Q&A: Watkins Glen president Michael Printup on IndyCar return

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It was simply spectacular for the Verizon IndyCar Series to be back at Watkins Glen International this weekend, and after only a three-month buildup from an eleventh-hour deal to get the track on as a replacement round for the cancelled Boston race.

We caught up with track president Michael Printup just before the race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi, for some thoughts on how the actual realization of the weekend matched up to the buildup.

MotorSportsTalk: So, it’s real, and we’re actually here for IndyCar at Watkins Glen. How awesome is it to be standing here at this moment?

Michael Printup: “You know I saw Scott Dixon last night, it was late, and he had a bigger smile than me and I said, ‘You can’t do that! because I’m happier!” and he’s like ‘No, we’re happy!’ and I’m like ‘Congratulations.’ We knew [the fastest average speed lap] was going to be broken. What’s even more exciting and George [Bruggenthies, Road America track president] is down over around the corner here, I was talking to him a little bit ago, and I said ‘You know we broke your record?’ I said “I’m not rubbing it in! Now I didn’t do anything, but obviously Scott broke the North American record and let alone breaking the Watkins Glen record. It gives me chills, it gives me chills to the time. I’m very humbled and pleased with what’s happening this weekend.”

MST: One of the event notes that occurred was Hitachi being named presenting sponsor on Friday. How did that come together?

MP: “INDYCAR has been awesome in that. We’re both sharing the responsibility of promoting this and to get Hitachi to come on along with their other sponsors with Verizon and everyone else that’s involved with them, just an awesome experience.”

MST: Is the crowd what you hoped?

MP: “I’ve been watching, there have been traffic issues at the gate since 8am this morning – which is a good thing. We don’t get data right away, but I’ll get it tonight. We kind of knew the walk-up would be nice today. I’m happy, but of course every promoter wants more. With 90 days, I’m not disappointed at all, Jay [Frye’s] not, Mark [Miles] is not. We solidified our future. Give us a year to get this tucked in our belt and we’ll make it bigger and better next year.

MST: That’s just it… this isn’t a one-shot deal but with a two-year extension and Gov. Andrew Cuomo involved, there’s a future road map here… 

MP: “That’s big. He’s a big sports car fan and IndyCar fan. He’d have been here this weekend but he had a business trip to Italy this weekend so he couldn’t go. Monza, maybe? [laughter].

“He’s a big fan. I called him the night before I came down to Indianapolis, I didn’t want him surprised. I said, ‘I’m going down to sign the Indy deal, can you give me some help later on?’ I said, ‘I’m going to go sign it now and we’ll see what happens. His comment back to me was ‘can I go with you?’ – he was that excited. I said, ‘Probably not this time, I hate to tell a governor no. For the New York governor to go down to Indy to make the announcement with Jay Frye and I, I thought that was pretty cool.”

MST: Is it too early to start thinking of other series on this weekend next year? Of course we’ve had Indy Lights and a regional Ferrari Club of America here this weekend.

MP: “It’s a mesh. It’s been going on. I haven’t met with INDYCAR yet. Obviously we have the Indy Lights, we know Indy Lights is coming back next year. I’ve met with Dan and Jay and talked about the [Pro] Mazda and the USF2000s. So we know we want them there, so we’re going to figure out how to make it happen. We haven’t solidified it yet, but we’ll make it happen.

MST: Six years since the last race, what’s the personal and track excitement level of adding this classic venue back?

MP: “Take the company aspect away from this, from a personal point of view, I’m with you 100 percent. Having the schedule locked up, being a huge IndyCar fan since I was a little kid, a CART fan, having started my career with Roger Penske at California Speedway, it was all about open-wheel for me. It’s awesome. That’s personal. The schedule is awesome. I love Gateway. I love Road America. George is probably one of the best promoters in the country. To see this, now I know I can pick my schedule, I can know where I can go see IndyCar races. I’m excited.”

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.”