NHRA Dodge Nationals: Leah Pritchett earns first No. 1 Top Fuel qualifying spot

(Photo and videos courtesy NHRA)
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NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett came into the 2016 season with four goals:

1) To win a race.

2) To make the Countdown to the Championship playoffs for the first time in her career.

3) To become a No. 1 qualifier at a race.

4) To win the Top Fuel championship.

She accomplished the first (won earlier this season at Phoenix), made the playoffs last month and on Saturday qualified No. 1 for Sunday’s Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pa.

Now all that’s left is the championship, which is still within reach with the four races remaining (including Sunday’s eliminations).

Pritchett, who is No. 9 in the points, topped all other Top Fuel drivers in her Mopar/Pennzoil dragster with a career-best 3.705 second pass at 327.35 mph. She’ll face Shawn Reed in the first round.

“It feels pretty phenomenal,” Pritchett said of her achievement. “It’s right there behind winning a race, but this is do-or-die time.

“This is the time of digging deep for the Countdown and to be No. 1 at one of the fastest race tracks says a lot about my team.

“There were a lot of things going on with that run, and to be No. 1 is really awesome, but we came here to win the race.”

Weather has been a significant issue at Maple Grove this weekend, forcing cancellation of three of the four scheduled qualifying rounds. Ergo, Pritchett got while the getting was good.

Defending 2015 Top Fuel champ Antron Brown was second quickest (3.731 seconds at 321.42 mph. Brown, who is the defending race winner at Maple Grove and has won five times in the first 20 races this season, will face J.R. Todd in Sunday’s first round.

In Funny Car, two-time champion Matt Hagan took the No. 1 spot with a performance of 3.873 seconds at a massive 333.99 mph – both new track records.

It was Hagan’s fifth No. 1 of the season and 26th of his career. He comes into Sunday’s eliminations seeking his fourth win of the season. His first round opponent will be Jim Campbell.

“It’s always fast here,” said Hagan, who also won at Maple Grove in 2014. “You get here and you have to be in the mindset where you put your mouthpiece in, you pull your helmet on and pull your belts down tight because it’s going to be a ride if it hooks.”

Tommy Johnson Jr. qualified second (3.897 seconds at 330.80 mph) and will face Cruz Pedregon in Sunday’s first round.

In other first round action Sunday, reigning Funny Car champ Del Worsham qualified third and will face 16-time champion John Force. Points leader and five-time 2016 event winner Ron Capps qualified fourth and will face Alexis DeJoria.

In Pro Stock, Vincent Nobile continued to have one of his best seasons ever, qualifying No. 1 with a 6.552 second effort at 211.83 mph. It’s Nobile’s third No. 1 of the season and seventh of his career.

A nine-time career winner, Nobile will face rookie Drew Skillman in the first round Sunday.

“With the weather out here, we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” said Nobile, who is seeking his first career win at Maple Grove. “Honestly, we didn’t make a very good run. I’d be willing to say everybody behind me didn’t make a very good run either.

“I know we can be as fast and maybe a little bit faster, but with that being said, those guys definitely didn’t make a good run. All that matters is we’re on top and going into race day tomorrow No. 1.”

Points leader Jason Line qualified No. 2 (6.575 seconds at 211.20 mph) and will face Val Smeland in Sunday’s first round.

Also, Greg Anderson qualified No. 3 and will face five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, five-time and reigning world champion Andrew Hines took the top qualifying spot with a 6.784 second effort (at 196.22 mph).

It’s Hines’ 38th career No. 1 and second of the year. He comes into Sunday’s first round match vs. Charlotte winner Chip Ellis having earned five wins this season and is seeking his third career win at Maple Grove.

“This could be huge in the long run,” Hines said. “Championships have come down to just a couple of little points here in the last few years, going back the last seven or eight years since the little points were implemented.

“I’m going to take it right now and run with it. It was nice to bring my Harley here and make a nice, clean, straight run. It obviously puts up a big run when it goes down the track straight.”

Hines’ teammate, Eddie Krawiec, qualified second (6.811 seconds at 191.29 mph). Krawiec has won three times in his career at Maple Grove and will have a tough first round battle with Angelle Sampey, who is currently second in the points and is a six-time career winner at Maple Grove.

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SUNDAY’S FIRST ROUND ELIMINATION PAIRINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.705 seconds, 327.35 mph  vs. 16. Shawn Reed, 6.833, 90.47; 2. Antron Brown, 3.731, 321.42  vs. 15. J.R. Todd, 5.589, 125.19; 3. Shawn Langdon, 3.736, 329.42  vs. 14. Smax Smith, 5.477, 236.30; 4. Doug Kalitta, 3.750, 326.56  vs. 13. Ike Maier, 5.144, 261.72; 5. Larry Dixon, 3.791, 325.77  vs. 12. Brittany Force, 4.676, 299.80; 6. Dom Lagana, 3.811, 323.74 vs. 11. Richie Crampton, 4.168, 204.42; 7. Scott Palmer, 3.935, 310.05  vs. 10. Clay Millican, 4.067, 308.14; 8. Steve Torrence, 3.955, 325.61  vs. 9. Tony Schumacher, 3.990, 274.27.  Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry McMillen, 7.205, 197.45; 18. Terry Haddock, 13.955, 26.01.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.873, 333.99  vs. 16. Jim Campbell, Charger, 15.003, 53.76; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.897, 330.80  vs. 15. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 12.526, 75.47; 3. Del Worsham, Camry, 3.904, 325.77  vs. 14. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 12.185, 78.24; 4. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.192, 325.06  vs. 13. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 12.151, 81.44; 5. Robert Hight, Camaro, 4.690, 243.24  vs. 12. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 11.102, 141.11; 6. Chad Head, Camry, 6.628, 96.51  vs. 11. Jack Beckman, Charger, 9.998, 63.76; 7. Mike Smith, Dodge Stratus, 7.562, 83.83  vs. 10. John Hale, Charger, 8.614, 75.88; 8. Courtney Force, Camaro, 8.041, 81.55  vs. 9. John Bojec, Toyota Solara, 8.428, 69.96.

PRO STOCK: 1. Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.552, 211.83  vs. 16. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 17.898, 110.86; 2. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.575, 211.20  vs. 15. Val Smeland, Chevy Cobalt, 12.909, 67.92; 3. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.580, 210.77  vs. 14. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 7.147, 153.60; 4. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.584, 210.77  vs. 13. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.950, 161.30; 5. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.585, 210.73  vs. 12. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.856, 203.74; 6. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.587, 210.05 vs. 11. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.706, 206.64; 7. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.597, 210.64 vs. 10. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.677, 207.21; 8. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.604, 211.00  vs. 9. Erica Enders, Dart, 6.643, 208.65.  Did Not Qualify: 17. Curt Steinbach, 21.211, 60.95.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.784, 196.22  vs. 16. Chip Ellis, Buell, broke; 2. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.811, 191.29  vs. 15. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 9.986, 81.35; 3. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.828, 195.39  vs. 14. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.439, 187.13; 4. Melissa Surber, Buell, 6.873, 191.76  vs. 13. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.280, 146.40; 5. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.880, 193.02  vs. 12. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.175, 194.91; 6. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.901, 191.13  vs. 11. Angie Smith, Victory, 7.081, 188.04; 7. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.925, 193.88  vs. 10. John Hall, Buell, 7.013, 188.75; 8. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.959, 192.58  vs. 9. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.975, 185.33.  Did Not Qualify: 17. Steve Johnson, broke.

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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.”