Racing Goes Green

January 18, 2008
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Is it possible to be green – and mean?

That’s what the American Le Mans Series has in mind as it launches its new Green Racing Challenge. Teaming up with the EPA and the Department of Energy, along with traditional motor sports partners, the ALMS hopes to encourage manufacturers to introduce environmentally-friendly racing technology. The project will be capped by the series’ signature event, the “Petit Le Mans Racing Challenge,” at Road Atlanta, on October 4, 2008.

“At the birth of the automobile,” says American le Mans CEO Scott Atherton, “racing was the platform for manufacturers to prove themselves to the public.” The goal of the Green Challenge is to do the same thing, “to accelerate the development of better cars,” and to migrate green technology “from the race track to the street.”

The green initiative has won strong praise and promises of active participation by a number of ALMS contenders. “Honda races to learn,” says John Mendel, the Japanese maker’s senior American executive. “This is a great new test bed.”

ALMS has a direct link to the granddaddy of international motor sports, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That endurance race has provided a highly visible platform for at least one enviro-friendly vehicle, in recent years: the diesel-powered Audi R10, which has dominated both the European and U.S. racing circuits.

Going forward, Atherton said the goal is to encourage the development of other alternative racing technologies, including hybrids and perhaps even such alternative fuels as hydrogen.

General Motors hopes to make a strong showing at ALMS, this coming year, with an E85-powered version of the Chevrolet Corvette race car, shown above. GM has been a major proponent of E85, which is made up of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent alcohol. During the Detroit Auto Show, the automaker announced plans to partner with Coskata, an alternate fuel start-up that has developed an efficient way to produce the alcohol fuel from agricultural scraps, rather than food stocks, such as corn.

Green racing “really pushes are (alternative) fuel story,” explains Chevy General Manager Ed Peper. And ethanol, he adds, “has the bonus that its performance may be even better” than conventional gasoline.

In fact, alternative fuels aren’t entirely uncommon to the racing world. Indy 500 racers have long relied on methanol, another alcohol-based fuel. Methanol was once considered a serious alternative to gasoline, but unlike ethanol, it is toxic and can readily contaminate groundwater supplies after even a minor spill.

Racing’s new interest in green technology could pay off in several ways. It may soften criticism by environmentalists, who traditionally view motor sports as a waste of resources and source of pollution.

By testing new technologies under the most extreme conditions, racing could speed up development of reliable green hardware.

And events like the Green Challenge could help demonstrate that environmentally-friendly automobiles can be mean, as well as green, unlike the sluggish, stripped-down high-mileage econoboxes of the past.

2008 Detroit Auto Show Coverage by TCC Team (1/14/2008) Ford F-150, Hyundai Genesis and Corvette ZR1.

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