Johnson and Jeg Coughlin, both driving Dodge Avengers and taking the championship in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
There were only 17 Pro Stock cars on the premises at Pomona, a low number for the professional manufacturer’s category. As I was told by several participants, the costs are really getting out of hand. One highly respected engine builder said he wouldn’t be surprised if the class went away in the next five years or so because of these escalating costs – winning is expensive after all – to be replaced by Pro Mod or a similar category.
That would be a darn shame because the Pro Stock cars have more technology to them than either Top Fuel or Funny Car – they just don’t sound as loud or look as crazy. Plus, without the advantage of flames at the hit, they’re not really as photogenic to the fans, who depart the stands when the factory hot rods come to the line. Those dearly departured miss a lot of close racing.
Some fans have told me they don’t like the ugly noses of the Pro Stock cars, something that could be cured by bringing Pro Stock into the 21st century, dumping carburetors and installing electronic fuel injection, which would make them relevant to the fans and introduce more manufacturers to the class. Toyota, which is now the official vehicle of NHRA, has expressed an interest in an injected Pro Stock class and while some competitors think it’ll add to the expense, after an initial investment the cost is negligible.
What’s up with Don Schumacher Racing, a powerhouse team operating from Brownsburg, IN? Two of three Top Fuel cars from DSR didn’t make it past the first round as seven-time champion Tony Schumacher fell to event winner Khalid alBalooshi and then 2012 titleholder Antron Brown couldn’t match Clay Millican. Only Spencer Massey made it to the semifinal round, ceding to eventual runner-up Doug Kalitta.
In Funny Car, perennial bridesmaid Ron Capps had two monumental experiences over the weekend: in the second qualifying session Capps had an explosion that ripped through his burst panel and extricated the body from the car. That was good for the highlight reels and Capps set the third best time in the process. In eliminations Capps was DQd in the second round when his NAPA Dodge Charger made an abrupt right turn into the wall as he tried to take out Tasca.
While World Finals winner and 2011 champion Hagan made it all the way to the finals before being defeated by Force – turnabout is fair play as he beat the 16-time champ last fall – 2012 champ Jack Beckman was out in the first round after racing new teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. Johnson fell to Force in the second round, but seriously, only one car out of four making it to the semifinals? That’s not the Schumacher way.
Granted, Hagan removed two of the three John Force Racing entries en route to the finals; he put Del Worsham, the 2011 Top Fuel champ for Al-Anabi Racing, back on the trailer in the semis.
Khalid alBalooshi has now won in every NHRA season he’s competed with Al-Anabi Racing – there was a single win last year and one in his rookie season. It often takes this long to get with the Top Fuel program from his Pro Mod roots but it appears alBalooshi has a good handle on what it takes to win in NHRA’s dragster class. He beat Tony Schumacher, reigning world champ Shawn Langdon and Steve Torrence before winning the Wally over top qualifier Doug Kalitta, when the latter lost traction. When we saw Khalid in the morning, he was out of breath after running for driver introductions prior to Top Fuel’s first round of eliminations. Maybe he should do that more often? Drivers are always so superstitious so I’m making that suggestion – always be late!
There’s an off weekend before NHRA returns to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, AZ. Formerly known as Firebird, the track’s been renovated since changing promoters and it’ll be a new venue to the Top Fuel (Tony Schumacher defending), Funny Car (Ron Capps) and for Pro Stock, where Erica Enders-Stevens took her first 2013 victory. The newness of the track surface should make it interesting – just as the competition always does.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit
Elliott Stern, Frank Hawley’s assistant, John Oreovicz and Scott Smith stand beside the Super Comp two-seater – Anne Proffit photo
Ever wonder what it’s like to take a ride in a Super Comp drag racing car?
Frank Hawley, whose Frank Hawley Racing School has its headquarters in the Fairplex complex, home to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, CA is taking media members for rides in a Super Comp car during this weekend’s NHRA 54th annual Circle K Winternationals, the traditional start to each drag racing season.
