SUSAN WADE: FORCE'S STATEMENT TRIGGERS QUESTIONS ABOUT NHRA'S INTENTIONS
Now that John Force has broken his silence to confirm that his team will remain parked for the rest of the year, one has to wonder about the timing of his announcement.
After all, he said nothing in his July 31 statement that he couldn’t have said in June, when speculation started swirling around about the possibility that he and his team would not race when the season restarted, at the E3 Sparks Plugs Nationals and Lucas Oil Summernationals. Those races took place at the racetrack that’s located less than two miles from his Brownsburg, Ind., shop.
Why did he wait to say, “We had to make cuts everywhere. We ran numbers over and over. In our contracts with sponsors we have guarantees. They get social media, certain number of races, certain number of race days, activation at races, and other commitments. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t deliver on those commitments. It just wasn’t fair to them.”? Most had figured he was thinking what he said July 31: “The impact of not being able to deliver on these commitments makes sitting out the rest of the 2020 season the right thing to do. No matter how I looked at it, no matter how much I personally invested, I couldn’t make it.”
It was not much of a surprise what he was thinking. He said, “We can’t fight now. We can’t race right now, but with what I have, with the help of my sponsors and my own personal money, I can maintain. I have to protect my family, my employees, my teams, and my sponsors. What I built was a team that could win. All I have to do is get to next year. It will look different, but I have all my department leads and my sponsors: Auto Club, Chevrolet, PEAK, Monster, Frank Tiegs (owner of Flav-R-Pac and Montana Brand), Cornwell Tools, Parker Store, Baldwin Filters. They’re all supportive.”
First of all, who can blame John Force? As NHRA President Glen Cromwell said, “John Force is a very smart businessman.” He made the best decision for himself and the empire he has built through hard work. He has done everything he possibly could to salvage what he could of his assets while taking care of his personnel – at the expense of his savings, which he indicated in an interview for Autoweek was more than $1 million at the time. No one is faulting Force for doing what he has to do. It’s clear that this wasn’t his ideal choice – he said, “I am really heartbroken I’m not out there.”
Arguably, a majority agree with Cromwell that “we all love John Force. We know what he means to this sport. Those are his decisions, and we support his decision.”
Still, everyone was curious why he didn’t say those things and move on before the season restarted. The case that ‘It’s nobody’s business why’ has merit. But in his July 31 statement, he mentioned the fans, and those are the loyal folks who probably deserved some sort of explanation.
He said, “When I first got into racing, I always had a love for cars. I loved the comradery of the team. I loved the competition. As I evolved, I realized what it took to become a winner. It took money, and that’s when I started chasing Corporate America. I had no personal wealth. I had to find sponsors to get me the crew chiefs I needed to win. As the winning happened, I found a new love: the fans. The fans are what kept me motivated and made me never ever think anything would come to an end. Even in the hardest of times – I call them crossroads – I got through it with the help of the fans and my sponsors.”
Did Force not want to say he was unmotivated to come out – even from two miles down the road – and race for a reduced purse? That would have been totally understandable. His longtime friend who shares a mutual respect with Force hinted as much. Though Ron Capps was in no way speaking for Force, he shared some of his own opinions before the first Indianapolis race while Force was clamming up. Capps said, “He’s not going to come out here and lose money. Bottom line, if he was to come out in these next two races, he would be spending his own money. And thankfully, he’s smart enough not to spend his own money.” Moreover, Capps said, “He’s not going to throw somebody under the bus.”
That’s true. Force hasn’t forgotten that the NHRA is his home, the place that allowed him to prove his potential. He loves the sport and everyone who provides the framework for his racing, the showbox for his talent and his personality. He’s loyal, in the sense of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. He isn’t disruptive, in the vein of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who was miffed enough about the purses the NHRA was paying back in 1972 to orchestrate a protest race at Tulsa the same weekend as the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
Force’s timing of his July 31 prepared statement triggered suspicion that the NHRA might also be on the verge of making an announcement of its own. Was the NHRA poised to tell everyone its final plans for the 2020 season? Did Force know the NHRA might be ready to toss in the towel with a few more races at Indianapolis, perhaps switching the Atlanta race to Indianapolis and adding two more in August and having the U.S. Nationals serve as the season finale? Cromwell conceded that the NHRA will have to recognize at some point whether it can continue to hope for 12 races in various states, from Illinois to Florida and Texas to Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
But Jeffrey Young, the NHRA’s vice-president of marketing and communications, nixed those ideas within a couple of hours of the release of Force’s statement.
“Are you asking if we plan to announce the end of the 2020 season next week? This is a fluid situation, and as of today, we plan to run the schedule as announced,” he said. “As of today, we don’t plan to have the U.S. Nationals serve as the Finals.”
Honestly, at this point, the NHRA should be proud of getting in the four races (and presumably six, counting the other two upcoming at Indianapolis). That total of six (counting Pomona and Phoenix) is far more than most people thought it might be able to pull off. And the doubt was not directed at the NHRA itself but rather the unprecedented situation we all have found ourselves in.
But to plan to run the schedule as announced sounds futile. Circumstances and public-health concerns and restrictions don’t look all that favorable for the NHRA to visit some of these states. It’s hard to imagine where the NHRA is going to plug in three more races to make up for the “postponement” of the Denver, Brainerd, and Topeka events.
Few teams are likely to be excited about an otherwise-welcome trip to Denver because of its one-off tuning aspects for the Bandimere Speedway race, which is fine in the middle of the season as a change-up. Add to that the reality that they’ll incur steep expenses to travel for a race – any race – that is a two-day affair at a one-third cut in payouts. And few probably see the value of talking about Denver, Brainerd, and Topeka deep in the fall, when these areas could have temperatures not conducive for racing or even snow.
Yet Young said, “We are working hard with track and local officials to reschedule the postponed events.”
Race fans would love nothing more than to see the NHRA have everything go its way for the rest of the year. But it’s hard to picture a race in Florida or in California. Once-promising Texas appears to be rethinking its re-opening course of action. Nevada isn’t a sure thing. It would be difficult for authorities in East Tennessee to allow about 20,000 for a NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Dragway but deny Bristol Dragway spectators on the adjacent property. The annual fall race at Reading, Pa., likely is on shaky ground, considering the PDRA canceled its late-August event there. So prospects for racing outside of motorsports-friendly Indiana are grim.
And teams probably would like to be able to plan their 2021 budgets, which could be difficult with constant uncertainty about the remainder of the 2020 schedule.
John Force Racing, which also has its original facility at Yorba Linda, Calif., will have a jump on everyone in that sense.
The 16-time Funny Car champion and 151-time winner said, “I made the decision to live to fight another day. What I’m saying is that I’m going to prepare to come back next year stronger than ever.”
He said, “Watching all the people that went racing – NHRA, the track, Safety Safari, TV, the media, all the winners, all the teams – thank you for racing and keeping the sport alive. If I had stayed and raced, I couldn’t come back. If I step back now, I can. I want to be with all of you again and I want to be competitive. We will continue to support all our sponsors, doing their promotions as planned and stay relevant on social media for the fans. We are going to continue to build race cars, as we always have, build engines, mount bodies, [produce] parts, and do everything we can, because we are open for business in Indy and California.”
Courtesy of ThoughtsRacing.com