DiZinno: Bryan Clauson’s talent was surpassed only by his class

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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One of the shames in covering racing on a full-time basis is that you have to occasionally prep yourself for the worst. And no matter how much you think you can prepare, you’re never ready to hear that jarring, shocking news that a driver has died in the heat of competition.

Worse still is when you realize you’ve not only lost a driver, but a class human being as well.

I can’t claim to have known Bryan Clauson well, but this May provided an opportunity to get to know him better. In that month, I got a glimpse of a person who was so high on life, so happy for his opportunities, so humble with his time… and of course, so damn talented behind the wheel of whatever he drove.

Others will touch on his dirt track prowess (Robin Miller’s tribute here; Curt Cavin’s is here) and the fact he won pretty much whatever he got behind the wheel of, whether it was a winged or non-winged sprint car, a midget, or a Silver Crown car. Heck, he was in four cars in four nights at one point this May, and then after finishing 23rd in the 100th Indianapolis 500 and leading three laps, he won another race the same night.

I’d followed Clauson most as it relates to the Indianapolis 500, with his three starts coming with three different teams, in three different aero specifications, and with different teammates every time.

Flashing back a bit to his 2012 debut, here was one of two rookies – along with his then-teammate Josef Newgarden, also an Indy first-timer – who was damn fearless into the corners and showed no signs of intimidation with first-year full-time team Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

Although most of the components were new, all the teams in IndyCar at the time were adapting to the new Dallara DW12 chassis – brought into being a year after the horrific accident at Las Vegas that claimed Dan Wheldon’s life.

And Clauson’s dirt expertise immediately paid dividends because he was sliding the rearward weight heavy car at a clip that didn’t seem possible. Forget seeing a veteran do it, this was a 23-year-old at the time, who’d never been in an IndyCar until that month!

Newgarden went ahead and qualified seventh – Honda’s lone bullet in a Chevrolet-dominated session – and Clauson was well on his way to a Row 4 or 5 start after a couple solid laps himself. It all went awry though when Clauson got bit by Indy’s infamous Turn 1, and a heavy crash ended his first qualifying run. A back-row start next to the two Lotus-powered cars – albeit significantly faster – and then an early accident in the race was no way of judging his maiden attempt.

Things were far less comfortable once Clauson returned to the Brickyard last year, having partnered with Jonathan Byrd’s Racing and the team going with KVSH Racing. But again, the situation was less than ideal. He was in the first year of aero kits, with a team whose setup and pace fluctuated, a lead driver who is less than endeared with Indy (Sebastien Bourdais) and a rookie who was ill-prepared for the month ahead in Stefano Coletti. No wonder then that things barely clicked, Clauson had to sweat out Bump Day, and then crashed in the race. Again, not an indictment of the talent – just a description of the situation.

The two tough years at Indy made for a somewhat nicer transition into 2016. The Byrd livery and family had now taken over the livery of a Dale Coyne Racing Honda, with Conor Daly announced for the season and Clauson – in a fourth car – added for the Indianapolis 500 but with the Byrd colors going to his No. 88 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda rather than Daly’s usual No. 18 car. The ‘500 program would be a centerpiece of Clauson and Byrd Racing’s planned “Chasing 200” tour.

With team veteran Pippa Mann back for her usual effort and then a late change to add 2015 rookie of the year Gabby Chaves, Coyne suddenly had a four-car attack on Indy that was ensconced as a top sleeper, with four, hungry, determined drivers with something to prove.

Coyne’s always had a bit of a family atmosphere anyway being the small Plainfield, Ill.-based team outside the mights of everyone based in Indianapolis and Charlotte, and this is where Clauson fit right in.

His effervescent spirit, smile and excitement of actually being in a team that had fun doing what they were doing – this is racing, not accounting, mind you – brought spirits up and really positioned the team well for the rest of the month.

A chat with him on media day really brought out how much he was enjoying his third crack at Indy, a track he loved, but still a far cry from his usual days and nights kicking ass on dirt.

“It’s funny, and I’ve said, it’s awesome to be back here. But I have terrible timing!” Clauson joked when he and I talked that day. “In 2012, I came in with a brand new car. I had my best month that year. In ’15, we had the aero kits and hole in floor. In ’16, it’s domed skids. So there’s nothing to fall back on, to look back at last year.

“The teams have been learning as well as I have. I’ve been with different teams every year. But I have found a home here with Dale. A lot more fun working with that group. There’s completely different feeling about the month this year.

“It helps having someone like Pippa around too, who for the most part is a part-timer. She goes through similar stuff because of more years experience, but still needing to learn every year. But she can help fix some of my problems that I might be feeling that the full-time guys aren’t.”

And how different was it to spend time just at IMS while in the midst of a planned “Chasing 200” circular insanity tour?

“It’s a little bit boring,” he laughed. “But so much goes into this, from a time and effort standpoint. By the time we get done with engineering meetings, I don’t have much time to go. It’s a lot of work out there. You’re usually out half races, most days. Plus digging through all the data. It’s certainly a little different. It’s a change in routine. But it’s fun.”

Clauson and fiancee Lauren brought a lot of fun to the track this month with their presence. They were pretty much the stars of the only rain-delayed day this year, and plus there was the note that because their cute little dog Chevy Clauson couldn’t be called Chevy this year since Clauson was driving a Honda, she’d be renamed Honda for the month.

And Clauson’s presence at the Speedway also spurred me to finally do something I thought I’d be taking for granted – actually watching him wheel it on dirt.

A friend of mine and I went to Clauson’s favorite track, Kokomo Speedway, the Sunday night after the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It was opening night for the season. It was also freezing, in the 40s.

And watching Clauson on dirt was simply mesmerizing. I can’t describe what it was like to watch him run the lines he did, and was flowing through the corners as fast as he was.

In brief, he made me a dirt racing fan.

Just this weekend I took the opportunity to watch another talented young driver – Sean Rayhall – make his winged sprint debut at the Plymouth Speedway at the Sheboygan County Fair Park. Yes, seeing a friend compete is one thing, but I wouldn’t have had the excitement I did to go straight from Road America if it wasn’t for watching Clauson that frigid night back in May.

History will look back on him as a driver who won a hell of a lot of races, led the 100th lap in the 100th Indianapolis 500 and re-established the connection between short track Americana and the Indianapolis 500.

But while his passion for racing was unmatched, it’s the impact he left on those he touched from his humility and grace as a person that stands as a far greater legacy to leave.

Godspeed, Bryan Clauson.

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

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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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 Racing 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 Formula E 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 team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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.”