Column: The Greener Future of Motorsports

Photograph Courtesy Nissan

Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to face the reality that the motorsports we love are heavily resource-intensive undertakings. Sorry, that’s just how it is. I’m not here to preach, bum you out, or drive mad clicks with my scorching hot takes, but this is a discussion we need to have seriously and often, before it’s had for us.

In some ways, the wheels of a greener future for motorsports are already in motion at a professional level. The FIA and IMSA are heavily invested in more environmentally responsible technologies, not only in their premier competition products, but in ancillary technologies as well. The FIA’s Formula E series doesn’t just showcase alternative propulsion for its competition vehicles, but the entire series–from freight, infrastructure, travel of staff and spectators, and even the food being served at the events–is monitored for environmental impact, and structures evolve based on those findings.

Likewise, the IMSA Green Racing program leverages its affiliation with the EPA to monitor impact and develop new technologies in the fields of fuels, tires, transportation, and even paddock energy sources, like exploring alternatives to the traditional gas-powered generators found at race tracks.

But these are large, public-facing companies. And while I’d never call these gestures empty, no large public-facing company can really survive today without a coherent and visible environmental policy. The question is, “How do these policies help us?”

By “us,” of course, I mean amateur motorsports enthusiasts who may end up bearing the brunt of environmental crackdowns on motorsports. A healthy revenue stream and widespread TV coverage will excuse a lot of sins–just ask any pro athlete who’s ever had their gun accidentally fall out of their sweatpants in a strip club–but your local autocross club has no such luxuries.

Amateur motorsports are already feeling some of the punch. How many autocross clubs can’t get sites like they used to? Sure, part of that is simply sites aging out, or military bases no longer being accessible or whatever. But another big part of it is that not as many big parking lots are being built anymore. Ripping up greenspace and covering it with asphalt or concrete may be great for cone dodging, but there’s also a valid argument for it not being the most responsible stewardship of the planet. New parking lot construction tends to be more vertical than horizontal, and while the idea of autocrossing in a multi-story parking garage sounds intriguing, I’m not sure the longterm health of the sport would benefit from the thousands of concrete post slammings that would ensue.

Still, green technologies are finding their way into the most accessible levels of motorsports. David Marcus just won the first SCCA Solo Championship in an electric car when he defeated all comers in B Street in his Tesla Model 3. In the long run, I’m not sure what that “means,” but I know it’s kind of a big deal somehow.

Of course, no alternative propulsion technology is without its faults, although maybe that’s a discussion for a different column. While electric vehicles benefit from the economies of scale of large-quantity electric production, much of that electricity is still produced using fossil fuels. And, like it or not, the lithium that is so prevalent in electric car batteries–including my own daily-driver Nissan Leaf–is a conflict metal. It’s not exactly produced under the most ethical of conditions in many circumstances. So that’s another adjunct discussion we need to have at some point, too.

So, action items. What can we as amateur motorsports enthusiasts do to help ensure the future of the sports we love in the face of a world that’s become more environmentally conscious, and what can we do to try and be responsible stewards of that environment, knowing that we participate in a resource-intensive hobby? Here are a few thoughts.

  1. Embrace the future or it will crush you. Don’t like electric cars? Sorry. Tough. Accept the reality that they’re a growing part of transportation for the foreseeable future and enjoy the instant and boundless torque and the ability to refuel at your home.
  2. Be responsible where you can, and by doing so show that motorsports is about more than turning dinosaurs into noise (awesome noise, admittedly). In addition to my aforementioned Leaf, I also run our Z06 Corvette project on grain-based E85. A plug-and-play kit from Advanced Fuel Systems lets us use a fuel which is not only a bio-based, domestically produced renewable energy source, but makes more power as well, with less coolant and oil temp. It’s kind of win-win.
  3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I swear to God, if I hear one more person say some stupid crap about how some volcano erupted somewhere so why should they not constantly do burnouts in their Chevelle SS, I’m going to flip over a table. Volcanos, China, farting cows, or your neighbor down the street who pours his used oil down his shower drain do not give you permission to be a dirtbag. Make a difference where you can, and maybe by your tiny example you’ll inspire others. Heck, David Marcus won a Solo Championship in a Tesla that he says he really doesn’t enjoy driving all that much. Way to take one for the team, I guess?

Look, we’re not going to “solve” this issue with one column, or one Tesla, or one solar generator. That’s not even the idea. The idea is to show that we’re trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Pro motorsports will do just fine. They have enough money in the bank and enough eyeballs on TV to survive. But us folks without the big revenue machines stand to lose the most unless we can show we’re making an effort.

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Comments
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Error404
Error404 Reader
6/18/20 11:10 a.m.

I'm too stubborn at my young age, and too much of a car luddite too boot, to agree with your 1st point. Electric cars will be a good thing for urban commuting (for other people), once the industrial problems are addressed, but if my motorcycle lost its ICE I might as well strap pedals on it. Griping aside....

I do generally agree with your 2nd and 3rd points as being pretty common sense and I agree that we, as a community of enthusiasts, will likely feel more pressure sooner rather than later. Is being greener off-track going to satisfy the inevitable demands of the eco crowd? I can't imagine this is a new question so, if I were motivated, I would look at the last 30-50yrs of motorsports to extrapolate some guesses. Heck, is it greener that we keep these older cars going rather than rushing out to be good consumers and replace whole cars rather than components? 

In short, this is an important subject and I look forward to reading your column. 

 

jharry3
jharry3 HalfDork
6/18/20 11:58 a.m.

I think people like the noise and vibration of a revving engine, both while driving and while watching the race.

It will take a generational paradigm shift to go to electric racing.

TurnerX19
TurnerX19 Dork
6/18/20 12:08 p.m.

Electric race cars for the amateur are here now. The EVSR has been competing in SCCA regional races in the north east for 5 years, and also in NASA. It runs at Spec Racer speeds and can be turned up much faster for hill climbs. It has run Pikes Peak and Mt Washington. Now available with a new much more attractive body. OK, I have skin in the game, I designed the body, but have yet to drive the car. Photos are the first new body from the mold, with me making "whirrr, whirrr" noises. It has real sound above 40 MPH.

MrFancypants
MrFancypants Reader
6/18/20 12:09 p.m.

I enjoy the sound of my car's engine, which I cannot hear through a helmet with the windows down at 100+ MPH on the back straight of my local track, so my car may as well already be electric.  My current issue with electric powered cars at the track is that they're unaffordable, and the ones I can almost afford can't do more than two or three hot laps without overheating the batteries and pulling power.  It sounds like Porsche has figured that out, but I don't have Taycan money.

Personally, I don't really care about going hypercar fast.  Just build me an electric Miata that weighs the same as the piston powered version and maybe goes a smidge faster, I'd be happy.

TurnerX19
TurnerX19 Dork
6/18/20 12:11 p.m.

In reply to MrFancypants :

See EVSR above. 45 minutes of race time at Spec racer Ford speeds.

MrFancypants
MrFancypants Reader
6/18/20 12:16 p.m.
TurnerX19 said:

In reply to MrFancypants :

See EVSR above. 45 minutes of race time at Spec racer Ford speeds.

Sure, "affordability" is a somewhat pliable idea....  but the value of the car I have is less than $10k and I can legally drive it to the track.  Obviously at some point if I go to electric I'm going to have to lay out more cash, but a toy that isn't street legal requires a tow vehicle and a trailer, in addition to the purchase price of the toy isn't something I can swing right now.

I don't meant to diminish the value and significance of what you're doing here though, I think it's pretty amazing and I hope to see more like it come along in the near future.  It's just not within my reach at the moment.

ProDarwin
ProDarwin UltimaDork
6/18/20 12:22 p.m.

Well said JG.  #3 is exactly what I think of when I see stuff like this:  https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/forum/grm/gender-reveal-burnout-pics-vids-lots-of-smoke-lots-of-turbos/165657/page1/

Apexcarver
Apexcarver UltimaDork
6/18/20 12:43 p.m.

Motorsports will endure as long as we have user controlled vehicles, regardless of the manner of propulsion. 

 

The thing that strikes me is that, disregarding autocross, racecars and streetcars are becoming more separated as time goes by. More airbags, things integrated into seats, radars, ultrasonic sensors, cameras, land departure warning, lanekeep assist, etc etc etc...  Now, what will this lead to? Well, we are already somewhat seeing an increase in vintage racing, especially from the more grassroots side. Its just proving that the older, more simple cars are cheaper to buy/build/maintain.  I am not really seeing what I eventually expect yet, or I dont have the insight into the market to observe it, but I am expecting a rise in built for purpose cars in the budget segment. 

 

With usual street platforms needing more work to be a racing platform, its going to make more sense to start from scratch. I guess that will happen at some point. That point will probably approach as the simpler machines from the 90's start drying up a bit in availability. 

 

Electric racing?  Yup, gonna be a thing. If it motivates a vehicle, its going to be adapted into a racing chassis at some point. The lack of noise might make it less fun to watch, but it wont really make it that much less fun to drive.  I would LOVE a crack at driving the VW IDR.

 

 

 

Now, autocross, well electric can ROCK in sprint formats like that, but yeah, sites might dry up a bit.  It might be that we find out if theres a market to support sites like Kart tracks for lower speed car events, something where you average autocross and hillclimb. Purpose venue, lower the risk, possibly increased price to support infrastructure, but imagine being able to go do runs at a purpose venue on a weekday. Thats a possible future. 

 

If theres a will, theres a way. I think there will always be a will to pilot a vehicle at the edge of a performance envelope. It will adapt. 

Snowdoggie
Snowdoggie Reader
6/18/20 12:56 p.m.

A lot of drag strips have shut down in my area in the last few years in the name of "property development", but street racing arrests and deaths are up. If there is no place to race the kids will still find a place to race. It may not be safe or legal but it is happening. No entry fees for street racing and you don't have to pay an inflated fee plus insurance to secure a venue. Throw in the fact that many cities will be putting fewer police on the streets for financial and political reasons and an increasing general disregard for authority,  and you have your future of motorsports right there. It isn't pretty. 

TurnerX19
TurnerX19 Dork
6/18/20 1:09 p.m.

In reply to MrFancypants :

Rent your track car. EVSR rentals are affordable if you are here in the north east USA. Arrive and drive is cheaper until you get to more than 5 races per year.

alfadriver (Forum Supporter)
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
6/18/20 1:55 p.m.
jharry3 said:

I think people like the noise and vibration of a revving engine, both while driving and while watching the race.

It will take a generational paradigm shift to go to electric racing.

I think all it will take is the real change in battery technology.  Once they become cheap enough for normal engine swaps, and dense enough to last for hudreds of miles of racing, then they will be more than hillclimb, drag racing, and short race spectacles.

I'm confident it will happen.  But not in the very near future.

My issue with Formula E has little to do with battery.  

RyanGreener (Forum Supporter)
RyanGreener (Forum Supporter) Reader
6/18/20 3:31 p.m.

I'll welcome electric cars as mainstream as commuters when it becomes easier and practical. As far as racing them goes (and watching them race) I'll probably tune out for that. The sound/emotion is what really does it for me. Motorsports can probably stick around in current form if they do better by reducing the environmental cost of everything else they do, cause theres a lot of things in the world that pollute way more than cars in general (cruise ships, for example)

Purple Frog (Forum Supporter)
Purple Frog (Forum Supporter) Reader
6/18/20 8:11 p.m.

i thought the title of the thread was about RyanGreener...

 

RyanGreener (Forum Supporter)
RyanGreener (Forum Supporter) Reader
6/18/20 8:33 p.m.

In reply to Purple Frog (Forum Supporter) :

Haha, doubtful.

alfadriver (Forum Supporter)
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
6/18/20 8:46 p.m.

In reply to RyanGreener (Forum Supporter) :

FWIW, all ships are regulated now.  But, as pointed out in the editorial, lets not stop us from doing something.

CrustyRedXpress (Forum Supporter)
CrustyRedXpress (Forum Supporter) Reader
6/18/20 9:07 p.m.

Good article. Absurd to ignore the future, especially when it involves so much torque at such low RPM. 

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
6/18/20 9:11 p.m.

In reply to Error404 :

Electric cars will be faster, Yawn ! You're preaching to the choir  minister. I mean we can have a semi valid discussion about the environmental costs of those cars. But in the end just because it's not yet perfect doesn't mean I don't want an plug and play race car.  Well except that whole Offenhauser, Duesenburg, Jaguar, Ferrari, thing. 
That and well,  the smell of castor bean oil.  ( Have you ever smelled that in the early morning at Elkhart Lake) ? Preferably out of a Bugatti Type 35.   Until you do you really are lacking.  
 
As for burning E85.?  Go back and read my early postings about the magic of corn juice!  I'm surprised no one has told me to shut up about it.  Well one guy asked if I had any connection to the ethanol industry.   
 

But I will remain a bit of a dirt bag. At least I want to race old vintage cars. With pistons and valve springs.  Wire wheels and leaf springs. 20 Years after slicks were on every race car at an SCCA event I showed up with a set of New Old Stock treaded Goodyear Blue Streaks and had fun. 

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
6/19/20 12:12 p.m.

In the spirit of full disclosure, part of my interest in electric propulsion is to offset my future eco-guilt over the 8500-rpm 366 c.i.-powered tube frame GT-1 car I will have someday.

Apexcarver
Apexcarver UltimaDork
6/19/20 2:49 p.m.

Actually, heres an angle where the electric car will save motorsports...

 

noise.   chief thing that has NIMBY's shutting down tracks. 

chada75
chada75 Reader
6/20/20 9:35 p.m.

In reply to Apexcarver :

The reasons you listed are the ones to have Karting explode in popularity in the near Future. Simple, Economical relative to Cars, and Quick.

CrustyRedXpress (Forum Supporter)
CrustyRedXpress (Forum Supporter) Reader
6/20/20 10:04 p.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Carbon credits-way cheaper than you think. 

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
6/20/20 10:37 p.m.

Electric cars are impressive, and I'd probably have no issue using one for a commuter sometime in the foreseeable future once the infrastructure needs, etc are where I need them to be to make it more convenient for me than a gasoline engine (and once there are electric cars that I both like/think are cool *AND* can afford (I can't think of any at the moment that really meet that description, honestly).

For racing....meh, my current race car is 35 years old. So....having new tech isn't really a concern of mine anyhow. I'd rather have something organic and old-school than modern tech that might (IS) faster. I could certainly choose other more modern cars to race that are faster than my e30, but that's not really the point for me, since nobody is paying me for winning races. I'd rather drive something that is actually fun. 

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
6/21/20 5:10 a.m.
jharry3 said:

I think people like the noise and vibration of a revving engine, both while driving and while watching the race.

It will take a generational paradigm shift to go to electric racing.

As long as there are racetracks that are still open, that haven't been closed down due to noise complaints.

 

See, we needed electric cars a generation or two AGO, just for that factor.

TurboFocus
TurboFocus HalfDork
6/21/20 10:21 a.m.

i generally welcome electric cars, only because my RC car takes off like a rocket and I want that in my real car. plus the whine the motor makes is cool in its own way.

however, im not sure how i feel about the 'im not here to drive anyone mad' comments couple with 'embrace it or you'll be crushed. sorry, tough.'
it just rubs me as being incredibly hypocritical when you claim you're not here to ruffle feathers and then have an inciteful comment in the same story; ymmv.

Dave M (Forum Supporter)
Dave M (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
6/21/20 12:59 p.m.

Electric cars are going to continue to be successful not because they are greener than ICE cars, but because of:

-public perception and resulting government subsidies, particularly in China but also the developed world.

-they are better for urban driving. That's why I own one. As JG said, fuel up at home and torque for days. Not to mention the heater and AC are instant and amazing. Not to mention the almost complete lack of maintenance. It adds up to a fantastic ownership experience.

-they promise to be green AND fun, not just green. The Prius is as efficient as we need a car to be. But it's as fun as a colonoscopy. That's why the limousine liberal crowd immediately switched to Tesla. Fun and green.

Until battery tech is super duper advanced, however, there's not much substitute for liquid fuels for energy density. Enough so that unless your electric application is really brief (autocross, maybe drag), how could it hope to compete? So we've got some time. Unfortunately, the car companies don't want to spend money on non-electric racing, so top level racing will shrink and move towards the SRO customer team model.

 

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
6/21/20 1:10 p.m.

In reply to Dave M (Forum Supporter) :

The car companies don't want to spend money on electric racing because watching electric cars race is about as exciting as watching a Merry-go-round . 
 

The new generation doesn't have any hero's to cheer for Luke Earnhardt or Foyt or Dan Gurney. So even NASCAR attendance is falling. Indy 500 isn't selling out anymore and Formula 1  is basically all spec cars that are computer controlled. Yawn 

Dave M (Forum Supporter)
Dave M (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
6/21/20 1:20 p.m.
frenchyd said:

In reply to Dave M (Forum Supporter) :

The car companies don't want to spend money on electric racing because watching electric cars race is about as exciting as watching a Merry-go-round . 
 

The new generation doesn't have any hero's to cheer for Luke Earnhardt or Foyt or Dan Gurney. So even NASCAR attendance is falling. Indy 500 isn't selling out anymore and Formula 1  is basically all spec cars that are computer controlled. Yawn 

I'm not a fan of Formula E, but it's attracted a huge amount of manufacturer support. Cheap and sending the right message for them. F1 remains super popular, although the budgets there are probably unsustainable, even with the new cost caps.

MrFancypants
MrFancypants Reader
6/21/20 4:22 p.m.
frenchyd said:

In reply to Dave M (Forum Supporter) :

The car companies don't want to spend money on electric racing because watching electric cars race is about as exciting as watching a Merry-go-round . 
 

The new generation doesn't have any hero's to cheer for Luke Earnhardt or Foyt or Dan Gurney. So even NASCAR attendance is falling. Indy 500 isn't selling out anymore and Formula 1  is basically all spec cars that are computer controlled. Yawn 

I find that the off track engineering battles in F1 are more interesting than the on track racing, as they definitely aren't spec cars.  Every team has their own bespoke chassis, in contrast to Indycar where they all run the Dallara DW12.

Unfortunately the details of the engineering and development aspect of F1 doesn't come out until years later. 

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