Despite its reputation as a high-octane, gas-guzzling sport, IndyCar racing has flirted with the greener side of life for a while. From Patrick Dempsey's solar sponsorships to a utility-scale solar farm at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, solar power has already played a prominent role in those efforts. Now British-born IndyCar driver Stefan Wilson is taking that flirtation global, launching a campaign called #ThinkSolar to fund solar lighting in communities across Africa.

Helping Africa leapfrog over fossil fuels

Joining the likes of hip-hop star Akon, Wilson is the latest in a long line of advocates who are hoping that the rapid declines in the cost of solar power will allow Africa to leapfrog dirty and outdated fossil fuels. And working with U.K.-based charity Solar Aid, Stefan Wilson Racing is offsetting its own carbon emissions for all on-track activities (mostly from fuel and tires) by purchasing solar lights that will replace kerosene lanterns in Africa. The goal, says Tom Moore, Digital Marketing and Communications Manager for SolarAid, is not just to reduce emissions but to provide marginalized communities in Africa with a sustainable step toward self empowerment:

"A small solar light saves a family money, protects the environment, and enables children to study after dark. One solar light improves the lives of approximately six people, saving a family $180, enabling an extra 1200 hours of study, and averting a tonne of CO2. We create new markets that transform communities and leave a lasting energy legacy.”

Crowdfunding a solar surge

Besides offsetting the team's own emissions, the #ThinkSolar campaign is also urging race car fans and solar advocates to make their own contributions to the campaign. If every team or driver got involved, it would take only 610 lights to offset the on-track activity of the 33 cars racing at the IMS in the month of May. Wilson describes the sense of "value added" that comes from carbon offsets that also produce important health and economic benefits for communities that would otherwise be stuck with dirty kerosene lanterns:

"There are many ways to offset your carbon footprint, but SolarAid's method is so unique. It’s incredibly rewarding to know you’re not only offsetting your carbon footprint, but also lighting up the night for families in Africa. Each solar light replaces a kerosene lamp which would have emitted another tonne of CO2 over the lifetime of the solar light.”

Demonstrating solar on the race track

Wilson is also using the campaign to push for more widespread adoption of solar power throughout the sport. The initial plan, says Wilson, is to start with something small:

"Wilson wants to take that step through the unparalleled platform of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in May 2016, an event that will captivate millions around the world. He wants to harness the sun for something simple yet vital, such as a small solar panel on his 230-mph race car to power his pit-to-cockpit radio. Or solar panels on the pit box powering the team’s computers."

Here's more from Wilson on the thinking behind the campaign, complete with some envy-inducing shots of him cruising around in a Tesla Model S: