NHRA plans to return to racing with fans in the stands, access to pits

NHRA
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While NASCAR prepares to play host to races without fans during the COVID-19 pandemic, the president of the National Hot Rod Association vows to resume drag racing in early June with fans in the stands and pits.

“Our goal is to go back racing with fans,” NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports, promising new social distancing measures for crowds that would be phased in slowly. “We are the most fan-friendly (sport). I think that’s what separates our sport from everybody else, the accessibility and interaction that our sport has. I just don’t see it (racing) happening without fans.

“If there was a model that worked for us and do it without fans, we would, of course, explore it, but right now we’re putting 100 percent of our efforts behind racing with fans, as soon as we can.”

NHRA is scheduled to return June 5-7 in Gainesville, Florida, with one of the largest races of the season, the Gatornationals.

The race originally was scheduled March 12-16 before the national event schedule was put on hold because of the pandemic.

NHRA president Glen Cromwell vows the sanctioning body will return to racing with fans in the stands in early June.

The NHRA is the largest sanctioning body in drag racing and oversees several racing series, most notably the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, which is primarily for professional teams and national events. It also includes the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, which oversees primarily sportsman and amateur racing.

The rescheduled Gainesville event will be followed by 16 more races – with several events potentially shortened from four or three days to just two – to make for a 19-race overall season. That would be five short of the usual 24-race schedule that has been in place for several years.

The first two races of the 2020 season — Pomona, California and Phoenix, Arizona — were completed before the hiatus. Including Gainesville, the series is slated to run four consecutive weekends: June 12-14 (Houston), June 19-21 (Bristol, Tennessee) and June 25-28 (Norwalk, Ohio).

After a week off, the NHRA schedule is slated to resume with four consecutive weekends: July 9-12 (Joliet, Illinois), followed by the annual “Western Swing” of July 17-19 (Denver), July 24-26 (Sonoma, California) and July 31-August 2 (Seattle).

Nine other events are planned afterward through mid-November. The annual six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs have been eliminated for this year.

If NHRA is unable to run both Gainesville and Houston because of pandemic restrictions, those events would be rescheduled in the fall.

“We’re trying to get back to racing ASAP,” Cromwell said. “Our race teams are chomping at the bit to get out there. I talk to them on a daily basis.

“We’re working with state and local officials as well as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) to make sure that when we do come back, we want to come back in a very responsible and safe way.

“We want to make sure our fans, race teams, sponsors, racetracks, employees, everybody is safe before we get back.”

If restrictions prevent NHRA from racing in some states, the sanctioning body already has a number of contingency and backup plans ready to be implemented, Cromwell said.

“Our goal is to put a schedule together that we believe is the most responsible and safe schedule we can,” he said. “If we go to a certain state that does not allow us to race with fans, we’ll have to make a decision at that time on how to address that.”

Cromwell said if the pandemic continues to keep states essentially closed, then the schedule could be reduced.

“Whether it’s 19 or 17 or 16 (races that eventually are run), we’re looking at everything,” he said. “As you get later into the year, the weekends get tighter. We think it’s important to make sure whatever we do, we keep the integrity of the championship in place, which we think we need quite a few events to make that happen.”

NHRA is expected to offer an update on its 2020 plan on May 4, and it won’t include racing without fans, Cromwell said.

Part of that is simple revenue dynamics that are unlike NASCAR, which is able to sustain itself off a multibillion-dollar TV rights package. NHRA doesn’t have that type of revenue stream, and the operational costs of revenue-driven events without paying fans would be too financially prohibitive.

That creates a conundrum of sorts, given that NHRA is arguably the most liberal major professional sport when it comes to allowing fans unfettered access that includes crowds of fans that cluster around race teams in the pits

Some of the most popular teams (such as John Force’s) draw crowds sometimes of 100 or more fans at a time shoulder to shoulder, eager to get a look or a driver autograph.

Racing with fans could come with risks.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, told the New York Times in a story Wednesday story that he remains concerned about holding pro sports during the pandemic.

“If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season,'” Fauci told the Times, adding, “I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Dr. Fauci said. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet.”

With social distancing one of the most significant ways to combat the virus, NHRA is looking at various ways to give fans access in a more controlled manner, particularly in the pits.

“If we’re going to do events with fans, we have to give our fans the ability to touch our sport the way they have,” Cromwell said. “To limit them, to close the pits, that is part of the value and excitement of what makes us different.

“That’s what’s appealing of coming to a Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event: meet the stars, see the crew guys work on the cars. To really take that away, I think, would be a disservice to the fans. It’s important we get them in those locations in a safe manner and take all the health protection we can put out there to make sure they’re safe.

“It’s going to be a phased-in program, a slow process. … We want to make sure fans feel comfortable around other people.”

The Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, essentially a minor league of sorts for amateur and sportsman racers, could be an important litmus test for the premier Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and its national events.

The first LODRS events – in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Las Vegas and Numidia, Pennsylvania – are scheduled on the same weekend as the planned Gatornationals, and will help NHRA devise a safety and participation baseline if they are successful without significant health repercussions.

“(LODRS events) usually have 300 to 500 cars, and fans can be 2,000 to 5,000 per day,” Cromwell said. “It would allow us the ability to make sure we’re comfortable (to run national events).

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of time on an NHRA health protection plan that is designed to make sure we are responsible for the race teams, tracks, employees, all the stakeholders, everything from wearing a mask to sanitizing solutions, just making sure everything is very clean and people feel comfortable. That will be a big part of it, making sure everyone feels comfortable coming back to the race track, which we will make sure that happens.”

Some tracks – particularly small, local facilities – already are planning on opening in the next few weeks, Cromwell said.

On April 15, Bill Bader Jr., owner of Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, announced he was opening the facility immediately for amateur and sportsman racers in the northern Ohio area, only to walk back those comments last weekend.

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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.”