Senior staff writer
Two different worlds of high-speed racing came together last weekend during the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
NHRA legend 16-time Funny Car champion John Force had his Chevrolet SS Funny Car repainted to honor four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and five-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon fittingly on the first weekend of each group’s version of a playoff.
“I put as many flames as my designer (Brandon Baker) could fit on my hot rod in Jeff’s honor,” Force said last week before the Funny Car was transported from Brownsburg to Charlotte. “I got the idea for the flames from Jeff telling me years ago he was a fan because I was always on fire.”
It was also Force’s way of acknowledging the various events they have shared together as motor racing champions.
They first met several years ago at a racing banquet where the younger Gordon was nervous about speaking so Force relaxed the young driver with some humorous stories.
Years later at the Auto Club Speedway in California, Force insisted that he would make a hamburger run for Gordon and NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace. Force wound up driving a limo to the track for the NASCAR event and also to the drive-through. The limo ran out of gas with Force driving it.
Gordon, who retires from fulltime competition at the end of the season, was stunned by Force’s use of the famed rainbow paint scheme with flames that the NASCAR champion made popular on the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet.
He also understood that the tribute crossed many lines in motor racing.
“It is one thing to see a track or a fan or somebody here within this garage does something to pay tribute,” Gordon said at a press conference last week at Chicagoland Speedway. “But when it starts going outside of NASCAR and our sport, that certainly humbles you and makes you extremely appreciative of not only what I have done, but people that recognize it, especially when it is someone like John Force.”
Force reached the semifinals of the Carolina Nationals before being eliminated Sunday and Gordon finished 14th in the first race of NASCAR’s Chase. Gordon is 12th in points as NASCAR races Sunday in New Hampshire where he was won three times. The Chase field will be cut to 12 after the Challenger Round ends in two weeks at Dover.
When Gordon lines up at New Hampshire, he will break Ricky Rudd’s record of 788 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts.
“Something I’ve put a lot of effort into over the years is to stay healthy and competitive and to be as committed to the team, from a driver’s standpoint, as they have been to me,” Gordon said. “It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in that car every single race since 1992.”
Gordon admitted that drivers of Rudd’s era, including former Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte, were far tougher than today’s NASCAR drivers particularly with the types of stock cars they drove.
“They dealt with some major injuries and fought through, just like Terry,” Gordon remarked. “I’ve seen him race with a broken hand or wrist, it was pretty amazing. I’ve had some injuries along the way that I’ve had to fight through, but certainly nothing like those guys. They were way tougher.”
Schatz scores 200th WoO win
Donny Schatz became only the third driver in World of Outlaws winged sprint car history to win 200 races in earlier in September at Elma, Washington.
Schatz, who races for team co-owner Tony Stewart, joins legends Steve Kinser of Bloomington and Sammy Swindell as the only drivers to reach that plateau.
Schatz is having a record season for the Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing team with 28 wins this season and a huge 400-plus point lead over his nearest rival. His 200th win came almost 17 years to the date of his first-ever series win at Cottage Grove (Ore.) Speedway, Aug. 24, 1988.
Brownsburg’s Joey Saldana shared in the honors of the night by breaking a 12-year track record with a lap of 11.750 seconds.
New Castle’s Hines ‘ last ride
New Castle’s Tracy Hines, winner of 91 United States Auto Club (USAC) national wins in three major divisions, is stepping away from fulltime open-wheel racing at the end of this season.
The USAC Sliver Crown and National Sprint Car Series champion will serve as competition director for ThorSport Racing next year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. ThorSport has captured the last two NASCAR truck championships with veteran driver Matt Crafton.
Hines raced in the NASCAR Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series for four seasons (2003-2006) with a pair of top-five finishes in the truck series.
Hines currently leads the USAC National Midget Series.
He will compete in a midget and sprint car this weekend in the famed USAC Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway.
Hines said he will race part time in 2016 in the midget series and 410-winged sprint car.