NHRA missing in action: Where is Tony Schumacher?

NHRA
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While it has been a strong start to the 2019 NHRA season, something – or more precisely, someone – has been missing.

Five races into the season, NHRA fans have noticed big-time. They keep asking, “Where’s ‘The Sarge’?”

Indeed, where is “The Sarge” – a.k.a. Tony Schumacher, the winningest driver in NHRA Top Fuel history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins?

Schumacher has practically fallen off the face of the drag racing world. It would not be surprising to one day soon see his face on the side of a milk carton under a “Missing” banner. Or, maybe you might see his mug on a “Wanted” poster at your local post office.

Fortunately, nothing nefarious has happened to Schumacher. He hasn’t been kidnapped or taken hostage.

But the affable Schumacher, the cornerstone of the racing empire his father has built at Don Schumacher Racing, remains MIA. Instead of roaring down a 1,000-foot drag strip at 330 mph in his 11,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragster, the 49-year-old Schumacher sits at home in Austin, Texas.

He’s not retired. He’s not on strike. He’s not holding out for a raise.

Most importantly, Schumacher is not sidelined by choice.

Rather, he has become a victim of lack of sponsorship, the most high-profile driver in the sport without a ride or the corporate cash to run his dragster. After nearly two decades of racing proudly with U.S. Army backing, Schumacher is a victim, being held hostage from a lack of financing.

His father, as well as the rest of the DSR corporate team, has spent countless hours trying to find a way to put Tony back behind the wheel. But with five of the first 24 races of the 2019 season now history, it is looking more and more likely that – and very sadly, at that – Schumacher may not race again this year.

And if things don’t change, the longer Schumacher stays out, you can’t blame fans if they increasingly start to wonder if he may have competed in his last career drag race (last November’s season-ending finals at Pomona, California).

For the past two decades, Schumacher has been to Top Fuel what John Force has been to Funny Car: the winningest driver, the toughest competitor and the most popular driver in the class.

He was so synonymous with the Army that many fans believed he was an enlisted man when he wasn’t racing. He wore his trademark brush cut hair style with pride. He drove tanks, fired guns and visited troops all over the world, serving as an excellent ambassador for the sport.

But once the Army decided to pull out after the 2018 season and redirect its millions of dollars of sponsorship and engagement to other entities, everything that Schumacher had done for the black and gold simply and quickly vanished into oblivion.

And so Schumacher sits, waiting for a phone call or email from a new potential sponsor. So far, there hasn’t been one serious call, and with each passing race, one wonders if there ever will be.

Our goal is still the same,” a team spokesperson told NBC Sports. “We’re working toward finding a partner that can help us put Tony back on the track full-time and in championship form as soon as possible. At this time, we do not have any deals signed for Tony and his return date is (to be determined).

We feel that we have so much to offer a potential sponsor. Tony is the winningest Top Fuel driver of all time and is a marketer’s dream – well-spoken and an excellent brand ambassador both on and off the track as was evident during his nearly two decades representing the U.S. Army.

When a company aligns themselves with DSR, not only are they joining forces with the winningest team in NHRA history, but they’re aligning themselves with all of our corporate sponsors. … To any potential sponsor, we say ‘welcome.’ Now is the perfect time to get involved with NHRA Drag Racing.”

It’s not like Schumacher has forgotten how to win races. He won his eighth and most recent championship in 2014. From then to now, he’s won 12 races, albeit just one in each in 2017 and 2018.

But when it comes to 2019, he has goose eggs: no starts, no qualifying efforts, no final rounds and most importantly, no wins.

Although he has made a few appearances on NHRA TV broadcasts and also at-track public address announcing, Schumacher has done very few media interviews during his exile. It’s understandable. Would you want to talk about not being able to do what you love? Would you want to try and explain how the greatest driver in Top Fuel history isn’t racing, even when he’s still in his prime as a drag racer?

But he did tell NBC Sports: “I just love the sport. It hurts to be sidelined. In Houston we had an 18 car Top Fuel field, but every now and then when you have a 15-car field, it hurts to be sidelined knowing I could be there, I could’ve filled that spot. It’s a bit rough.

“I’ve been doing this a long, long time. I’ve done this for 20 years. I’ve missed my kids’ birthdays, I’ve missed so much of them growing up. I’m enjoying that now. I’m making the best out of an unfortunate situation.”

Some may think that with every race he misses as a competitor, he gets one race closer to just hanging up his firesuit for the last time.

But Schumacher said he has not given up on returning.

“We’ll be back out here,” he said. “I have faith we’ll put a nice deal together and we’ll come back out, I’m sure of that. We’ll win races and championships.

“But for now, I just keep booking things close to races. I booked the Phoenix Bike Week so I could be within four hours of the Vegas race if that phone call came in. I went to a wedding in Florida so I could be right by Gainesville if something came in.

“I’m not losing faith. I’ve got a great team; my dad, all of DSR. We have the best people out there looking, trying to find the right partner for us and until that time, I’m just going to sit on the sidelines and do some TV and announcing.”

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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.”