Why this matters
The electrification of America’s cars is the emphasis of climate activists, the White House, and just about every major manufacturer, creating pressure on auto racing leagues to get with the times.
Drag racer Bob Tasca III grew up with legendary driver and designer Carroll Shelby as a family friend, the rough equivalent of a pro baseball player having Willie Mays as a family friend, if Mays was also a mad scientist and genius. Tasca loved that whenever someone asked Shelby his favorite innovation, he gave the same answer: the next one.
Today, Tasca says, drag racers have reached the end of their innovations with internal combustion engines (ICEs), and there won’t be a next one. But with electric dragsters powered by batteries, Tasca sees a Shelby-esque innovation adventure spread out before him.
Tasca imagines chasing – and breaking – all kinds of records. He envisions brainstorming ways to be faster than the yay-hoo lined up next to him, anticipating when the light will change, then mashing the throttle as his feet and hands dance together to pilot an electric dragster as fast as he can.
Tasca already has set one electric vehicle (EV) record, driving a Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 at 171.97 mph last year. With every barrier breached, he’ll get to feel what Shelby felt – then he’ll get to work on the next one. “I wasn’t born when all the cool s*** was happening,” says Tasca, 46, whose grandfather helped bring Ford back to drag racing in the 1960s. As motorsports in general and drag racing in particular experiment with how to race EVs, Tasca believes that the “cool s***” can happen again. “Now we’re going to get a front-row seat,” he says.
Driven by the global need to reduce carbon emissions and lessen the impact of climate change, the automotive industry is moving toward a greener, more electric future. As for automotive racing? For a sport built on speed, the emergence of EVs figures to be slow.
To be sure, the future of racing won’t just be electric. The industry is also evaluating green fuel, hybrid engines, and hydrogen combustion engines. Everything is on the table. “If anyone sat here today and said they know what the future actually is, I don’t think they’re being completely honest,” says John Probst, NASCAR’s senior vice president for innovation and racing development.
For now, much of the attention regarding the future of racing is on electric vehicles. Myriad challenges – financial, cultural, and technical – await as the racing world figures out how to embrace battery power.
Doing the Math
Auto racing is not a monolith. It comprises many series and governing bodies. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) oversees drag racing. NASCAR controls stock-car racing. The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) sets rules and policies for Formula 1 (F1) and other series. IndyCar runs major-league open-wheel racing in the United States.
Each is working on electric vehicles and/or hybrid technology. F1 has been using a hybrid engine for eight years, and IndyCar will introduce a new hybrid engine in the 2024 season. NASCAR is exploring starting an EV series as a companion to its top-division Cup Series.
Formula E, the all-electric series in its eighth season, has proved electric cars can look awesome and still go fast. The industry has watched closely as it matured from a start-up, grassroots series. And in December 2019, FIA granted Formula E world championship status – a huge step, like the tiny Great Plains Athletic Conference joining the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The automotive world pits EVs against ICEs. But it’s not like that in racing. The rise in EV racing does not herald the decline of ICE racing. For the foreseeable future, EVs and ICEs will co-exist. It won’t be either/or. It will be both/and.
Former FIA president Jean Todt, who left that role last year, told BBC News, “it’s simply not possible” for F1 to use all-electric engines. The batteries can’t provide the power the cars require for a 200-mile F1 race. Stock cars face the same problem. “I don’t foresee a time in the future where we would go, with all of our series, all electric,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said at a recent news conference.
It’s tempting to read those quotes and then look at the gas-guzzling race cars and wonder how far behind the times the motorsports world is. It’s tempting, too, to label auto racing the dirtiest sport in the world in terms of climate change and demand they hurry the hell up in going green.
But none of that holds up to scrutiny – or basic napkin math. Last year, NASCAR’s Cup Series raced 36 times, for a total of 12,600 miles. Nobody completed all of them. Let’s imagine someone did. At five miles per gallon, a completist driver would have burned 2,520 gallons. I shuttle my kids to and fro in a 2021 silver Kia Sedona that I bought 11 months ago. I’m on pace for 13,758 miles in its first year. At 21 miles per gallon, it will burn 655 gallons.
Now let’s imagine all 40 Cup series cars completed every lap. That would be 100,800 gallons, or the equivalent of 153.9 suburban dads lugging their kids around for a year. Any decent-sized subdivision has more dads than that.
