NHRA: Top Fuel driver Clay Millican hopes Chicago is his kinda town again

NHRA
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JOLIET, Illinois – Clay Millican not only holds the elapsed time record for a Top Fuel dragster in NHRA competition – 3.62 seconds down a 1,000-foot drag strip – he also holds the unique distinction of being the quickest and fastest forklift driver ever in the sport.

Okay, a bit of clarification about that.

It was back in 1998 and Millican was working as a forklift driver at a Kroger Foods warehouse near his Drummonds, Tennessee home. He had long sought to make his passion of drag racing his full-time job. Within one week’s time, he saw that dream become a reality. He earned his Top Fuel competitors license, quit his job at Kroger and competed in his first-ever NHRA race at what was then the brand new Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

And he’s never looked back – or had to worry about going back to driving a forklift – again.

Over the next 21 seasons, Millican earned six Top Fuel championships and 50 national event victories in the rival International Hot Rod Association. Now, the 53-year-old Millican is going for his first NHRA championship, and enters this weekend’s Route 66 Nationals fourth in the Top Fuel points, having reached the final round in three of the season’s first eight races.

Oh yes, and he’s also defending winner of this race, having captured his second career NHRA national event win at Route 66 last year.

This place is so special for me, I love this place,” Millican said of Route 66, which when he and the track both debuted 21 years ago, it was called the “first stadium of drag racing.”

This weekend, it’ll be kind of deja vu for Millican, as his dragster will carry the same sponsor it had when he made his debut 21 years ago: backing from Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox.

 

Millican threw out the first pitch Thursday night at the White Sox game at their Guaranteed Rate Field home.

I’m more nervous doing that than going 330 mph,” Millican told NBC Sports a few hours before the game.

But as it turns out, he didn’t have to worry. He tossed a perfect strike.

 

Now, starting with the first two rounds of qualifying today and going through the weekend, Millican is looking to hit drag racing’s version of a home run with his second consecutive win at Route 66.

We’re calling this the unfinished business tour,” Millican said. “(Crew chief Mike Kloeber) and I never won an NHRA event together, although we won 50 IHRA events and six championships together.

We just never had the opportunity to chase NHRA full-time. Now, I feel we’re in a great position, I’m having fun and it’s great to have early success actually quicker than I thought I would.”

In addition to Kloeber, Millican also has former Kalitta Racing vice president Jim Oberhofer working with his team as a consultant.

Millican finished third last season in the NHRA standings. Ironically, he did so well that legendary Funny Car driver John Force hired away Millican’s entire team during the off-season to come to work for John Force Racing.

That shows the people we had were awesome,” Millican said.

Millican had to rebuild his team from the ground up, and the first guy he called was Kloeber, who had been out of drag racing for seven seasons. Together, they formed a new team and the results so far have not only been encouraging, Millican feels he can reach the winner’s circle come the conclusion of this weekend’s race on Sunday afternoon.

It’s all about the right time and the right people,” Millican said. “People are everything. A driver is a small part of how these cars operate. So it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people.”

But he knows it won’t be an easy thing to do.

The competition in Top Fuel the last two or three years has probably been the most competitive in history,” Millican said. “As far as where we fit in, we’re certainly more towards the underdog side of things, in that we’re a single-car team, we have no way of gathering extra data the other big teams do.

We’re the White Sox vs. the Yankees out there. We’re out there kind of by ourselves and don’t have the unlimited parts and pieces that those big teams do, but we do it with ‘want-to.’ That’s a line my momma has always said about me, that if I wanted to do this so badly, I’d figure out a way to make this happen – and we want to. We want to win and do well and that’s just digging deep and doing it with the parts and pieces you have.”

Millican hopes to relive some of his past success with Kloeber from their IHRA days this Sunday. The pair literally picked up where they left off, even though they had been apart for the better part of a decade until Millican called his old buddy and asked him to help him out.

Or, as Millican put it so astutely:

This year is kind of a refresher for me,” he said. “When you run off into the ditch, you call your friend. That’s what he did, I called Mike Kloeber. I was in a ditch and he pulled me out. When you’re in trouble, you call your buddies.”

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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.”