NHRA: Leah Pritchett doesn’t let adversity beat her, now it’s ‘all business’ in Countdown

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If there was an award for sheer determination, dogged perseverance and never giving up or giving into adversity in a season, Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett would be the hands-down winner in 2016.

Consider what Pritchett has gone through thus far in 2016 – both good and bad:

* She started the season with major sponsorship with Quaker State. Things couldn’t have looked more promising: she’d finally reached the big time with a full season’s ride.

* She won the second race of the season against Brittany Force (at Phoenix), the first all-female Top Fuel final since 1982.

* Only a few weeks later, Pritchett’s professional world collapsed – and not of her own doing – when team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. abruptly announced his retirement and shut the doors, leaving Pritchett without a team and an uncertain future, at best.

* Fortunately and fortuitously, she managed to quickly rebound without missing a race – or a beat, for that matter – driving several races in the Lagana family Top Fuel dragster. Yes, it’s a smaller team, but one with a lot of heart – something Pritchett could obviously identify with.

* Pritchett’s tenacity and determination with Team Lagana impressed legendary team owner Don Schumacher so much that he signed her to race for the remainder of the season – and potentially well into the future.

* Even though she’s had a number of different sponsors, including Papa John’s heading into this past weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the fact Pritchett has been able to attract enough sponsorship to keep going race after race speaks volumes of her marketability and overall talent.

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* As if she hadn’t gone through enough pressure already, Pritchett came into the U.S. Nationals with essentially a must-win situation. She had to finish the race not necessarily with a win, but had to wind up higher than fellow driver Terry McMillen to clinch the 10th and final qualifying spot of the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

* In much the same fashion as the other Cinderella-like accomplishments she’s achieved thus far this season, Pritchett indeed made the Countdown. Next up: to do well in the Countdown and potentially go on to win the Top Fuel championship.

If that happens, it could be one of the greatest comebacks from adversity in a single season in NHRA history.

“I don’t know of anyone who’s made the Countdown under more unusual circumstances,” NHRA Vice President of Communications Terry Blount said to Pritchett. “So many different rides, you lost your ride, you had to hustle and look for another ride, had to look for sponsors. It has to be extra-special to do it this way.”

When U.S. Nationals pole-sitter Clay Millican defeated McMillen in the first round of eliminations Monday, it paved the way for Pritchett to make the Countdown.

“Terry (McMillen) and I were fine, we’re friends, but this is business today – and I wanted Clay to win bad,” Pritchett said emphatically. “Ultimately, Terry took himself out (fouled at the starting line), and I know what that pressure situation is like.”

Even though Pritchett lost in her own first-round matchup, McMillen’s earlier foul allowed her to earn enough points to make the Countdown.

In fact, Pritchett earned her spot in the Countdown by the slimmest of margins: one point over McMillen.

“In the big picture of everything, it’s bittersweet,” Pritchett said. “I wanted to win the U.S. Nationals and that’s not going to happen.

“We get to focus on a championship and I can’t tell you how incredible that feels and the weight lifted off not just my shoulders, but so many people that helped make that happen.

“Back to Dom and Bobby Lagana. They had a vision very first off with me. ‘(They said) We don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but Leah we’re behind you and we’re going to get you in these cars for a couple races’ and it started there and kept going and kept going.

“I got to stand on the shoulders of so many people to be here and now it’s just business.”

Speaking of business, Pritchett rode a three-race sponsorship from Papa John’s Pizza into and through Indianapolis. There may be additional sponsorship opportunities with Papa John’s in the Countdown and potentially an even bigger deal – as much as all 24 races – for next season.

But in a sense, Pritchett is using the deal as inspiration for the bigger picture of battling for the championship.

“John (Schnatter) didn’t build Papa John’s overnight and we’re not going to win a championship overnight,” Pritchett said. “We have to start with the first step, and that’s getting into the Countdown. … We’re excited because we get to finish this thing now.”

Pritchett admits she’s a bit nervous heading into the playoffs.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Pritchett said. “Now, changing into this mindset, I’ve never been in this head space before. Yes, our work’s cut out for us, but I’m looking forward to this mountain.”

Even though she has college degrees in communications and marketing, Pritchett said that she gave serious thought to going back to school to learn more about the business world so that she could apply it to her racing career.

But …

“In these last 60 days, I’m like there is no school that I could go to to learn what I’ve been learning and gone through,” Pritchett said. “Maybe I’ll go teach a class of what not to do and what to do.”

Pritchett’s learning experience has been tough, no doubt. But she’s not only gotten through it, she’s also ready to flourish now that she’s in the Countdown, where – while it is unquestionably difficult to do – the format still allows for a driver to start out ninth or 10th and potentially finish first.

That’s what Pritchett is hoping for.

“When we won at Phoenix,” Pritchett said, “it gave me the confidence of you know how to win, you can finish this thing off and this is the push you’re going to need because you don’t know it yet, Leah, but your season is about to be turned upside down and you’re going to need to fall back on something – and that win was what it was.

“No one else has been through this and that kind of goes along with my overall story: no one else has really done things the way I’ve done them. I haven’t done them the way other people have done them.”

And now, even with all the challenges she’s faced this season, there’s no question how Pritchett is feeling going into the Countdown: “I’m frickin’ happy!”

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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.”