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Indy 500 — Will Gasoline Alley Become Electric Avenue?


IndyCar will participate in the 105th Indy 500 race this weekend. Things have changed since the first race at The Brickyard was held on May 30, 1911. Cars then were crude bellowing beasts. Today, they are sophisticated machines that represent the pinnacle of internal combustion technology. Some innovations, like the Andy Granatelli turbine car, were banned by the sport, but the transition from front engine to rear engine racers sparked by Colin Chapman and Jim Clark has endured.

Auto racing is at a fork in the road. At a time when more and more people recognize the fossil fuel era needs to end, does it make sense to continue with a series that celebrates the wonders that occur when gasoline is exploded in confined spaces?

Formula One has been using hybrid powertrains that combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor for the past 7 years. Now IndyCar is planning to introduce hybrid powertrains in 2024 (a decade after Formula One). They will use a 2.4 liter twin turbo gasoline engine that produces 800 horsepower, mated to an electric motor that adds another 100 horsepower.

Will fully electric race cars follow? Team owner Mike Shank, whose Meyer Shank Racing car won the Indy 500 last year with Helio Castroneves at the wheel, tells Autoblog, “The way our world is going, it looks like it’s headed that way. When we talk about electrification, certainly the hybrid is low-hanging fruit. It’s not just hybrids, but pure electric cars. What we’re trying to do as a team is prepare for that. Technology is moving fast and it’s such an important hot button for all the OEMs, we all know kind of where it’s headed.”

The Sound Of Silence

Is the world ready for silent race cars? Mike Hull, managing director of 14 time IndyCar Series champion and four time Indy 500 winning team Chip Ganassi Racing, tells Autoblog, “Sound is a generational thing, but the generation that’s going to set the future for the generations that follow (will) have grown up being accustomed to a different sound than we have.” Hull envisions a person standing near Turn 1 at Indy while an electric race car passes quietly at 230 mph. “In your mind, you’re going to think, ‘A car going that fast shouldn’t sound like that, but it will.”

IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand, says electric race cars aren’t able to race in the Indy 500, which he calls a max velocity, accelerator to the floor event from start to finish, with the only slowing down and braking taking place a half dozen times when the drivers pit for fuel and tires. It’s not nearly enough time for regenerative braking to recharge a battery, he says.

“To be able to average 180 miles per hour for 500 miles, we’re a long way from the technology existing to be able to do that. Looking at top tier motorsports, having an electric car compete with an internal combustion engine, the Indy 500 is among the hardest ones to do that,” he says. Hildebrand is more than just a driver. He is an adjunct lecturer in the vehicular dynamics program at Stanford and is involved with STEM programs when he’s not racing.

Bring It!

If he were in charge of IndyCar racing, Hilldebrand says, “I would start figuring out ways to integrate almost an X-prize style — come and just show me what you’ve got — some kind of mechanism where electrification would be welcome immediately at the speedway in the context of IndyCar racing.

“You can imagine that operating at a qualifying level of pace will come a lot sooner than being able to operate at that speed over the course of 500 miles. If you left it completely wide open to say that anybody who qualifies with any of these technologies gets in the race, that’s a little too open. You could quickly have cars that qualify but have no business competing over the course of 500 miles. The point of going racing is to showcase different ways of doing things. It’s my opinion that the Indianapolis 500 is the place … where in the past these kinds of things were allowed to be explored.”

Formula E is the premier open wheel racing series for electric cars, but it runs much shorter races. The cars for that series are nowhere near being able to compete for 500 miles.

“Because of its history and because it is one of the hardest places for anything but an internal combustion engine to be any good, Indy is kind of like the perfect place to say, ‘All right, bring it!’ There’s no risk in that. There’s a possibility that by doing that, it becomes the place that everybody goes to see this happen. You think about how crazy it was for a turbine car to show up in 1967, imagine how completely insane people would go if you legitimately had electric cars qualifying at the same time as internal combustion engine cars, and there’s this crazy prize. Think about the degree of unpredictability to that relative to what we deal with now. The enormity of that circumstance cannot be overstated.”

Electrical Engineers Wanted

Mike Hull tells Autoblog that race teams are already searching the world for young electrical engineers who want to get involved in racing. The Ganassi team is working closely with Indiana University and Purdue to encourage young engineers to get involved in the future of racing.

“We encourage all the students there to become involved with a racing program in some way, even if they volunteer with a racing program on the weekends. It’s so they get their hands in there, so they understand to equate the textbook with the practical aspect of running the vehicle,” Hull says.

The next phase of development for racing will be hybrid technology, because that’s what street vehicles are doing, he adds. “The engineering aptitude needs to roll in that direction quickly. We’re searching the world today to try and find young, bright engineers who want to be able to work on vehicle control that centers around hybrid and electric technology, because that is the next thing that we will race. Universities around the world are working on that, and we’ll be working on it if not today, then very soon in order to keep pace.”

Racing Goes Green

Racing is about more than race cars. Teams travel with hundreds of tons of equipment, spares, mobile facilities, and people. Today, the transporters that carry Indy cars and equipment from race to race run on biodiesel. Electric vehicles have been more prevalent around the speedway this month, from two-wheeled scooters many drivers use to get around to an electric mobile merchandise truck.

Firestone, the sole tire supplier to IndyCar, delivered all race tires that will be used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month in trailers pulled by Freightliner eCascadia electric tractors.  Firestone also has developed an eco-friendly alternate tire, constructed with natural rubber from the guayule shrub, that will be used on race cars in the pit-stop contest Friday. The first race on that tire is scheduled for August at Nashville.

Formula One may be several steps ahead of IndyCar in its “green” racing pretensions. The nature of the tracks it races on provides plenty of opportunities for regenerative braking to recharge the batteries in the race cars, but it is still one of the biggest polluters in motor racing.

The larger question is, will racing even be relevant in the future? That depends on whether cars remain relevant in the years to come. If they do, racing has always been the way to improve the breed. “The point of going racing is to showcase different ways of doing things and that some things are better than others in certain conditions. That’s why we show up to compete,” says J.R. Hildebrand.

There is a legitimate question about whether the world can continue to crank out tens of millions of private cars year after year after year. It makes little difference if they are powered by gasoline, electricity, or moonbeams. Still, no one is going to be interested in watching robotaxis compete. Changes are coming, but what exactly that means for motor racing is far from clear.




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