NHRA U.S. Nationals: Plenty of surprises, good and bad, in final eliminations

Photo courtesy NHRA
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Monday’s final eliminations of the 63rd annual NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals produced a number of surprises both good and bad.

Here’s some of the highlights – and lowlights:

* Three of the four winners were first-time U.S Nationals champions: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car) and Drew Skillman (Pro Stock). Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Eddie Krawiec won his second U.S. Nationals title.

* The most pleasant surprise was the Cinderella story of Top Fuel driver Kebin (yes, not Kevin) Kinsley. The Texas driver grabbed the final (16th) qualifying position before rolling all the way to the final round against No. 1 qualifier and fellow Texan Steve Torrence. Kinsley had never reached the final round of any NHRA national event, but he did Monday. Unfortunately, he smoked the tires (lost traction) in the final round matchup vs. Torrence. But coming home runner-up in the sport’s biggest race of the year is nothing to be sad about. Congrats to Kinsley on an outstanding weekend.

* J.R. Todd earned his second career Funny Car win in fine fashion, and did so with an extra bonus: the Indianapolis-area native did it in front of numerous family members and friends at his home track. Todd began racing in the NHRA Junior Dragster program over 20 years ago, and to win the sport’s biggest race, and to do so on home turf, it was the biggest day of Todd’s racing career.

* The Gray family – grandfather Johnny, father Shane and son Tanner – became the first family to ever have three members compete in an NHRA race in the same category. Tanner finished third, Johnny 11th and Shane 12th.

* John Force Racing had a difficult Monday. Patriarch and 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force lost in the first round to Del Worsham and finished 13th, daughter Courtney lost to Cruz Pedregon also in the first round, Robert Hight lost in the quarterfinals to Tim Wilkerson and in Top Fuel, Brittany lost in the first round to Shawn Langdon. JFR needs to rebound in a big way when the Countdown starts in two weeks.

* Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson had a heartbreaking semifinal round. He easily had Todd beaten, but wasn’t able to keep his car under control and crossed the centerline, drawing immediate disqualification. If that had not happened, Todd would not have gone on to win the event in the next round.

* In a rarity of sorts, not one Don Schumacher Racing car emerged with a win. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown lost in the quarterfinals, while Leah Pritchett and Tony Schumacher lost in the semifinals. In Funny Car, Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr. lost in the first round. Jack Beckman reached the semifinals, while Ron Capps made it all the way to the final round, but lost to Todd.

* Speaking of Capps, he’s been competing at the U.S. Nationals for over 20 years. Even though he’s the second-winningest driver in Funny Car annals, and won last season’s championship, he continued a dubious mark of still never having won the U.S. Nationals.

* Appearing in her first U.S. Nationals, rookie Top Fuel driver Ashley Sanford showed strong promise, although she lost to Torrence in the first round Monday. If you’re going to lose to anyone, it might as well be the best driver in the class, right?

* Veteran Pro Stock driver and former champion Allen Johnson, who announced Friday that he would be retiring as a driver at season’s end, had hoped to win Monday, but fell short, being eliminated in the quarterfinals by Tanner Gray.

* Defending 2016 Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie looked like he would have a good chance of winning his second straight U.S. Nationals, but fell short in the semifinals to Hector Arana Jr. In an ironic twist, Savoie’s teammate, LE Tonglet, lost in the quarterfinals to Krawiec, who would go on to meet and beat Arana Jr. in the finals.

* Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, who has endured a rough couple of seasons, was the final qualifier to make the Countdown. The two-time world Funny Car champ secured his spot in the playoffs with his first round win over Courtney Force. Pedregon then lost in the quarterfinals to Todd.

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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.”