The point is, the actual racing part of racing doesn’t have a meaningful environmental impact. The industry that surrounds it – the haulers that carry cars to the track, the planes that fly teams there, the buildings that house teams – has a much larger carbon footprint. And sanctioning bodies, teams, and others have worked for years to decrease that.
Numerous racetracks use solar power. In 2019, Roush Fenway Keselowski (RFK) Racing began an effort to reach net zero carbon emissions, in part because of a clause in its contract with sponsor Castrol, the motor oil company. RFK tracked emissions across the entire company. The total: 4,982 metric tons of greenhouse gasses, according to The Charlotte Observer. After RFK adopted new policies, that number dropped to 3,634 in 2020.
In 2020, the FIA produced a 28-page environmental strategy report outlining 50 objectives. In 2025, FIA will start “a gradual integration of carbon removal technology” as it heads toward a goal of net zero by 2030.
Win on Sunday, Relevant on Monday?
If making race cars environmentally friendly won’t make a difference, then why should the racing industry bother to change? The answer, as always: to sell cars. Because even as it races ICEs, motorsports can help the environment by doing what it does best: promotion.
Auto racing exists to provide access to fans’ wallets. Sponsors adorn the sides of cars so fans will buy their product. The manufacturers – OEMs, in racing parlance, for original equipment manufacturers – enter races so fans will buy the showroom version of the cars they race on the track. “We want to be racing what is relevant,” says Mark Rushbrook, who as global director of Ford’s Performance Motorsports oversees the company’s racing operations.
That word – relevant – comes up repeatedly in EV racing conversations, from team owners to sanctioning body officials to drivers. Are EVs relevant? By the amount written about them, said about them, and invested in them, yes. By the number of people driving them, no. Reuters data show less than 1 percent of vehicles on the road in the United States today are electric. Simply put, no manufacturer wants to race a style of car with such meager sales.
But that 1 percent is expected to grow – and by a lot. The Big 3 automakers (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) hope EVs reach 40 percent to 50 percent of their sales by 2030. If sales reach 50 percent, Reuters predicted, the percentage of electric cars on the road would hit 60 percent to 70 percent in 2050. In addition, the U.S. government included in an infrastructure law passed last year $7.5 billion in federal funding to develop a “national network” of EV charging stations.
For now, OEMs and sanctioning bodies face a chicken-and-egg decision: They want to race what’s relevant, and one way to make EVs relevant is by racing them. The sport will be both waiting for EVs to be relevant enough to race while at the same time making them relevant by racing them.
Let’s imagine NASCAR runs EV races before a handful of Cup Series races next year. Like an opening act playing before a headliner, EVs will get exposed to millions of fans. The old saying in NASCAR is “Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday.” The EV version of that could be “Win on Sunday. Relevant on Monday.”
“It can become a bigger part of the sport as we gauge whether the fans are ready to accept it – or when they are ready,” Rushbrook says. “I don’t think it’s anything that needs to happen today. I think we’ve got some time to understand what the fans will accept or what they want.”
The Sound of Silence
Right now, many racing fans simply wouldn’t accept motorsports abandoning ICEs in favor of EVs. High on the list of reasons is that the race-day experience would be dramatically altered.
Attending an auto race is a full-body, sensory-overload experience, far more than any other sport. The sight of brightly colored cars inches away from one another barreling around corners at 200 mph is breathtaking. The smell of the garage – oil, gas, and, if you get too close to the mechanics, sweat – occurs there and only there.
Oh, and the sound!
Imagine 40 lions, each the size of a Winnebago, roaring into a microphone piped into your tiny bedroom, which is also an echo chamber, and have it last three and a half hours, and you get an inkling of what it’s like to attend a NASCAR Cup Series race. With open-wheel racing such as F1, IndyCar, and sprint cars, imagine “Flight of the Bumblebee,” only it’s played by Metallica when they’re ferociously pissed off and your head is crammed inside the amplifier.
And you don’t just hear the noise. You feel it. At NHRA events, the 11,000-horsepower going from the engine to the ground and propelling the car at 330 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds creates a concussion in the air. It hits your ribs, rattles your lungs, and goes out your back.
Take away the noise, and to a lesser degree the smell of gas and oil (the sweat will always be there), and attending an EV race will be vastly different – less visceral, less aggressive, less in your face. It might sound silly to a non-racing fan, but I promise you, it’s not. It’s a version of the same issue racing faces with every major change: We like the old way, so leave us alone – unless the new way will be better, faster, and racier, and then maybe.
