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Envisioning Fuel Efficient Race Cars - On The Line

May 1, 2009 SHARE
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I Still Think This Could Work
I rarely recycle my columns, but an idea I had in April 2001 just seems too good to let go. In that issue of the magazine, I had proposed a new kind of racing series. "Imagine a car," I wrote, "that will travel 100 mph while also delivering 100 miles to a gallon." I envisioned a race or even a racing series where the first team to reach 100 miles while using just one gallon of gasoline would be the winner. Back in 2001, it seemed like a way to put more relevance into racing. Today, with economic meltdowns and scalebacks of corporate involvement, it might be the only thing that will save racing.

What I envisioned at the time would still work well today. Cars would be required to have two seats and a specific volume of luggage space, say the size of four grocery bags (paper, not plastic). Minimum weight should probably be in the 1,000- to 1,200-pound range. Wheelbase, width and overall height could be held to some reasonable size too.

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I even worked out how the race would be run. The format will be familiar to devotees of sprint car racing. First of all, the cars would run on a paved oval. There would be four heats. In each heat, each starter would be allowed the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. If you use a diesel engine, you get less than a gallon of diesel oil as that fuel has more energy per unit volume. If yours is an electric car, you get to charge it with the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. The race begins from a standing start. In each heat, the top three finishers get to advance to the feature. Everyone who finishes fourth and doesn't transfer gets to run in a consolidation race and the top three will also make the feature race. Eventually, as the entries became more sophisticated they could move to road courses, where braking and accelerating would give hybrids an advantage.

The trick here is that the person who goes the farthest in exactly one hour, before running out of fuel, is the winner. Imagine the race strategies. Think your car will go 100 miles at 100 miles per hour? Better get up to speed fast and stay there. Think your racer can go 60 miles in an hour on a gallon of fuel but will only go 40 miles if you run flat out? Better pace yourself. One strategy might be to run hard, go far and run out early, hoping the distance you've traveled will make you the winner. Add the complications of accelerating away from a standing start, and dealing with traffic and drafting, and your racing skills will definitely be a major part of this game. So will technology.

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Although there has been some steady progress in automotive technology since 2001, there have been no real game-changers. Back then I wrote, "As new technologies are uncovered to make the cars go further and faster, additional rules may need to be added. Hybrids pose an interesting problem, for example. They get a gallon of gasoline in their tanks, but they also have energy stored in their batteries. Of course if we let them have their battery power, but then don't let them add any more battery energy between heats, they will have to find creative ways to use the extra juice to their best advantage. If they use it too soon, they won't have anything left for the feature. If they hold back, they might not make the big show."

Now as then, I still think cheating--or creative interpretation of the rules--will be a big part of the competition. Back then I noted that this is not necessarily a bad thing. What we are looking for here is creativity and innovation in solving the basic problem of performance versus economy. Some teams will find ways of making their cars go farther and run faster and it's that kind of thinking that will have a positive effect on the future of the automobile.

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The potential for involvement of tire companies, electronics manufacturers and computer giants seems very clear. Getting the most from a design will require new ways of thinking about how and where a car uses energy and how to make it more efficient. The same disciplines of aerodynamics and engine design that now push a race car through the air at 200 mph will be redirected into the more practical problem of building a fuel-efficient automobile that can travel at more relevant speeds.

Why am I dusting off this old idea and running it up the flagpole again? Over the past year, as gas prices fluctuated wildly and the economic markets tanked, I spoke to several of my friends who are in the racing business. They were lucky enough to have kept their jobs during the downturn, but many of their friends and coworkers hadn't been so fortunate. Yet each of them still saw racing for what it is today: more about entertainment than for competition or technological advancement. With money tight, and faced with environmental challenges in the future, maybe it's time to rethink the entire equation. Promoting technologies in front of the paying public might be both entertaining and socially responsible.

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Where I failed the last time I wrote about this was in getting manufacturers interested. That will be the real key: to get car manufacturers to take such a challenge seriously. For so long they have been convinced by sanctioning bodies that racing's role is primarily entertainment; the idea that it could really improve the world is all but inconceivable. What would be needed would be an appeal to the corporate ego akin to the one that drives BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Toyota to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Formula One engine rivalries. It is possible, but it would require carmakers to recall what racing really means.

When you boil it down to its essentials, racing has always been about managing energy to go as far and as fast as possible. Pit stops under caution and NASCAR yellow flags for debris often scramble this, but in its essence racing will always be thus. If you want pit stops, give them two gallons and make them go 200 miles, but limit the on-board energy to the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. What I propose is that we limit the amount of energy to a pittance and make the goals as difficult to attain as possible. Racers have always shown an ability to overcome obstacles and achieve the seemingly impossible. I said it in 2001 and I'll say it again now. What I want is to for once give racers and racing engineers a problem that is really worth solving: the future of the automobile.

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