Are you a racer looking for the fountain of youth? Try NHRA drag racing

Photos courtesy NHRA
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It used to be that many of the big-name race car drivers routinely raced into their 50s, most notably in NASCAR.

Richard Petty raced until he was 55. The late David Pearson was 54 when he last raced in NASCAR.

But these days, we’re seeing the majority of professional racers calling it quits in their early-to-mid 40s – like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and most recently, Jamie McMurray.

But that’s not the case for competitors in the National Hot Rod Association. Like fine wine, it seems that the kings of the drag strip only seem to get better and more successful with age.

To them, the “r word” is not “retire,” it’s “reaction time.”

Consider many of today’s stars in the NHRA and their respective ages:

* Funny Car legend John Force will turn 70 in May. And while he hasn’t won a championship since 2013, Force remains one of the biggest forces – no pun intended – in the sport.

Fellow Funny Car drivers still seemingly in their prime include Ron Capps (53 years old), Jack Beckman (52), Tim Wilkerson (turns 58 on Dec. 29), Cruz Pedregon (55) and Gary Densham (62).

* In Top Fuel, the winningest driver and record eight-time champ Tony Schumacher will turn 49 on Dec. 25. Those already on the other side of the 50-year-old line include Clay Millican (52), Doug Kalitta (54), Terry McMillen (64), Billy Torrence (60) and Cory McClenathan (turns 56 on Jan. 30).

Chris Karamesines

And let’s not forget the oldest active drag racer on the NHRA professional circuit (albeit part-time rather than full-time), Chicago native Chris Karamesines, who is still racing a Top Fuel dragster at 300-plus mph at the spry young age of 87 years old!

Yes, you read that right, Karamesines is 87 – but could easily pass for 67 – and he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.

* Ironically, the slower Pro Stock class is not as well-represented in the 50-and-over group as is Top Fuel and Funny Car, with only two regulars who have passed the half-century mark: four-time champ Greg Anderson (57) and Kenny Delco (65).

But that 50-and-above fraternity will add at least one other member next year when former champ Jason Line turns 50 on July 24. And five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. will turn 50 in 2020.

Jerry Savoie

* Even the easy riders of Pro Stock Motorcycle have several 50-and-over competitors: Scotty Pollacheck (turns 50 on Feb. 8), 2016 champ Jerry Savoie (turns 60 on Feb. 23), Karen Stofer (54), Steve Johnson (turns 58 on Jan. 19) and Hector Arana (60).

Granted, drag racers don’t have the same grueling time spent behind the wheel. Their average run lasts from just over 3.5 seconds to maybe eight or nine seconds.

And unlike driving 400 or 500 laps or miles as in NASCAR, a full four-round race during Sunday eliminations for NHRA racers adds up to one whole mile – or less.

Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers only go a distance of 1,000 feet per run, while Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle go a full quarter-mile (1,320 feet) in their respective runs.

In a sense, hitting the 5-0 mark or higher has become somewhat of a fountain of youth for several racers.

For example, Capps won his first career Funny Car crown in 2016 at the age of 51.

The same year, Savoie won his first career PSM title at the age of 57.

And Force won his most recent Funny Car title in 2013 at the age of 64.

Force has already gone on record to say that he wants to become the first major pro champion to win a title at 70 years old – which would also become the 17th championship of his illustrious career as the winningest driver in all NHRA history.

He gets a chance toward doing just that when the 2019 NHRA season kicks off at Pomona, California, on Feb. 7-10.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.”