In suggesting that NASCAR go fully electric with battery cars, I'm not sure Bill Nye the Science Guy fully understands why people go to these Coliseum-like contests. They're not after peace, quiet and a librarian going, "Shhhhhh ...!"
Alan Kulwicki in full song at Phoenix Raceway. Batteries instead of V-8s? (Photo: Mike Traverse/flickr)
"Just think what an electric race would be like," Nye wrote in an Aeon Magazine op-ed piece. "It would be faster, and quiet. You could talk to the person next to you."
A Mark Martin pit stop. Changing the oil, not the batteries. (Photo: Mike Traverse/flickr)
NASCAR is loud. It's the sound of built V-8 engines roaring unmuffled as they orbit an oval track. It's nitro-burning "funny" cars belching fire, exhaust and ground-shaking decibels on Sundays at Raceway Park. The only motor sport that's louder is drag racing, and those folks welcome deafness even more.
"[H]ere I am trying to envision the smart, efficient transportation technology of tomorrow, and there is NASCAR doing the opposite – celebrating a very old transportation technology of yesterday. I wish NASCAR were more like NASA. I wish NASCAR were more about the future instead of the past. I wish NASCAR set up Grand Challenges to inspire companies and individuals to create novel automotive technologies in the way NASA does to create novel space technologies."
Let's step back a bit. NASCAR racers run on E85 ethanol, which is cleaner (but not by a huge amount) than gasoline. NASCAR is also a member of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) and boasts,
My buddy, Allen Herkshkowitz, the ex-Natural Resources Defense Council activist who founded and how heads GSA, wrote last year:
"I have worked on environmental issues for 35 years and had anyone told me decades ago that NASCAR was going to play an important role in cultivating allies in support of responsible environmental stewardship, I would have thought they were not serious….And now, confirming that everything contains it opposite, I am proud to report that NASCAR has partnered with the Green Sports Alliance to spread the word about responsible environmental stewardship."
GSA pushes a lot of smart ideas, including composting all the food waste, paper and utensils from events, getting fans to come to the events using public transportation and green power in the form, for instance, of solar panels and, at one raceway, sheep grazing the infield.
It's great NASCAR is doing this stuff. Running electric cars, though, is not going to happen — at least right away. I’ve written extensively about the noble and successful effort that is Formula E racing. I went to a race in Miami that was supremely well organized, and enthusiastically attended.
But there are drawbacks. A lack of range means that, at least currently, all Formula E teams have to field two cars on race day. And, to be honest, the lack of engine roar (even though the tires make a fair racket) translates into reduced adrenaline rush.
Nye wants NASCAR to become NESCAR, and you know that E stands for electric. He says, "The sooner NASCAR (or NESCAR) embraces electric drive trains, the sooner the U.S. can be the world leader in automotive technology, and the sooner we can stop pumping carbon dioxide into the air every time we want to go somewhere to get groceries, pick up the soccer team, commute to work or watch a race."
In the long run, Nye is, of course, right. And we need to be talking about this. I think we're going to an electric car fleet, and then everything on the road — including the racers — will run on batteries. We'll figure out how to make electric competition cars every bit as exciting as the vehicles circling the tracks now. But until then NASCAR is going to green around the edges.
By the way, NASCAR has been one of the most popular spectator sports, but its popularity is declining a bit.