Can Moves to Greener Racing Speed Up Development of Greener Cars?

By John O'Dell April 20, 2010

Seminar at  Long Beach Grand Prix Examines Possibilities

GOil_GETG_041910_main.jpgBy Brad Nelson, Contributor

Creating sustainable vehicles and related technology is no longer a stretch for many car manufacturers and suppliers.

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G-Oil car uses industry's only American Petroleum Institute approved bio-based, biodegradable engine lubricant.
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The bigger problem now is how to get consumers to understand, embrace and most importantly, plunk down their recession-depleted dollars for cleaner, more efficient vehicles that often carry a premium price for advanced technology content.  

Increasingly, members of the motorsports fraternity are saying that auto racing can help do for green cars what is has so often done for automotive performance, safety and handling - test and prove, or disprove, the technologies under the harshest and most demanding of circumstances.

Despite the move on many fronts toward sustainable transportation and fuels, the elephant in the room is the fact that consumers, despite any stated interest in getting greener, are reluctant to sacrifice the comforts of their normal modes of transport for something unproven, uncomfortable or un-fun.

Proving Ground

For much of the 20th century, racing served as a fast-paced proving ground for new automotive technology.

Car manufacturers used racing to valuable effect, touting the performance and technical innovations of their latest and greatest, often proving and refining ideas in the hyper-fast crucible of a top racing series.

But as automotive technology matured and racing became increasingly expensive in the '70's through the '90s, those same manufacturers (and now sponsors) wanted a better return on their investment, while spectators often demanded more entertainment value.

The inevitable result was a tightening of rules to improve "the show" and contain costs, while discouraging - and in some cases virtually banning - technical innovation.  

More recently, some racing series have struggled, in part due to a lack of interest in cars with technology stuck in another time period and with nothing to differentiate the cars.

Green at Warp Speed

With a real risk of becoming technically and even socially, irrelevant, racing needed a sustained shot of adrenaline - which brings us to the "Race has Gone Green" conference held Friday at the Long Beach Convention Center at the start of the annual Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend.
 
Porsche45.jpgNo. 45 Porsche of Flying Lizard Motorsports team won its class at the weekend's ALMS race in Long Beach for the second year in a row, and also took home the Michelin Green X Challenge trophy for the best performance with the least environmental impact as measured by fuel consumption.The car is shown here in a 2009 photo on the team Website.

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Technical and marketing experts from a variety of companies turned out at the Southern California venue  to discuss, with no apologies, how to make money through green racing initiatives.

It may sound a bit like greed, but it is actually an industry rediscovering what it says it does better than car companies: Technical innovation and development at, well, racing speed.  

The conference, put on by the Motorsports Industry Association out of the U.K with support from California-based Specialty Equipment Marketing Association (SEMA), Clemson University and others, featured an eclectic and interesting mix of panelists and guest speakers.

Going for Green

Mike Cooperman, representing market research firm J.D. Power & Assoc., said consumer attitudes "have shifted in the last 18 months" and that there's now a broader realization of the need for sustainable transportation solutions.  Consumers' buying habits, however, "have not changed along with" attitudes, so the breadth and depth of the market for such vehicles are still largely unknown.

Cooperman also noted some generational differences, citing in particular Generation Y, a group he said does not have the love affair with automobiles that others before them have.

""Their freedom," he said, "lies in their computer and telephone" rather than the car. But their awareness of environmental issues opens the door for more acceptance of sustainable technology.

Representatives from race car builders Swift Engineering and Lola Cars International talked about sustainable technology projects--some non-automotive--that use their expertise in building efficient aerodynamic shapes and lightweight structures.  "Motorsports has always been seen as the development platform for the auto industry," said Swift's Jan Refsdal.  

In addition to cutting weight for fuel savings, many of the materials also add to motor vehicle recyclability.

An obvious candidate is the material most purpose-built racing cars use extensively - carbon fiber.  Lola's Robin Brundle noted that his company now is able to recycle virtually 100 percent of the ultra-light and strong material, with no performance sacrifice in the parts with recycled content.

Electric Racing

Ford believes racing is the perfect place to quicken the pace of electric car development, said the company's director of North American Motorsports, Jamie Allison. Racing electric cars would help speed development of rapid battery-charging systems and battery weight reduction and heat management techniques, he suggested.

Allison also spoke proudly of the company's "democratization" of its recently introduced Eco-Boost engine technology - which applies the racing technique of turbocharging a  lightweight, small-displacement engine to achieve power and fuel economy.

The subject of electric-vehicle racing also was tackled by American Le Mans Series (ALMS) honcho Scott Atherton.  Although several panelists raised the challenge of making the new breed of sustainable vehicles exciting, pure electric cars pose one of the most vexing challenges for racing enthusiast acceptance--no engine "music."

Atherton noted that "sound is a defining element in racing," with many fans drawn to the sort in no small part by the exciting engine noises.  He suggested there is room to explore ideas to make electric cars sound exciting.  HOW???  It begs the question: Do electrons make noise as they are being spent?

A New Series?

Atherton also said interest in green racing is greatly increasing among stakeholders. He said ALMS promoters have been approached "by several manufacturers asking the ALMS to consider adding a one-make electric car series to the race weekends."

He wouldn't say who, but suspect those we manufacturers would include Tesla Motors , builder of the all-electric Tesla Roadster and Ford, which likes one-make race series and is preparing to launch a batter-electric version f the new Focus in 2012.

Mazda North America's Robert Davis, head product development and quality, said his company is striving to integrate sustainable technology with its "Zoom Zoom" performance marketing approach--one that involves more racing activity than perhaps any other car manufacturer.

He noted that Mazda is developing a new high-speed diesel engine called "Sky D" as a key part of its strategy and said that for the first time in the company's history, the engine will arrive in the market (after 2012) with a racing strategy already in place.

Davis also noted the importance of his company's efforts with iso-butanol fuel in a Mazda-powered racer in the ALMS this year.  And Mazda is "greening" its highly popular Spec Miata series with plans to measure the carbon footprint of the entire race weekend for each competitor.

Green Team

The American Le Mans Series used the occasion to introduce its new "Green Dream Team," a diverse group of drivers serving as ambassadors to help communicate the value of green racing for the series through the Michelin Green X Challenge for cars using alternative powerplants, alternative fuels and advanced-technology internal combustion engines..  

One of those team members, driver David Brabham, son of three-time Formula 1 champion and car builder Jack Brabham, helped spark the green racing movement within the ALMS back in 2004 with a passionate plea for the series to change its approach to racing by encouraging use of alternative fuels.

Another, Lord Paul Drayson, drives a cellulosic-ethanol powered car in the top LMP class in ALMS but for a day job serves in Britain's cabinet as Minister of State for Science and Innovation.  

He suggested that all levels of motorsport need to take a much stronger stance toward rule making that can truly spark innovation in green technology.

"Motorsports has a fantastic opportunity and, and if you will, a responsibility, to show that you can be green, fast, exciting and desirable," Drayson said. "Not only do you spur innovations that make a difference to road cars, but you change people's perceptions."

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