Credit to Author: Steve Hanley| Date: Fri, 14 Feb 2020 18:00:19 +0000
Published on February 14th, 2020 | by Steve Hanley
February 14th, 2020 by Steve Hanley
“Things in this life change very slowly if they ever change at all,” the Eagles sang in 1979. Those lyrics perfectly describe NASCAR racing, which still treasures its roots in the days of Prohibition when moonshiners risked their lives to outrun Eliot Ness and his revenue agents. For decades, NASCAR has remained a rock in the fast flowing stream of technological change, fiercely resisting any changes that might diminish its allure. No dual overhead camshafts or rack and pinion steering for its cars. It stubbornly resisted the adoption of electronic fuel injection until 8 years ago, decades after it became commonplace on the lowliest family sedans.
Last fall, the sport announced it was considering adding some form of hybrid technology to the cars, a move greeted with hoots of derision from some fans, like the one who told a reporter from The Washington Post last week in Daytona to look out at the cars in the parking lot. “You don’t see Toyota Priuses; you see diesels and trucks. No yuppie millennials that are worried about the battery pack and gas mileage. The people who want to come and watch racing…..probably 90 percent are just regular people.” Regular people who drive diesel powered pickup trucks, that is.
First of all, let’s get something straight right up front. NASCAR is not considering the route Formula One took several years ago when it made hybrid powertrains with electric motors and battery packs a central part of its motorsports package. The changeover from screaming 10-cylinder engines to hybrids prompted one prominent F1 driver to complain the new cars were like driving a vacuum cleaner. Many fans agreed.
What NASCAR has in mind would make no changes to the those thundering pushrod V8 engines at all. Instead, the current thinking is to add regenerative braking that would store energy in a battery where it could be used to give a boost of up to 100 horsepower at certain times during a race. The technology would be useless on superspeedways where drivers hold their foot to the floor for an entire lap but it could play a role at shorter tracks and road courses where braking is important.
Steve Phelps, president of NASCAR, tells The Washington Post, “The sound of the vehicle is going to remain the same, for all intents and purposes.” But NASCAR has a problem. No sport can thrive in today’s ultra-competitive entertainment environment without television. The number of people watching the racing on TV fifteen years ago averaged 8.4 million. Today it is only 3.3 million. Fewer eyeballs mean less advertising revenue, the lifeblood of any sport. Daytona International Speedway, one of the most iconic tracks in NASCAR history, removed more than 40,000 seats recently in a remodeling program. Empty seats don’t look good on television.
But there are other forces at work. The series is nothing without the manufacturers who support it. Toyota made a conscious decision two decades ago to join the NASCAR series to help Americanize its brand. That was a brilliant move, but like all global manufacturers, Toyota is adjusting its product mix to include more hybrids. Ford is getting ready to introduce its first all electric SUV, the Mustang Mach E. General Motors says it is bringing an electric pickup truck to market in the next few years.
NASCAR has to adapt to change or risk becoming irrelevant. Showcasing hybrid technology may help attract younger fans who drive hybrid or electric cars, if they drive at all. “These are important things for the future of our sport,” Phelps says. “We have a mission to get younger and more diverse. It does not mean we are going to abandon our core fans. We will not do that.”
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, tells The Post, “We’re all invested in these technologies from an environmental perspective, so we sat down with NASCAR and said, ‘Why not?’ Why couldn’t we add a form of electrification to the cars that we race? Today, the messaging and the technology are such that you can have your cake and eat it, too. Yes, the hybrid is efficient. But your car drives better. It feels more responsive.”
Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, agrees. “We have to have the ability to race what we design and develop and build and then use motorsports to tell the story to our fans and customers how important what we learn on the racetrack is to make out products for the street better. If there were no connection, you’d be racing just to be racing.” Some fans would be perfectly content with that, but without the support of manufacturers the sport would die. Manufacturers are in business to sell cars, not conform to some Golden Age fantasy of what racing used to be like half a century ago.
The Washington Post spoke to 2 drivers last weekend at Daytona. Ryan Newman has won at Daytona and drives an electric ATV on his farm, but he remains skeptical of the proposed change. “There is a point where you have to say: ‘Listen, I know this is not perfect for our environment. But do we sacrifice the quality of our racing to use technology and spend millions and millions of dollars to do the same thing with .001 less [carbon dioxide] in the air?’ Does that make sense? Because you’re still going to throw away a million plastic bottles this weekend that go into the ocean and end up on a Pacific Island the size of Texas.” Of course, there is no law that says race fans have to rely on single-use beverage containers but that’s another story.
Kevin Harvick, series champion in 2014, says he understands the needs of the car manufacturers have to take priority, even if it alienates some fans. “Sometimes you have a small group of people that make a lot of noise. But that small group of people needs to understand that the way the world turns today is very much in the direction that we’re headed with the cars on the racetrack being more relevant to what they drive on the street, which is what made this sport great. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday! That’s the model that built NASCAR, and that’s the model that we’re headed to.”
And so it appears electric motors powered by energy recaptured during braking may make an appearance in the sport beginning in 2021. Will it lead to other changes? Almost certainly. “You have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run,” says Doug Yates, head of Roush Yates Engines, the primary supplier of Ford engines to NASCAR teams. “This is a first step in future powertrains. It’s the right next step, but it is a first step.”
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Steve Hanley Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.