One person I spoke with for this story suggested that electric stock cars could be programmed to play noise when a driver steps on the throttle. I doubt that would fly. Others pointed out that the cars will still make noise, it’ll just be different. But the best argument in favor of the change is this: You’ll be able to hear yourself think.
When Rushbrook took his son to NASCAR races as fans, they couldn’t talk except when the caution flag came out. What good is a bonding experience if it’s so loud you can’t actually bond? At an EV race, they’ll be able to talk the whole time. Formula E says its cars make the same amount of noise as a vacuum cleaner. “Yes, it will be a different experience,” Rushbrook says, “but not necessarily all bad.”
Says Ned Walliser, NHRA’s vice president of competition: “You may not get that (noise) in electric. But let me tell you what you do get: torque. When you see a 3,500-pound to 5,000-pound car leave the starting line, pick the front end up and carry it three feet high for 150 to 200 feet – dude, it will knock your socks off.”
‘Does It Make It Any Less Fun? Hell, No’
While race tracks will sound and smell different, EV races will be different, too, at least in oval and road course races. “If the fans expect we’re just going to flip a switch and suddenly the Daytona 500 is full electric, well, just like you can’t jump in an electric car and drive across the entire country, stopping for five minutes at a time to get gasoline, you can’t do that with electric cars on the racetrack either,” Rushbrook says. “So the format of the race would need to change a little bit as well.”
At least at the outset, any battery-powered NASCAR races will be far shorter than a typical race (350 miles). Formula E races are based on time rather than distance – 45 minutes plus one lap. A new battery introduced this year requires a pit stop to charge it for 30 seconds.
Of course, there’s one form of racing where battery life doesn’t matter: drag racing, where races run either 1,000 feet or a quarter mile, depending on the car. That’s why the NHRA will play a key role in introducing EV racing to fans. The actual races will not change. Which brings us to the most important questions of all: Will the cars be fast and the racing good?
One of the biggest obstacles EV racing faces is the same obstacle everyday EVs face: We think they stink. We associate internal combustion engines with raw power and consider electric vehicles an unworthy substitute, like lusting after a porterhouse steak and being force-fed tofu instead. We think they are, as one critic of EV naysayers put it, “soulless rolling toasters and just aren’t fun to drive,” and if they aren’t fun to drive, they won’t be fun to see race.
The NHRA hopes to win converts, and this year the organization will introduce an EV category into its local Summit ET Series. The cars won’t even be race cars; the batteries, engines, and safety features must be unmodified. So, yes, competitors will strap into their Teslas, their Mustang Mach Es, whatever, and race them.
Each track will name a champion. Those champions will compete for seven regional titles. Then the regional champions will converge on Las Vegas to compete for the national championship. Longer term, the NHRA expects to create a national-level class of purpose-built EVs.
If relevant is the most-used word in EV racing discussions, then platform might be No. 2. The Daytona 500 is not a good platform for EV racing because the cars can’t go 500 miles. But any car can go a quarter-mile. “Drag racing is perfect for OEMs as a base of testing,” says Tim White, NHRA’s senior director of engineering. “It’s not longevity. It’s quick.”
In other words, it’s all of the fun of an ICE race, none of the problems of a long EV race, plus, as Tasca says, drivers and their teams will get to write a whole new record book.
Tasca owns car dealerships in the Northeast. He offers a blunt, clear-eyed view of where the automobile industry is headed: “In everyday passenger vehicles, electrification is going to be the future, period,” he says. “It’s going to be good for the environment. It’s going to be good for the consumer.”
And, he says, it’s going to be good for racing.
Loud or quiet, smelly or not, old school or new, none of that matters as he pushes the throttle. Racing is racing, and speed is speed, no matter the power source. “The s***’s fast,” Tasca says. “It pins you in the seat. Your stomach goes to your back. Does it make it any less fun? Hell, no.”
Sport is a large-scale global pursuit that brings together people and places, often creating deep roots with the environment in which it is played. As a result, sport both contributes to ecological change and is affected by it.
As efforts intensify to address decades of carbon emission, commercial growth, and environmental deterioration, sport can take the lead in championing progress. If current trends continue, however, sport could face some of the more serious consequences of a changing Earth.