On Saturday morning, I had the privilege and opportunity to experience the incredible adrenaline rush that is drag racing. I’m still on top of the world, a full two hours later!
Elliott Stern photo
There’s a heck of a lot involved in taking someone for a ride – and there are programs for individuals and groups through Hawley’s website frankhawley.com – starting with clothing, installation and then, what every racer experiences, waiting for the chance to race.
I was equipped with a two-piece suit with arm-ties that were attached to the safety harnesses, including a dive belt. A baclava (which kept slipping close to my eyes) was under the snug helmet and a horse collar made sure my neck didn’t suffer from the G forces when Frank hit the loud pedal. Strapped in and ready, I watched as NHRA’s Scott Smith led us on our way to the staging lanes, through the paddock area and to the gate.
Elliott Stern photo
The Super Comp car is equipped with a self-starter, unlike the nitro machines that are pushed to the start line. Most of the Lucas Oil Sportsman classes and Pro Stock have onboard starters as well.
The power behind the seat comes from Chevrolet – Anne Proffit photo
Like every other racer, we had to stop and wait while others went before us, moving slowly to our destination. Now I understand a bunch better what folks go through at the races – a heck of a lot of waiting for a short burst of excitement. And I spoke with some drivers afterwards, asking them if they “pre-visualize” their runs in the staging lanes, do relaxation and centering exercises and generally try to prepare to make it all happen by instinct? Yes, that’s what happens.
We came under the entryway to the track and Frank advised me that this was the time to put my visor down and get ready. I did what he told me and the next thing I knew, he was performing the burnout. What a jolt, I thought.
We backed up, waiting for the pre-stage half-moon blue light and then the horizontal stage light. And then, suddenly I was thrown back against the roll bar and off we went! Exactly 9.56 seconds later (at 154.69mph) we hit the quarter-mile mark and Frank let off the gas.
Way too soon it was over, but the adrenaline remains. We were guided to the return road and I kept wondering why we didn’t stop for our time slip, but Frank needed to get the car back to the pits, because it was starting to overheat. We stopped a bit short of our assigned space and then I unhooked my belts and began the process of extricating from the car. I didn’t want to, but there were two more media members waiting to take their rides.
Frank Hawley was the first to earn a championship in the vaunted Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car tuned by Austin Coil – Anne Proffit photo
Once out of the car and dressed like myself again, I began a hopping, skipping walk back to the media center with the largest grin on my face. Yep, it’s still there.
Words by Anne Proffit, Photos by Elliott Stern and Anne Proffit
What happens when you put the son of a three-time Indy car champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 (once as a driver, once as an owner) together with a 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion’s daughter?
Graham Rahal and Courtney Force have become friends over the past year and been spotted at each other’s races when their busy schedules allow. Rahal, the son of a well-thought and educated driver/team owner who’s traveled the open wheel and sports car universe throughout his life enjoys hanging out with Force, whose bombastic father is the most successful Funny Car driver/team owner of all time.
Both are the hoped-for successors to their parents’ success.
Graham has a single win and pole in the IndyCar Series and just this year took on the added task of driving his father’s BMW Z4 sports cars in the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC) series during endurance events (when time allows, obviously).
Courtney Force begins her third season of professional NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series competition at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona this weekend, having racked up three victories thus far, including last year’s season starter at Pomona, driving the Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car.
During last month’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, Courtney Force experienced her first endurance race, staying at the massive Daytona International Speedway facility throughout the twice-around-the-clock contest. It was an eye-opener for the Cal State Fullerton graduate, who has a “passion for every type of racing. Before I met Graham I went to Indy car races,” she said. “I went to the Indy 500 about two years ago and the year before I went to the Brickyard 400.
“I think as a driver I’ve always had a passion or every type of racing. I’ve been to the Chili Bowl and other sprint car races and I’ve been to a lot of different races. I just love it.”
While she’s accustomed to keeping her car running as straight as possible in her four-second contests, she is enthralled watching drivers come close to one another as they contest for position. “It’s incredible what some of those guys do. It’s definitely fun to see different types of racing, especially during our off-season.”
