NHRA president: This could be the most exciting Countdown to the Championship yet

Photo courtesy NHRA
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The National Hot Rod Association has long called this past weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in suburban Indianapolis its biggest race of the year.

It’s so big that it runs the longest of any race (six days), draws the most drivers (over 1,100 competitors), the most fans (including a sellout this past Saturday), and is to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR.

But for 40 drivers and riders – 10 each in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – the biggest races of the year are yet to come.

With the U.S. Nationals now in the rearview mirror, all attention going forward will be on the NHRA’s six-race playoff known as the Countdown to the Championship.

The 10th anniversary of the Countdown begins next weekend in Charlotte (Sept. 16-18), followed by St. Louis (Sept. 23-25), Reading (Pa., Sept. 29-Oct. 2), Dallas (Oct. 13-16), Las Vegas (Oct. 27-30) and wraps up with the season-ending – and championship-deciding – Auto Club Finals in Pomona, California (Nov. 10-13).

NBCSports.com had a chance to sit down with NHRA President Peter Clifford during the U.S. Nationals and he talked about the upcoming Countdown.

Here are some excerpts of that conversation:

peter-clifford-nhra-pres
NHRA President Peter Clifford

Q) This is shaping up to be perhaps the best Countdown we’ve since the format was first implemented in 2007. How excited are you to see it get underway?

CLIFFORD: “We are so excited about the Countdown because going into it we have such great battles, like the one here at Indianapolis between Leah Pritchett and Terry McMillen in Top Fuel and who would get into it (Pritchett eventually made it into the Countdown, McMillen didn’t). Plus there are so many storylines going into the Countdown.

“The competition between Top Fuel and Funny Car this year has been fantastic with so many different winners across both classes. So, anybody can win the championship.

“Plus, we have six female drivers in the Countdown: two in Top Fuel with Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force, two others in Funny Car with Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria, and one each in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle with Erica Enders and Angelle Sampey.

“Any of those people can win the championship. That’s why we’re so thrilled. Plus, this could be the year that Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel) finally win their respective first championships. They’ve won so many races and are great champions for the sport, so this could be their year.

“There’s so many potential opportunities in the Countdown so I think that’s what is going to make it so exciting for our fans.”

Q) What has been the biggest or most pleasant surprise thus far this year?

CLIFFORD: “The biggest change is how quickly television changed things. We’ve picked up year-to-date so far this year more than 12 million more viewers on television. We never envisioned that would happen. It’s been a big surprise.

“We thought we do well and Fox cautioned us on that because whenever you switch networks (from ESPN to Fox this season), you have to be careful (about expectations). But to have 12 million more viewers, to be up more than 40 percent on our Sunday shows alone (when the final rounds are aired live), and up close to 80 percent with re-airs and so forth, we never envisioned that would happen.

“It’s really changing everything out here. It’s changing the whole sport. It’s impacting sponsorship for the teams and it’s also impacting attendance. We’ve had sellouts at four events and this weekend in Indianapolis it has been just an absolute home run. It’s impacted things so much.”

Q) You’re very big on getting feedback. What is the reaction from fans when they speak with you?

CLIFFORD: “Fans are the ultimate feedback. They’re who we have to listen to the most. We have the Fan Council plus we talk to a lot of fans at every single event to find out what they’re thinking.

“And the feedback we’re getting has been great. Number one, they love Fox. We hear that over and over. They love the broadcast, the consistency and the time slots; everything about it.

“And number two, they’re thrilled with the racing this year. It’s so good that it gets better and better every single week. That’s what this sport is all about: these guys push it, the teams, to try and get a little faster every single week. And with all the different winners this year, it’s made for some very exciting racing.”

Q) Coming into the U.S. Nationals, there seems to be a more positive and excited vibe going into this year’s Countdown than in previous years from fans and especially the teams. Is that due to the number of different winners, the closeness of competition and the uptick of interest and excitement from fans and teams?

CLIFFORD: “It definitely is. It’s picking up from last year’s Countdown, like how (Funny Car driver) Del Worsham didn’t win any races in the 18-race regular season and then went out and won four of the six Countdown races and ultimately the championship, becoming only the third driver in history to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.

“That’s where I think teams in this year’s Countdown are looking back at last year and see that it’s anybody’s chance to win, and that’s the whole idea of the Countdown, that’s what you want, you don’t want to peak too early, you want to peak at the right point of the season, just like any other major league sport in the playoffs. For us, it’s the Countdown and it’s so, so important.

“That’s why the teams are excited because it’s anybody’s game out there right now going into the Countdown. That’s what makes it fun. Otherwise, if it was predictable, it would be no difference. They’re all working hard, trying to out-do each other and trying to make it fun for the fans.”

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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.”