NHRA: With Countdown looming, teams’ playoff hopes are in high gear

(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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As the annual Western Swing concludes this weekend in suburban Seattle, a number of NHRA teams are feeling confident, while others are likely losing a lot of sleep at night.

Including Seattle, three races remain for drivers to qualify for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship – Seattle, Brainerd (Minnesota) and the biggest race of the year, the legendary U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend (only two for Pro Stock Motorcycle — Brainerd and Indianapolis).

The Countdown is a six-race playoff that will determine the eventual 2016 champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

A total of 10 drivers/riders in each class will qualify for the Countdown in each respective class.

And while there indeed are still three races to make the Countdown, this weekend’s ProtectTheHarvest.com Northwest Nationals could very likely be a must-win for a number of drivers if they hope to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Let’s break down each of those four classes and determine who needs to do what:

TOP FUEL: Defending champion Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence and Brittany Force have all clinched Countdown berths. Eight-time champion and the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, Tony Schumacher, is also fairly safe to make the Countdown.

2016_Leah_Pritchett headshot

Likely to make it but not a certainty are J.R. Todd, Shawn Langdon and Richie Crampton.

 

The biggest question marks are Clay Millican (currently ninth in the standings), Leah Pritchett (10th) and Terry McMillen (11th), who are all on the bubble to make the playoffs.

And while he’ll likely not make the Countdown – although we’d love to see it – we still have to give big props to veteran driver Chris Karamesines, who at the age of 84, is currently ranked 15th, his highest ranking in Top Fuel since finishing 15th in 2002.

Yes, you read that right. The man known as “The Golden Greek” is indeed 84 years old, and has been racing for approximately 65 years.

FUNNY CAR: In the 50th year of Funny Car competition in the NHRA, drivers aren’t laughing – they’re dead serious to make the Countdown.

Already locked in: points leader Ron Capps, Courtney Force, Jack Beckman and defending Funny Car champ Del Worsham.

John Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history (16 championships, 145 race wins), will likely clinch a berth in the Countdown this weekend at Seattle.

Force is also going for only the second Western Swing sweep in NHRA history – after winning at Denver and Sonoma, he just needs to win at Seattle to duplicate what he did back in 1994, the only driver in Funny Car to do so.

Alexis DeJoria
Alexis DeJoria

Matt Hagan and Robert Hight, who are both tied for sixth heading to Seattle, will likely make the Countdown, as well.

But after that, the water gets murky. Tommy Johnson Jr. (ranked eighth) and Tim Wilkerson (ranked ninth) are still in contention. Alexis DeJoria (ranked 10th), who suffered a fractured pelvis at Sonoma this past Sunday, not only is questionable to race at Seattle, but also to make the Countdown.

If she misses this weekend and potentially another race or two, DeJoria’s playoff chances are just about done.

The biggest name who needs to make up the largest amount of ground in the three remaining races to qualify for the Countdown is two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon.

Pedregon has struggled terribly this season. In the first 15 races, he’s failed to get past the first round of eliminations 12 times. He comes to Seattle ranked 12th in the standings, 198 points out of the 10th and final qualifying spot.

The only other Funny Car driver who has a potential chance to make the Countdown, particularly if DeJoria misses one or more races, is 11th ranked Chad Head, who is 150 points behind DeJoria heading to Seattle.

PRO STOCK: Teammates Greg Anderson, Jason Line and Bo Butner are all locked into the Countdown, as is Allen Johnson.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. is seeking his sixth career Pro Stock championship.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. is seeking his sixth career Pro Stock championship.

But from there, it gets rather dicey: A total of 184 points separate fifth-ranked Vincent Nobile and 10th-ranked Alex Laughlin (in-between are Drew Killman, Shane Gray, Chris McGaha and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr.).

Two-time defending Pro Stock champ Erica Enders is just nine points out of 10th place. Enders has struggled all season to find consistency, horsepower and speed. She’s been a first-round loser in 10 of the first 15 races, and has yet to get past the quarterfinals in any race.

Unless Coughlin or Laughlin falter, Enders’ team needs to find some additional speed and to go at least two to three rounds in each of the three remaining pre-Countdown races. Otherwise, it’s not looking promising for Enders to make the playoffs — and with it would go her hopes of three consecutive Pro Stock championships.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Eddie Krawiec, five-time and defending PSM champ Andrew Hines, Angelle Sampey and Jerry Savoie are all locked into the Countdown.

Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson is on the bubble to make the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson is on the bubble to make the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.

With the two-wheelers not competing this weekend (their next race is Aug. 18-21 at Brainerd, Minn.), that leaves just two races left for six other riders to make the Countdown.

Sonoma winner L.E. Tonglet, Hector Arana and Chip Ellis (ranked fifth through seventh) are likely to make the Countdown.

But from there, it’s a tossup which of the eight drivers remaining in contention will make the Countdown.

Just 116 points separates all eight drivers, starting with Matt Smith (eighth place) and James Underdahl (15th place).

The biggest battle right now is between Hector Arana Jr. (ninth), Steve Johnson (10th), Michael Ray (11th) and Karen Stoffer (12th). Just 69 points separate the four riders. Take Smith out of the equation and just 30 points separate Arana Jr., Johnson, Ray and Stoffer.

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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.”