While she had no idea what to expect going into Daytona – “I probably asked 100 questions going there because I didn’t understand it” – Force tried to understand the complexities of racing for 24 hours. She found it exciting.
“It’s unbelievable that the car keeps going for that long. I’m used to a car that can only last four seconds,” Force explained. “You take the motor apart, rebuild it and get ready for the next run, but in a 24-hour race, I just don’t understand how those drivers and teams do it. It really shows that they have a lot of teamwork over there, with four different drivers racing for 24 hours. Obviously they’re not driving for the full 24 hours but doing their two to two-and-a-half-hour stints throughout the 24 hours. It’s pretty unbelievable,” she said.
Courtney Force didn’t stay awake for the full 24 hours. “Especially in the middle of the night it was pretty crazy there to watch and witness. You get tired in the middle of the night and you have to have the energy and the strength to get in the car and be competitive against all those other drivers out there on the track. And you have to have your focus or you can get hurt out there,” Force said. She needed some coffee at 4 in the morning, “And I don’t drink coffee,” Force allowed.
There really isn’t much crossover between drag racing and either Indy car or sports car endurance competition, other than the commonality of competition itself. “It’s nice to know that we don’t have to race in the rain,” Force added. “We have a 4-second car and our guys work so hard taking the motors apart and putting them back together, but to witness the pit stops (at Daytona) and how quickly they change tires and pour in the fuel and everything – it’s a little bit of a different world as opposed to NHRA and what we do between rounds… “
She was taken by the fact that there were so many compromises in endurance racing, with drivers of different sizes sharing the same car during a 24-hour race. “They may not be perfectly positioned to how they want the car to be and they kind of have to suck it up and just do it. The drivers have to agree on a seat position that will work for everyone on the team, but you don’t really have much of a say in that,” Force noted.
“It’s kind of nice, when I think about it – I get to drive a Funny Car that I’ve got a seat poured just for me, like Graham has in his Indy car, but there’s a lot of compromise you have to make as a driver to make it all work perfectly in that kind of race,” like the Daytona 24-hour race or the upcoming Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
With her desire to learn everything she can about all sorts of racing, Courtney Force has a bucket list of races she’d like to attend. Even though she grew up – and still lives – in Southern California, Force has never attended the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. “I really wanted to see the Long Beach race and that’s when we’re in Charlotte. I’ve never been to a street race like that,” she said. “I want to get to one race so I can watch Graham out on the road, going between buildings and down those streets. I’ve only been to oval tracks so I’d like to see that one.”
Last September, Force and her father John attended the INDYCAR season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA, just down the road from Pomona. John Force stayed for the entire event, something he rarely does. “Dad doesn’t have a lot of patience,” Courtney Force admitted. “He’s just a little antsy and doesn’t know what to do when he’s not in the car racing. It was a lot of fun, though. We got to visit the Auto Club (AAA) folks and then go to the pits and watch the race from that perspective. It was pretty cool being able to go to the Fontana track and getting to spectate with my dad was a lot of fun.”
Although she’d like to watch Graham in his No. 15 National Guard Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car at Fontana again this year for the season closer Force, along with her father, sister Brittany and brother-in-law Robert Hight will be at the 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis while Graham is competing in California over the Labor Day weekend. The schedule has a way of making it impossible for them to visit on those big weekends. “We’re in Kansas during the Indianapolis 500 so I can’t do that this year either.”
Along with the Long Beach race, Courtney Force would love to visit Austin, TX for the U.S. Grand Prix and she’d like to experience the Le Mans 24-hour race some day. Does she learn anything when she visits an Indy car race? “As a driver, it’s such a different category that it’s hard to take a lot from it, especially when you’re not in the car racing,” she said.
And how about trading paint? Putting Graham Rahal into a 10,000-horsepower Funny Car while Courtney Force tries her hand at an agile Indy car? Well, that’s a thought for the future.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit