Will NASCAR Go Electric? Not Yet, But It's Sure Going Green

By · April 08, 2013

NASCAR Ford Focus Pace Car

This electric Ford Focus was the pace car at Richmond International Speedway in Virginia last year. Fusion Energi pace cars are part of the mix this year. (NASCAR photo)

In June and then again in August, NASCAR fans will descend on Michigan International Speedway (MIS), the sport’s fastest racetrack, to see big guns like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon battle it out. They’ll be driving 850-horsepower stock cars that, on a good day, get four to five miles a gallon.

The Greener NASCAR

That’s business as usual, but something’s happening at NASCAR. By now most fans know that the cars are running on high-performance Sunoco Green E15 ethanol, but that’s only part of the rather dramatic environmental makeover of this ultra-popular sport, which includes big solar installations, carbon neutrality (a tree planted for every lap led by a Toyota driver in April, for instance) and even grazing sheep.

Last April, at Richmond International Raceway, the pace car was a Ford Focus Electric, and at the aforementioned Michigan races it will be a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. MIS fans will even get a chance to win a Fusion Energi.

Too Quiet, With Range Anxiety

Pace cars don’t get a chance to win the checkered flag, but Mike Lynch, NASCAR’s managing director of green innovation, says it could happen. “We’re in brainstorm mode,” he said, acknowledging that EVs have both range and sound issues—they’re too quiet, in other words. “You don’t get the engine noise, but that opens up sound as part of the entertainment package.”

What he’s driving at, I think, is that you could pump up the heavy metal to build excitement—or generate a million watts of vroom, vroom if that’s what makes the races more exciting. One imagines that a field of 85-kilowatt-hour Tesla Model S cars could solve the range problem. Lynch adds, “Electric cars could be perfect for short races at tracks like Martinsville, because they offer full torque immediately, and can partially charge up using regenerative braking.”

Martinsville, in Virginia, is a half-mile oval, and the shortest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. “There are some good fits there for the properties of a plug-in car,” Lynch said. “It’s not on the table at the moment, but it’s intriguing.”

Formula E

Electric car racing is a reality, though, thanks to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Formula E Championship, a city-center electric racing championship that will debut in 2014 and tentatively includes races in Miami and Los Angeles (and six other locations around the world). These won’t be long races—probably around 15 minutes.

NASCAR UPS mobile solar rig

This UPS mobile solar rig is providing trackside services at NASCAR races. (NASCAR photo)

Back at NASCAR, where the environmental work is centered under the NASCAR Green banner, there’s plenty happening. Some 8,000 trees are supposed to be planted in 2013, and sponsor UPS is providing trackside services and delivery work with electric trucks running on mobile solar. “There will be carbon offsets on all shipping,” Lynch said. One mature tree absorbs a metric ton of carbon dioxide in its lifetime, and that’s about the same amount of CO2 emitted by a NASCAR Spring Cup car driving 500 miles.

Let the Sun Shine

My favorite aspect of all this is the on-track solar installations. Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania has a huge three-megawatt solar farm that provides all the track’s needs and is twice the size of the next-largest sports-related project, at Taiwan’s World Games Stadium. I’ve seen the 353-kilowatt system at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, with nearly 1,700 Panasonic panels that are within sight of 3,000 sheep that graze the infield and fire lanes around the track. MIS has 8,000 square feet of solar panels generating 40 kilowatts.

Darlington Raceway has 25 acres of switchgrass that’s popularly seen as one of the best feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol, and several acres of protected wetlands. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has 520 acres of conservation land on its 1,200-acre campus.

All this doesn’t mean macho NASCAR racers running on electricity anytime soon, but the spade work is being done.

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