NHRA: Leah Pritchett returns to site of first career race win; can history repeat itself?

(Photos courtesy NHRA)

NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett plans to go mountain climbing this weekend, looking for the elusive Wally.

The Indianapolis-based driver will be making her fifth appearance this season for Don Schumacher Racing in this weekend’s Mopar Mile High Nationals in Morrison, Colorado (a suburb of Denver).

That’s where the mountain climbing comes in: Pritchett and the rest of the NHRA pro drivers will be racing at more than a mile above sea level on one of the most challenging drag strips in the country.

And who’s Wally?

Pritchett and every one of her fellow drivers will be looking to take home a winner’s trophy – known as a “Wally”, named after NHRA founder, the late Wally Parks.

Bandimere Speedway, which plays host to this weekend’s event, not only has a long history with the NHRA, it also has a history with Pritchett.

It was at Bandimere that the Southern California native won her first career NHRA race: at the age of 9, behind the wheel of a Junior Dragster.

She then came back to win again at Bandimere in 2002 at the age of 13, the last time she raced at the Colorado track on any level until this weekend.

“Bandimere holds a special place in my heart because it’s the very first place where I won an NHRA Wally when I was 9 years old,” Pritchett said in a media release. “I’ve only raced Jr. Dragsters at Bandimere. I’ve been a spectator at Bandimere national events and worked on a Nitro Funny Car (Melanie Troxel) there in 2011.

“I’ve made a lot of hits on that track (in Jr. Dragsters) and to be able to finally get back on that track means a lot. I thought that opportunity wasn’t going to happen, but now I feel like I’m on top of the mountain by getting to race on the mountain.”

2016_Leah_Pritchett_Action (2)

Pritchett’s two wins at Bandimere are part of an incredible run that saw her win 37 Junior Dragster races – on the local and national competition levels – in eight years.

Of course, there’s quite a bit of difference between a Junior Dragster and its Top Fuel counterpart:

* A Junior Dragster is powered by a five-horsepower motor and the chassis is under 150 inches long.

* A Top Fuel dragster is powered by a 10,000 horsepower motor and has a 300-inch chassis.

If you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s a 9,995 horsepower difference between a Top Fueler and a Junior Dragster.

Pritchett, now 28, has had a bittersweet season thus far in the Top Fuel ranks. She began the season with high hopes and expectations, including full sponsorship by Quaker State.

She then won her first Top Fuel national event just two races into the season (Phoenix).

Things were definitely looking up – until April 11, that is, when team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. unexpectedly and suddenly announced his retirement from the sport, closing the doors on Bob Vandergriff Jr. Racing, costing a number of employees their jobs.

As a result, there went Pritchett’s ride, there went her sponsorship and there went her chances – at least temporarily – for a chance at more wins and potentially a Top Fuel championship.

But Schumacher stepped up and offered Pritchett a part-time ride and she’s made the most of the opportunity, including reaching the semifinals at the most recent race two weeks ago at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois.

And as she prepares for her return to Bandimere Speedway after a 15-year absence, Pritchett not only has defied the odds by missing just one of the first 13 races in this season’s 24-race schedule – she’s also still very much in the running for the Countdown to the Championship.

“At beginning of the year when I was going to run the full season, Bandimere Speedway was at the top of the list of tracks that I was looking forward to racing,” Pritchett said.

She’s ranked 10th in the standings, the last potential qualifying spot for the Countdown.

If she can hold on to that spot or improve her standing between now and the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend, she could turn what has been a trying season into a potential Cinderella finish.

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Pts Events Wins Rup Semi Qtr 1st rd Poles DNQ W/L

2016: 10th 12 1 0 2 3 6 0 0 11-11

Career: 57 1 1 5 9 37 0 6 26-52

* Best Time, Speed: 3.736 sec. (2015, Englishtown), 329.19 mph (2016, Houston), (both with Bob Vandergriff Racing)

* Last event Joliet, Ill., July 8-10: Qualified No. 9, lost in semifinals to Antron Brown

* A year ago at Denver: did not race

* Top Fuel career at Denver: Wins 0; Runner-ups 0; Poles 0

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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

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.”