NHRA: As 2017 season begins, will it be able to top 2016 for excitement and drama?

Photo courtesy NHRA
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As the 24-race 2017 NHRA national event season kicks off this weekend at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, California, it’s going to be hard to write a better script than how the 2016 season ultimately played out.

When the final race ended in November, we saw two three-time champions emerge across the sport’s four pro categories: Top Fuel pilot Antron Brown (won three titles in the last five seasons, including the last two) and Pro Stock winner Jason Line.

But it was the two first-time champs in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle that stole the show.

After trying for 20 years and finishing runner-up several times over the years, Ron Capps finally broke through with his first career Funny Car championship.

It was one of the best feel-good stories the NHRA has seen in years – only to see yet another great feel-good story emerge at the same time in the person of first-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie.

Savoie could wind up going down in NHRA history as having one of the most unique paths to a championship of any driver or rider.

First off, Savoie was an aspiring motorcycle drag racer in his teens and early 20s, only to abruptly end racing at the age of 23 when he began to raise a family and grow his business.

And what a unique business it is: Savoie is an alligator “farmer” that oversees a herd of 60,000 gators in the Louisiana bayou.

After nearly 30 years away from racing, Savoie began his comeback of sorts in 2011 and finally reached the pinnacle of his sport last season in dramatic fashion.

After trailing the points leaders for the first 23 races, Savoie roared to win the championship in the season’s final race, holding off multiple championship winners such as Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey (who used to babysit for Savoie’s children before beginning her own racing career).

But 2016 is gone and it’s time to focus on 2017.

Where do we start? How about five questions or things to watch in 2017 for each of the top four pro classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle?

Here goes:

Top Fuel:

  • Can Antron Brown make it three championships in a row and four in the last six seasons?
  • After coming so close to his first championship, can Doug Kalitta finally do so in 2017?
  • Can the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, win his ninth title (and first since 2009)?
  • After overcoming adversity in 2016, including losing her ride early in the season (only to bounce back and catch on with Don Schumacher Racing), could this be the breakout season for Leah Pritchett?
  • And what about Brittany Force, who had a breakout season in 2016? Can she do even better and be a bonafide championship contender?

Funny Car:

  • 16-time champ and the winningest driver in drag racing history, John Force, turns 68 in May. He came close to another championship in 2016, but fell short in the playoffs. Can he capture title No. 17 in 2017?
  • Can former two-time champion Cruz Pedregon bounce back from the worst season of his career and become a championship contender again?
  • Courtney Force struggled in last season’s playoffs. Can she finally earn her first championship in 2017?
  • Tommy Johnson Jr. had an outstanding season in 2016. Can he keep it going in 2017?
  • After more than 20 years of trying, Ron Capps finally earned his first Funny Car championship in 2016. Can Capps do it again in 2017?

Pro Stock:

  • After winning a combined 15 races and back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, Erica Enders failed to win even one race in 2016 and was all but eliminated from the championship after failing to qualify for the first of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Her team goes back to Chevrolet power after one year with Dodge/Mopar. Will that be the ticket to return to the prominence and domination of 2014-15?
  • Will KB Racing continue to dominate Pro Stock like it did in 2016 with series champion Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson, who combined to win 16 of the season’s 24 races?
  • Shane Gray finished third in 2016 and then promptly turned over the keys to son Tanner for 2017. How will the younger Gray fare?
  • Four drivers appear to be ready for breakout seasons in 2017: Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha and Bo Butner. Which one breaks through?
  • Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, Jeg Coughlin, is a five-time Pro Stock champion. But in his return to full-time racing last season, Coughlin struggled just as much as Enders, finishing 10th in the standings. With Elite’s return to Chevrolet after a one-year stint with Dodge/Mopar, will Coughlin be able to get his game back to the way it used to?

Pro Stock Motorcycle:

  • Jerry Savoie had one of the most inspiring seasons – and stories – that NHRA has seen in the last 20 to 30 years. Will Savoie once again roar to win a second consecutive championship?
  • What happened to former champs Andrew Hines and teammate Eddie Krawiec last season? How is it they couldn’t hold off Savoie? Will they bounce back this year and battle each other for the title once again?
  • In her first full-time season back after a long hiatus, Angelle Sampey showed she hasn’t forgotten how to ride, finishing fourth in the championship battle. Could Sampey return to championship form again in 2016?
  • Veteran rider Chip Ellis had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, finishing fifth in the PSM standings. Can Ellis have a similar – if not better – season in 2017?
  • Veteran Steve Johnson, one of the most popular riders on the circuit, failed to make the Countdown in 2016. Can Johnson reach back in 2017 and give fellow riders like Hines, Krawiec, Sampey and Savoie a run for their money?

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NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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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 Racing 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 Formula E 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 team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

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.”