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Racing to Relevancy

Some of us remember a time when auto racing was the breeding ground for future technologies. Inventions like disc brakes, designed and developed at the track, went on to benefit the everyday motorist. In recent years, that scenario has not only been reversed, (studying the potential for using airbags in racecars, for example), but many of the more recent automotive technologies, like traction control, have been banned from motorsports, as sanctioning bodies search for a parity that will keep competition close and entertainment value high.

Now, with the industry’s shift to the development of more fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles, motorsports finds itself questioning its relevance in the real world.

What role, if any, can motorsports play in the world’s energy-efficient future, was the topic of a panel discussion at the 2004 SAE Motorsports Engineering Conference and Exhibition, held November 30 through December 4, in Dearborn, Mich. That centered around the results of the Motorsport Industry Association’s (MIA) 40- page Energy Efficient Motorsport (EEMS) feasibility study that explored some possible scenarios for incorporating energy-efficient technology relevant into European racing.

In the short term, the report suggests the introduction of a “green class” into one of the European Touring Car Championships and a presence at LeMans. The 24 Hours of LeMans ranks as the premier event for showcasing future technology and would be the perfect place to demonstrate such technologies as alternative fuels, lightweight vehicles, hybrid powertrains and regenerative braking systems. A tougher challenge will be to find a way to incorporate fuel economy into racing. Racing, while efficient in its own parameters, isn’t efficient with respect to everyday driving.

The EEMS study suggests a series with a fundamental regulation, limiting the amount of energy allowed per race (e.g., caloric value or battery capacity).

But will a track full of race cars racing the gas gauge instead of each other lack the excitement that race fans demand?

That certainly won’t fly in North America.

Big-time racing here is all about entertainment, not about technology. Sure, there’s some pretty impressive horsepower coming out of NHRA top fuel dragsters, but how does that relate to the real world? America’s premier series, NASCAR, has outlawed traction control and other electronic technologies that are becoming standard equipment on most of the cars that they’re supposed to represent. The thought of NASCAR allowing the use of hybrid drivetrains or regenerative braking is laughable, considering that they haven’t even embraced technologies like fuel injection. Not to mention that the benefits of a hybrid-electric drivetrain would be almost nonexistent on a racetrack.

The Indy 500 has a history of showcasing some unique racing machinery, but the rigid formula of today’s Indy Racing League doesn’t allow for any innovative technology. Even if it did, I don’t see any North American manufacturer investing the money that would be necessary to bring a winning energy-efficient car to Indianapolis, knowing that the technology would probably be banned if it won.

While the EEMS study puts the blame for a lack of innovation in racing on rigid formulas, it’s these rigid formulas that keep racing exciting. When the rules are relaxed, you don’t get racing that reflects the real world, you get Formula One cars with so much electronic chassis wizardry that they can be driven by remote control from the pits.

If racing is searching for its relevancy in the real world, we must ask what the real world has to gain from racing. Bunkhall admits that the benefits of hybrid-electric systems are lost on the race track. Alternative fuels make sense in Europe as a diesel-driven society searches for cleaner air. But do they need racing to prove that alternative fuel is the answer?

I have a feeling that the MIA’s push for relevancy is tied to the potential $3 billion dollars in “green” sponsorship that’s out there. Now that’s something that might drive future technology into American racing.

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