The automotive industry has been using racing to promote its products since Henry Ford beat Alexander Winton in a 10-mile race in Grosse Pointe. At the 1901 race, Ford was behind the wheel of a vehicle called Sweepstakes.
Today, the industry has its collective pedal to the metal in the race to fill the nation’s — and the world’s — roads with electric vehicles. What does that mean for the future of motorsports, which depend on automaker marketing dollars and technical knowhow?
A cautionary tale has been played out on the Detroit River. Much quieter Vietnam-era turbine helicopter engines replaced the thundering World War II fighter airplane powerplants in unlimited hydroplane powerboat racing in the 1980s, and some fans say the sport hasn’t been the same since.
One of the first all-electric racing series is the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, a single-seater motorsport championship that uses only electric cars and tours the world. Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan, and Porsche are involved in Formula E. There’s also the Extreme E worldwide off-road series, in which General Motors’ GMC is involved.
“Is that relevant to what they’re selling?” asks Roger Penske, a longtime race team owner and chairman of Penske Automotive Group in Bloomfield Township, about Formula E. “ I don’t know. I would say that each one of (the automakers) is focusing on which part of motor racing they want to be in. What we have to do is have a product that’s exciting enough to watch, and have technology tie it back to a particular automaker.”
Could that technology make auto racing much quieter in the next 10 to 20 years? The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has announced it will introduce an electric class of racing for the 2022 season.
“We at Ford have been studying the electrified racing landscape for several years and, much like the automotive industry itself, it’s moving forward with us quickly,” says Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “It’s one of the reasons we debuted two new all-electric demonstrators last year — the Mach E 1400 and the Mustang Cobra Jet 1400. Both vehicles have allowed us to push the limits on electrified performance vehicles and helped us develop our knowledge base on these types of vehicle powertrains.”
Chevrolet also has developed a concept eCOPO Camaro all-electric drag racer, and Ford recently announced it’s producing the hybrid-electric Ford Puma for the 2022 World Rally Championship, which runs in Europe.
“The 2022 NASCAR Next Gen Mustang Cup car was designed with future hybrid or full electric powertrains in mind,” Rushbrook says. “We’re seeing more and more sanctioning organizations looking at future powertrain options and how they’ll fit into the automotive landscape.”
Jim Campbell, vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports at GM, agrees. “Several series in which Chevrolet competes are incorporating hybrids into their future development road maps.”
Penske says even if the on-track product isn’t all electric in the future, the sanctioning bodies and the tracks themselves are going the extra mile to be more environmentally friendly.
“There’s no question that we need to be responsible,” Penske says. “We’re looking at ways to decarbonize sustainably so we can make our racing footprint rational in dealing with the expectations around the world.”