10 years after being severely burned, sprint car racer set for best opportunity of career

Photos provided by Harli White
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Nearly 10 years after being severely burned and almost killed in her first sprint car race, Harli White is feeling more alive than ever.

And now, at 22 years old, her racing career is flourishing.

The Lindsay, Oklahoma native, who began riding motorcycles at the age of six, was 12 years old when she competed in her first race ever. It was a USAC Mini Sprint Restricted Class event on April 5, 2008 at I-44 Riverside Speedway in Oklahoma City.

It ultimately could have been her last race, too.

Harli still has the burned firesuit from her 2008 near-fatal accident.

Her sprint car flipped and landed on its side, erupting in flames and trapping White, who could not get her belts released. Fellow racer Donnie Ray Crawford, who was competing in the following race, ran from the pits and managed to get White out of her car, but not before she suffered serious third- and fourth-degree burns over nearly half of her body.

“Donnie Ray Crawford is the reason I’m here today,” White told MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “He’s the one that pulled me from the burning car, and if it wasn’t for his quick reaction I wouldn’t be here today. He’s truly my hero.”

Following the accident, White was in intensive care for 21 days at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, and underwent three skin graph surgeries, followed by six months of recovery, therapy and healing.

Since that fateful day, White has endured another 20 reconstruction surgeries.

“My injuries were a lot worse than I thought they were going to be,” Harli said. “I remember when the accident happened that I felt fine and I was ready to go back to racing but it was way worse than that.

“My injuries were on 45 percent of my body – deep third- and fourth-degree burns. The burns start at the back of my neck and go do down to my ankles, all on the backside, a little on the left side of my face as well.”

After her first surgery at Shriner’s Hospital, the first thing Harli did was tell her parents she intended to race again, something that obviously didn’t go over very well.

Harli White and her family during her recovery after her 2008 accident.

“Coming out of surgery, first thing she said was ‘how’s my car, can we fix it?’” recalled mother Michelle White. “I was totally against her racing again.

“There was no way it was going to happen. I told my husband to get rid of her equipment. When she brought it up, we would just change the subject.”

Then about nine months after her wreck, Harli gave her parents the most compelling reason to allow her to get back in a race car.

Said Michelle, “One day we were talking and she says to us, ‘You know what? I went through this accident, I’m the one who’s been through the pain. I’ve worked hard to recover. If you don’t let me race, I’m dead anyway.’ As a parent what can you say to that?”

Added Harli, “Giving up racing was never a thought in my mind. From the time the accident occurred, I was ready to get back in the race car and go again. Every day during that time I begged (her parents) to let me race again. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

Her parents reluctantly agreed to Harli’s wishes. And there was no other place she wanted to return to race for the first time since her accident than the same track and the same racing class nearly one year later.

She wasn’t going to let that track beat her – and her racing career has flourished ever since.

Among highlights of her career since then:

* In 2017, she became just the third woman in history to drive a full season in the Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series. She plans on running another full campaign this season.

* In 2013 she won the Oil Capital Racing Series Non-wing and Winged Sprint Car championship.

* White is the only female racer in modern history to reach the B Main at the Chili Bowl in 2016. Bev Griffis made the B in 1989, but the field consisted of just 80 cars at the time, compared to in excess of 340 in 2016.

* In this year’s Chili Bowl, she advanced to the D Main.

* She’s continued to run a small family-owned team (Harli White Racing) and this year landed her first major sponsor. She is running the CatSpotLitter.com Sprint Car in the Lucas Oil ASCS National Tour Series in a 360 Winged Sprint Car.

In addition to racing and due largely in part to all that she’s gone through in her life, White has also become an in-demand public speaker off the racetrack. She offers a message of spirit, perseverance and keeping the faith that obstacles can be overcome.

“I enjoy public speaking very much,” she said. “I do it as often as my race schedule allows. I typically speak to schools, churches and youth groups.

“I also like speaking to safety events that pertain to racing as well. I love sharing my story and hopefully move people and try and make racing as safe as possible.”

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This weekend, White will experience the biggest opportunity of her career.

White will compete in the “Shamrock Classic,” the USAC P1 Insurance Midget National Championship season opener Saturday in DuQuoin, Illinois. She’ll run the SiriusXM Toyota for Keith Kunz Motorsports, the most dominant and successful team in Midget racing.

KKM has helped launch the racing careers of numerous drivers, most notably NASCAR stars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell and two-time Chili Bowl winner Rico Abreu.

Harli hopes to have a lot more celebrations like this, perhaps even this weekend in DuQuoin, Illinois.

At this point, it’s a one-off deal for White, who will be filling in for Holly Shelton, who is recovering from recent shoulder surgery. Yet at the same time, it could potentially become a life- and career-changing race if White does well.

“Getting to run for Keith Kunz Motorsports and Toyota is the biggest opportunity in my career thus far,” White said. “It’s an opportunity that I have been working for, for a very long time.

“Even though it is currently just one race, it is for sure one of the biggest races for me because it is with the best team in midget racing. I am honored to be able to work with KKM and Toyota, and I hope more opportunities will come after the Shamrock Classic.”

Because she is a veteran dirt racer, it’s not like she’ll be coming in cold to Saturday’s race. In fact, with her talent and KKM’s equipment, she is positioned to do very well.

“I know as a driver the car will be the best it can be and it will be up to me to wheel the car and I know I am capable of doing so,” she said. “The pill draw (where you start your heat race from) is pretty important this weekend and I am hoping it works in my favor, but as a driver I have to race my race. I am looking for a good finish and just to be working with the whole KKM crew.”

White hopes to open enough eyes Saturday that could lead to a full-time ride with a top team, perhaps even KKM if the opportunity arises.

And while she loves sprint racing, Harli isn’t ruling out running in NASCAR or other series. The key, she says, to make her happy would be just to make a living at racing.

“My goal in racing is to be racing everywhere and anywhere,” White said. “As long as I can keep racing for a living, that is the ultimate dream.”

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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.”