Sprint cars: Knoxville win should be big boost to Jason Johnson’s season, career

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Jason Johnson is one of the most prolific drivers in the world of sprint car racing. The “Ragin’ Cajun” has earned 245 A-main wins in his career.

But none of those wins has been as big as his triumph Saturday in the biggest sprint car race in existence: the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa.

In a classic David vs. Goliath battle, Johnson dueled with heavy race favorite Danny Schatz – who came into Saturday’s race having won nine of the 10 prior Knoxville Nationals titles – for 50 laps, from green flag to checkered flag.

When it ended, Johnson was crowned the king of the sprint car world, finally scaling to the top of the heap after a lengthy career that has seen its share of ups and downs.

Johnson came into Saturday’s race a decided underdog. Up to that point, he had won just one race in 62 A-main battles this season (March 23 in Placerville, California).

That was his first win since capturing the second-to-last race of 2014 on the American Sprint Cup Series Tour, where he’s a five-time champion.

Coupled with a completely winless slate in 76 starts in 2015, Johnson had earned just one win in his last 139 starts heading into what would prove to be the biggest race and win of his career on Saturday.

Admittedly, 2015 was rough because it was his first full-time season competing in the biggest sprint car racing sanctioning body, the World of Outlaws. And while he went winless, he did earn the series’ Rookie of the Year honors.

The Knoxville win — Johnson’s fourth overall in WoO competition over the years — should go a long way towards improving his lot both on and off the track the rest of this season.

Not only is he $150,000 richer for winning at Knoxville, he leaves there ranked seventh in the WoO Craftsman Sprint Cars Series driver points.

Admittedly, Johnson is 857 points behind Schatz, who leads the series with 8,165 points and 16 wins.

But with the confidence he earned by beating Schatz at his own game, we very likely may see a reinvigorated Johnson going forward in the remaining 25 races on the WoO schedule.

That schedule continues Tuesday night in McCool Junction, Nebraska.

In a classy move, Johnson dedicated his Knoxville victory to his good friend Bryan Clauson, who died Aug. 7, less than 24 hours after being involved in a horrific Midget car crash at a race in Belleville, Kansas.

“I wasn’t giving up,” Johnson said about Saturday’s win. “I mean, this is the biggest race of the year and the biggest race of my career.

“It was a golden opportunity, and I needed to make the most of it. I know (Schatz) wasn’t happy with me for crowding him, but I wanted to win.”

But Schatz didn’t seem to mind Johnson’s aggressive driving style. After all, this was the Knoxville Nationals, where drivers can’t leave even a crumb of effort on the table.

“We did everything we could,” Schatz said. “Jason [Johnson] did a great job. I didn’t think you could run that hard a pace for 50 laps, but he did, and once he got out there, I tried everything to catch him and just couldn’t do it.”

But perhaps the biggest compliment Johnson earned came from three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and multi-sprint car team owner Tony Stewart:

One more time for posterity sake, here’s the final results (and starting position) of Saturday’s main event:

1. Jason Johnson (2); 2. Donny Schatz (5); 3. Shane Stewart (8); 4. Daryn Pittman (1); 5. Kyle Larson (21); 6. Jamie Veal (4); 7. Chad Kemenah (6); 8. Greg Hodnett (18); 9. Ian Madsen (23); 10. David Gravel (11); 11. Brad Sweet (7); 12. Rico Abreu (17); 13. Danny Lasoski (19); 14. Tim Kaeding (9); 15. Kraig Kinser (25); 16. Logan Schuchart (24); 17. Terry McCarl (10); 18. Sammy Swindell (12); 19. Lucas Wolfe (20); 20. Dusty Zomer (14); 21. Jeff Swindell (16); 22. Kerry Madsen (3); 23. Dale Blaney (22); 24. Craig Dollansky (15); 25. James McFadden (13).

Lap Leaders: Pittman 1-10, J. Johnson 11, Pittman 12, Schatz 13-26, J. Johnson 27-43, Schatz 44-45, J. Johnson 46-50.

Hard-charger award: Kyle Larson.

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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.”