Even though it’s just a two-race deal for now, Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett will have one of the biggest and most successful drag racing organizations behind her.
Pritchett will compete for Don Schumacher Racing in next weekend’s NHRA Southern Nationals in Commerce, Georgia, where she finished runner-up in last year’s race. She’ll also compete in the prestigious U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend for DSR, as well.
It’s been a wild last few months for Pritchett. She won her first Top Fuel event at Phoenix in late February.
Then, early last month, she and the rest of the NHRA world were shocked when team owner Bob Vandergriff unexpectedly retired and immediately closed up his two-car Top Fuel team of Pritchett and Dave Connolly four races into the 24-race NHRA national event season.
Pritchett was able to race for Lagana Racing at Charlotte and then was able to convince Vandergriff to bring out her Quaker State-sponsored dragster for an encore performance last weekend at Houston.
Now, she’ll go to one of the season’s most popular races and will call 8-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher, 2012 and 2015 Top Fuel champ Antron Brown and 2013 Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon her teammates.
She’ll be in good hands at DSR with her former crew chiefs at BVR, Mike Gruger and Joe Barlam, bringing familiarity and consistency to keep Pritchett on the racetrack.
The deal between DSR and Pruett was struck last Monday, just before she headed to Houston. It makes sense for both sides. Pritchett lives in suburban Indianapolis and is less than 10 miles from DSR’s headquarters in Brownsburg, Indiana.
She competed at Houston for Quaker State Oil, which was her primary sponsor while with BVR. Plus, Quaker State’s headquarters is in Houston, so it was a natural fit.
It’s unknown whether Quaker State will return to sponsor Pritchett for more races, but don’t be surprised if it does. She’s one of the bright young faces on the NHRA scene, is a fan favorite, is very media and marketing savvy and has paid her dues.
While with BVR, and especially after her win at Phoenix, Pritchett appeared ready to become the sport’s next new star. With a team like DSR behind her, she can certainly continue on that route, indeed.
Admittedly, Pritchett still wonders what she could have accomplished if Vandergriff hadn’t folded up shop so abruptly.
“I will always wonder what could have been,” she told Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com. “Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
“In life, there are so many experiences to reflect upon. Life is bigger than a race car. It’s bigger than a win. I do feel we had a team capable of challenging for a championship. What could have been has now been replaced with what could come forth.”
Who knows, Pritchett, who grew up about 50 miles from Hollywood in Redlands, California, may wind up with a script that potentially could be even better than her short stay with BVR if team owner Don Schumacher finds enough sponsorship to keep Pritchett on and makes her a regular full-time member of the team.
Even with the struggles that came out of the BVR collapse, she’s still eight in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel class. She’s 173 points behind series leader Brittany Force, is 154 points behind Brown, four points behind Schumacher and is 72 points ahead of Langdon.
Given that performance, she seems to be a perfect fit for DSR long-term. Only time will tell if that takes place.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”