NHRA president Peter Clifford: Major changes are coming fast

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As he closes in on his first six months as president of the National Hot Rod Association, Peter Clifford is a man on a mission.

He wants to make the 2016 season as spectacular as possible, including a new TV package, new competition rules in several classes (particularly Pro Stock), hopes of attracting higher car counts and devising quicker and more efficient ways to clean up on-track debris and oil-downs.

In a recent interview with AutoWeek.com, Clifford laid out some of his plans going forward, particularly in the Pro Stock class, which has struggled in recent seasons to have full 16-car race counts in national events.

“The one area we have seen declines over probably the last eight to 10 years is in Pro Stock, and we rolled out the plan to address that a month or so ago,” Clifford told AutoWeek. “We are trying to make the cars more relevant, but also we want to attract more participation in the class.

“We’ll now go to fuel injection next year—which more people can relate to fuel injection—and it makes it more relevant to Detroit, the cars more relevant. And also we did simple things like make sure the cars get turned around when they come back into the pits to give our fans better access to the cars and the teams.

“It is noticeable at the events when you walk around and see the crowds in the Pro Stock pits. It’s night and day compared to before. It’s so important to the fans because our sport is all about access. We’ve heard from a number of teams that used to participate that the changes we made might be enough to help bring them back into the Pro Stock arena.”

Clifford is very high on a new TV contract with Fox Sports that will air live 17 of the 23 races in 2016 on either Fox Sports 1 or Fox TV.

We think it’s going to be transformative for the sport because it will bring in new viewership and higher recognition for our drivers and teams, and I think it’s going to do so much for the sport going to 17 live events, with four of those being on network,” Clifford said. “We’ve never been on network TV in our history, and having four live events in the middle of the summer, I think it’s going to be very, very exciting for the sport.”

Clifford also promised improvements to digital and social media to make it more timely and relevant.

“That’s one of our big initiatives,” Clifford said of improving the digital side of things. “We know that (NHRA’s digital app) has had some issues in the past, and we are literally, as we speak, working on improving the app so it’s much more reliable. We are also doubling our efforts in the digital and social media area.

“We are adding more staff to that area. It’s very important, in sports today, digital and social, especially as we’re attracting more and more youth. As we go live on television, that’s going to be critical because that’s the opportunity to interact with our fans during the television shows.

“… Our whole idea is to show more of the drivers, get to know the drivers, get to know them behind the scenes, to create more stars because people out there can relate to our drivers.”

The 56-year-old Clifford, who has been with NHRA since 1997 and succeeded the retired Tom Compton as president on July 1, has other initiatives in mind, as well.

“One of our big initiatives is improving competition,” Clifford said. “(In addition to Pro Stock) another area that we need to improve upon for fan experience going forward is reducing the oil-downs at the track.

“It not only impacts our fans on-site, but potentially it could impact our fans at home with the live television. And we’re working with the teams, and we have their commitment to address oil-downs and minimize that in the future.”

In a sense, NHRA is borrowing a page from NASCAR’s innovation, which dramatically improved track drying the last few years with the introduction of the Air Titan system.

Clifford is hoping to further develop a system that will do for oil cleanup what the Air Titans did for NASCAR with rain cleanup.

“We are bringing in new equipment to help speed up the cleanup process and we are going to start working with a university on how to better clean up oil,” Clifford said. “And we have a commitment from the teams, and I am thrilled about that. That, to us, is a game-changer for the sport.”

In addition to attracting new fans, particularly the younger generation, Clifford also has plans to attract and increase participation from a competition standpoint in NHRA’s sportsman ranks.

“We want to get more people participating in the sport,” he said. “We’re going to be announcing a plan to do just that.

“Not only are we making it easier for people to participate at the entry level, but also reducing the cost and also reducing some of the requirements for people to participate.”

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NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”