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Drag racer John Force faces loss of sponsors Ford, Castrol

Racing legend says he'll aggressively seek new sponsors to replace the two firms pulling support after 2014 season. Ford aims to focus on NHRA's grass-roots drag racing divisions.

September 02, 2013|By Jim Peltz
  • John Force's funny car will only feature the Castrol and Ford logos for one more season before he has to find new sponsors.
John Force's funny car will only feature the Castrol and Ford logos… (Steve Kohls / Associated…)

John Force has known triumph and tragedy on the track, but now the drag-racing legend is having to battle back from a financial 1-2 punch.

Two of Force's biggest sponsors, Ford and Castrol motor oil, recently announced separately that they plan to pull their support after the 2014 season, a major setback for his four-car team based in Yorba Linda.

Both companies, in so many words, said they were looking for better returns on their marketing spending than they could earn where Force competes, in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s premier Mello Yello Series.

"We took a hit," the 64-year-old Force, one of the NHRA's most popular figures, said in an interview. "Was I surprised? Yes."

But Force, a record 15-time champion in funny cars — one of the NHRA's two elite, 300-mph classes of dragsters — thanked both sponsors for giving him 16 months to find replacements and said he plans an aggressive campaign to do just that.

"Corporate America, I don't expect you to come to me, I'm coming to you," he said.

For now, "I'm financially strong," Force said, adding that no layoffs were planned among his 115 employees in Yorba Linda and at the team's shop in Brownsburg, Ind. "I won't do that," he said.

John Force Racing has four drivers. Force, his daughter Courtney and his son-in-law Robert Hight, who's also team president, all race funny cars.

Hight, in fact, won the funny car class Monday at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, one of drag racing's premier events.

Another Force daughter, Brittany, is in her rookie season driving a dragster in the NHRA's other leading class, top fuel. Castrol, a division of British oil giant BP, is the primary sponsor for John and Brittany.

The main sponsor for Courtney Force is Traxxas, a maker of radio-controlled cars, and Hight's main sponsor is the Auto Club of Southern California. Those sponsorships remain intact under multiyear deals.

Force declined to say how much money his sponsors spend on his team each year or disclose other financial figures.

But it costs roughly $4 million a year to race a top-flight dragster in the Mello Yello Series, and with four cars and other operating costs, Force's annual budget likely is $20 million or more. And Castrol, Ford and the other primary sponsors cover most of those costs.

Ford, whose sponsorship money is spread across Force's team, said it plans to pull its support throughout the Mello Yello Series after next year. Ford instead wants to focus on the NHRA's grass-roots drag-racing divisions as a way to sell Ford products.

Motor racing in general is struggling to find and retain corporate sponsors in the post-recession era. But Castrol is in its 29th year with Force, making it one of the longest sponsor-driver partnerships in the sport's history.

And because Force also is so well-known, the departure of Castrol and Ford raised questions about whether their moves reflected a pessimistic outlook for drag racing generally.

"I don't believe that at all," NHRA President Tom Compton said, noting that race attendance "was up a bit last year and it's up a bit this year."

"We never like to see major sponsors go," Compton said. "But things do happen in corporate America." Force, he added, is "going to bounce back."

Force said that though he's confident of replacing the lost Castrol sponsorship, if he fails "I will have to step out of the seat in 2015" and sideline his car rather than park Brittany's car.

"My daughter will stay in the seat," Force said. "I'm not going to do that to my kid. I put her through hard times here, teaching her how to drive, training her."

Force suffered heartbreak in 2007 when one of his other drivers at the time, Eric Medlen, was killed in a test-session crash.

Later that year, Force himself was seriously hurt in a racing crash in Dallas, with arm and leg injuries that required months of rehabilitation.

But Force bounced back and won his 15th championship in 2010 at age 61, and this year he's again qualified for the NHRA's six-race title playoff that starts next week.

Force also won one race this year, in Bristol, Tenn.: the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals.

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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