Changes continue at JFR.
When NHRA’s John Force Racing (JFR) announced its new partnership with Chevrolet a week ago, there were many questions as to the personnel aspects of the four-car team run by its namesake driver, John Force. In addition to Force, company president and son-in-law Robert Hight drives the Auto Club of Southern California Funny Car, daughter Courtney Force pilots the Traxxas Funny Car and daughter Brittany helms the sole Top Fuel entry for the team.
John Force’s team was in flux much of the 2014 season, with longtime sponsor Castrol and vehicle partner Ford departing at the end of the year. Still, the 16-time NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion came close to taking a 17th title, falling to Matt Hagan by a mere 43 points at the close of the 24-race campaign. And he did this even though he was working without Jimmy Prock, who tuned him to title No. 16 in 2013 and through 22 races last season, departing just before the penultimate round at Las Vegas.
He wasn’t even the win leader in the family team, as Hight earned five Wally trophies throughout the 2014 season and Courtney took home four victories, including the 100th win for a woman in NHRA’s history. Only Brittany Force is looking for her first win in the tight Top Fuel category, but she made the series’ Countdown to the Championship, where only 10 drivers can compete for season-long honors during a six-race battle.
But that was last year and the new season begins the first weekend of February. Force’s team has been testing its new Chevrolet Camaro SS equipment this week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside Phoenix, Arizona and getting its crew situation stabilized before the new year begins.
An upgraded crew
When he announced the affiliation with General Motors and its Chevrolet Camaro SS, John Force spoke of the “brain trust” at JFR and how he wanted to promote from the team’s younger crew members, and that’s exactly Force has done. While Mike “Zippy” Neff continues to lead the group of tuners and has charge of Hight’s Camaro SS, his former assistant crew chief, Jon Schaffer, 27, moves to the 16-time champion’s car as the primary tuner, with Nick Casertano joining the team as Schaffer’s assistant. The Californian started his new job at Phoenix this week during testing. Neff’s long-time crew member Tim Fabrisi now becomes the assistant on the Auto Club Funny Car.
Courtney Force’s tuners, Ron Douglas and Dan Hood continue on her squad. Brittany Force’s tuner Todd Smith gains a new assistant as Ronnie Thompson, who worked with Khalid alBalooshi at Al-Anabi Racing joins the JFR group on the solo Top Fuel rail. Smith was tuner for Jack Beckman when Beckman won the 2012 Funny Car title.
“We have developed the next generation of drivers and now I want to do the same thing with our crew chiefs,” Force declared. “We have so much young talent, I want to start giving these guys a chance to grow and develop their talents. Guys like Jon Schaffer and Tim Fabrisi, as well as new hires Ronnie Thompson and Nick Casertano will keep us young and on the cutting edge.”
Antonelli named general manager
In addition to making these moves, Force named Dean “Guido” Antonelli general manager of the team’s Brownsburg, Indiana operation. In addition to being part of the “brain trust” that runs the four individual cars, Antonelli will oversee the rapidly expanding parts manufacturing operation in Brownsburg, drawing on his many years of experience with both Top Fuel and Funny Car NHRA technology.
Still, Force intends for Neff, who led his boss to championship No. 15, to be the core of the tuner group. “You have to have stability and that is one thing we have had over the past couple of decades,” Force reminded. “You don’t win as many championships as we have with as many different guys without a great core group. I know crew chiefs will move around; that is the nature of this business. I want to continue to develop talent inside John Force Racing and continue to keep winning.”