Steve Torrence can clinch first NHRA Top Fuel championship this weekend

Photos courtesy Torrence Motorsports
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Steve Torrence won 8 of 24 races (a .333 winning percentage) last year in the NHRA Top Fuel ranks, four more than his closest rival, Brittany Force.

But due to her success in last year’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Force ultimately went on to win the championship while Torrence was relegated to second place.

That taught Torrence a very valuable lesson, one that still leaves a sour taste in his mouth to this day whenever he talks about it.

That’s why in 2018, Torrence has upped his game. He enters this weekend’s NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – the second-to-last race of the season – having won 9 of the first 22 races (a .410 winning percentage), including being the first driver in NHRA Top Fuel or Funny Car history to win the first four races in the Countdown.

Steve Torrence is potentially on his way this weekend to winning his first NHRA Top Fuel championship.

Now, the 35-year-old Torrence is poised to seal the deal and win the championship that evaded him last season – and with one race to boot. The Longview, Texas native currently leads the Top Fuel ranks by 169 points over closest rival, Clay Millican.

Given that 191 points will be available for the taking at the season-ending NHRA Auto Club Finals in two weeks (Nov. 8-11) in Pomona, California, if Torrence can leave Las Vegas Sunday with a 192-point lead, he’ll clinch his first career Top Fuel championship and second NHRA crown of his career (he won the Top Alcohol Dragster title in 2005).

“Honestly, I thought about it a whole lot last year when we had the run we had, we won 8 races out of 24, and the next-best car won just four and then we ended up losing the championship at the final race,” Torrence told NBC Sports. “I let that get in my head a little bit last year, it distracted me from what we needed to do and I think it distracted the team.

“This year, we’ve been able to put that out of our mind. None of that matters until Sunday afternoon at Pomona. You still have to go out and race. Yeah, there’s a championship at stake, but you still have to win races.

“We’re there to win rounds and races. If you quit looking at the big picture and just look at what you have to do each round, the rest of that stuff handles itself.”

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While he concedes “we definitely have the momentum” heading into Las Vegas, Torrence is staying true to his one round and one race at a time mantra.

“At the end of the day, you have to stay focused on what you’ve got to do,” he said.

McMillan has proven to be a strong competitor, but he only has two wins to Torrence’s nine – with the potential Torrence could reach 10 wins Sunday and potentially 11 wins at Pomona. If that were to happen, Torrence would wrap up the championship with a .458 national event winning average in 2018.

“We’ve had some rounds that went our way when we needed them to, but we’ve also been where we needed to be, had the car where it needed to be and I’ve risen to the occasion when I needed to,” he said humbly yet firmly. “I’m not going to say we just went out and dominated, but we’ve had the stuff we needed to have, when we needed to have it.

“You just keep the same mentality we’ve had. I’m not worried about what Clay (Millican) or the next guy is doing. That’s been a recipe for success for us, just focus on what we’ve got to do. If you can win all six (playoff races), you don’t have to worry about counting points.”

Team Torrence.

After racing for others early on in his career, he formed Torrence Motorsports at the end of 2011 and went full-time the following season. He’s been a staple in the Top Fuel ranks ever since.

“Six years ago, I just wanted to win a race, one race,” Torrence said. “If I could win a race, I would have accomplished my goal.

“Now, I’m 25 wins into this deal now. If I can win one championship, that’ll be the icing on the cake. If we can pull it off, it’s going to be unbelievable. You just set small goals, work towards them and then you can get those bigger ones accomplished.”

After virtually every one of his 25 wins to date, one of the things Torrence has become known for is immediately thanking crew chief Richard Hogan and the rest of the team – Steve likes to call them his family – for its efforts.

“Some of these guys have been with me since Day One,” he said. “The continuity between all these guys and how they work together, I’d put them against anybody. I think they’re not paralleled out there at all.”

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Which dovetails into the second part of the “family” equation for Torrence. His father, Billy, is a long-time drag racer, primarily in the Sportsman ranks.

“My dad taught me how to race,” Steve Torrence said. “I grew up going to the races with him and just learning to work on cars, all the stuff we do and being able to be submersed in all that. That’s just what you naturally gravitate toward. Whatever your dad does, if you get to do it together and do it for fun, that’s what you enjoy doing.”

The Torrence boys, Steve, left, and dad Billy.

When Steve son moved into Top Fuel, it didn’t take long before Billy wanted to join his son not just at the racetrack, but also ON the racetrack.

Usually, it’s the other way around, where a son follows a father. But in this case, it was father following his son.

Said Steve, “When I got to Top Fuel, I told him, ‘Man, you need to get in my car and make a pass. There’s nothing like it.’”

Steve obviously did a good selling job, as Billy has since gone on to begin his own Top Fuel racing tenure, albeit on a part-time basis.

“It was a fun, enjoyable steep learning curve that he didn’t have a whole lot of time to learn,” Steve Torrence said of his father’s first few Top Fuel efforts. “He didn’t have the luxury that I did to get out there and really get his feet wet.

“We just trialed him by fire and said, ‘Here it is, drive it!”

Father and son have faced each other twice to date in Top Fuel competition, with Steve winning both times. But Steve admits he worries about the day his father potentially lights the win light first against him.

“One of my best friends and most fierce competitors is Antron (three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown),” the younger Torrence said. “Racing my old man is going to be like racing Antron because I don’t need to remind you I live across the street from my dad and work with him every day.”

Then, Steve adds with a hearty laugh, “In the event he were to beat me, it would not be good for me. I’d have to deal with all the people that would talk crap to me – and him. I’m not going to let that happen. I’ll cut his tire or drain his fuel first. I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do.”

Steve, Mama Kay and Billy Torrence.

The other part of the high-speed Torrence family business is Steve’s mother, Kay, more affectionately known as “Mama Kay.”

“She runs the show,” Steve Torrence said of his mother. “She’s the biggest cheerleader, she motivates all the guys, keeps everyone’s mind right, she’s a big support group for everybody.

“She sends out daily Bible verses to everybody. She keeps us all in-check and makes sure we’re doing the right thing. She’s having just an unbelievable time.

“I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I’m going to attribute a lot of our success to her being there and just keeping the morale of all the guys good.”

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Growing up, Torrence idolized former Top Fuel and Funny Car champ Kenny Bernstein – also a Texas native.

It was Bernstein’s drive for perfection and running a first-class operation that Torrence has patterned his own racing operation after.

“It wasn’t just what Kenny accomplished but the way he ran his show, the appearance and the professionalism of everything he did,” Torrence said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s ‘the man’ and always ran the best operation out there. He’s kind of set the bar.”

Now, Steve Torrence is on the precipice of joining Bernstein as a NHRA Top Fuel champion. While he’s not conceding anything, he knows what has to be done.

“The job is to go win the race,” Steve Torrence said. “I’m seeing articles about what I have to do and what other drivers have to do to win their own championships this weekend.

“I mean it’s cool to read all that, but none of that really matters. I just have to win the race and let it handle itself. I’m not saying that’s what we’re going to do, but that’s our mindset is to go there, qualify well and go four rounds.

“You can’t see the forest for the trees, but you’ve got to chop the forest down one tree at a time, and that’s what we’re doing.”

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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.”