Published by Road & Track, January 14, 2011
Last summer’s Gusher in the Gulf may seem like old news now, but what of 40, 50 years from now? In some quarters, it will never be forgotten that human ineptitude (to say no worse) resulted in fatalities aboard an oil drilling platform, shores littered with gruesome wildlife carcasses and an ocean stinking of poison. Let alone lingering economic and emotional pain.
That catastrophe, plus similar ones likely to come, may well be remembered as crises that helped tip motoring—and therefore motor racing—over the great Green divide.
We racing enthusiasts, as insular and self-important as any other political tribe, would like to imagine our sport is safely cocooned within the walls of its raceways, immune to external forces. It’s not. We’ve always been under stress, sometimes outright attack, by strident groups protesting one thing or another about our sport.
Fifty-some years ago, racing was widely seen as so dangerous that it was at real risk of being outlawed. In Switzerland it was. A ban imposed there after the 1955 Le Mans disaster took more than a half-century to rescind.
Racers have greatly improved their image on the issue of safety, but now another potentially greater threat looms. Many people today are aware of petro-pollution, carbon footprints and the planetary climate. Another massive oil spill might make petroleum-fueled transportation as distasteful to the general public as it is to environmentalists.
Responding to the anxiety, automakers are already moving toward cleaner, more self-sustaining energy technologies. Downsized engines, alternative fuels and electric power systems along with smaller, lighter vehicles made of recyclable materials are rapidly becoming the new norms. Of course, racing authorities are exploring the same measures.
While such changes have appeal, they will be massive, expensive and disruptive. Inevitably, some things we cherish will be sacrificed. The same problems arose during the safety revolution, so no wonder a lot of fans cringe at calls to make motorsport more environmentally responsible. They fear that’s code for “ruining it.”
I admit I was a skeptic on the shining morning last spring when I filed into a conference called “The Race has Gone Green,” held at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Maybe it’s just that my coffee and decadent sugary muffin hadn’t kicked in, but my mood was darkly defiant. “What are these people trying to do to my racing?” I was thinking sourly.
Will they expect us to cheer wimpy little turbodiesels? Buzzing and clicking electrics? Whizmobiles emitting nothing at all, not even sound? Is all this carbon footprint prattle just a prelude to carbon jackboots coming down to stomp out my sport entirely?
I’ve seen a lot of petroleum being combusted on racetracks of the world and I feel protective of an experience I have always hailed as glorious.
Warily, then, I listened as one important speaker after another reiterated the basic premise of the “Gone Green” conference: that motorsport isn’t going to become more environmentally responsible; they claim the revolution has already occurred and, you know, it ain’t so bad.
“We’ve entered a time of enormous change,” one declared, “with new players and new rules.”
A college rep proclaimed, “We’re accelerating development of what we call ‘relevant research.’” Expanding on that, another speaker remarked, “We’re working very closely with universities and listening to these young guys and gals who are pushing the boundaries and making us think.”
Said another, “Let’s stop calling it ‘Green.’ It’s ‘Next Generation Performance.’” Two areas are especially hot, he added: aero and “lightweighting.”
Those indeed were topics of the first panel of the day, which included men from race-car manufacturers Lola and Swift. They spoke of how each company is parlaying its expertise in aerodynamics and featherweight structures to develop new, super-efficient wind energy systems.
I felt approval stir within me. Racing still can better the breed, damn it, albeit a breed I hadn’t thought of.
That mini-epiphany came again when the head of Corsa Motorsport, which was running an ALMS prototype he called “the world’s baddest hybrid,” detailed a project to commercialize his race-car work. “Brainstorming, we took a look at the trucking industry. There are 11 million semi-trailers in the U.S., and they all have a common rear axle Bingo! Adapting the P-car’s KERS electric motor to previously inert trailer axles “fools the tractor into thinking it’s hauling less weight and results in 10 percent better fuel efficiency,” Corsa’s Steve Pruitt explained. Presumably, relying on battery regeneration to slow the truck will reduce the annoying use of the raucous “Jake brake” too.
A further encouraging thought was contributed by a panelist from the U.K.’s Motorsport Industry Association: He pointed out that nimble, efficient constructors of racing components can offer valuable rapid prototyping skills to a mainstream auto industry in hectic transition.
So it’s gratifying that racing can benefit everyday life, but does it work the other way as well?
Or does racing lose by deferring to interests of the public at large? A drive to appear socially responsible is one reason we’ve seen F1 engines drop from 12 to 10 to 8 cylinders, each step-down resulting in a loss of sound quality (in my opinion). In endurance racing, the diesels don’t make much of any sound. Whining transaxles and, at Sebring, slap-slapping of tires over the concrete are louder. Not sexy.
Sound; that’s a huge factor in my enjoyment of motorsports. I cannot forget cupping my ears in the Sebring night to hear Pete Lovely’s Ferrari moaning away through the gears. Stopping my van a mile outside the gate at Watkins Glen to drink the liquid scream as Chris Amon tested the V-12 Matra. Standing rooted in my boots outside my billet at Le Mans one midnight, listening to open-pipe Porsches 10 miles away—I measured the distance on a map.
These things are magic to me, and at the Green conference I was relieved to hear I’m not alone. “Everybody speaks of the V-12 Matra, and today the V-12 Aston Martin sings the same song,” remarked Scott Atherton of the ALMS. “We can’t pretend that emotive connection isn’t important. It stirs people. That attraction has brought so many people into the sport, and we can’t lose it.”
Les Mactaggart from IndyCar concurred. “We need to keep the excitement, so people keep coming.”
Thus it was good to hear John Waraniak from SEMA put in a good word for the good old piston engine. “It’s going to be around for at least two more decades,” he predicted, thanks to efficiencies still to be realized from direct injection, turbocharging and others of what he said were “15 technologies out there. I call it the Wild West.”
One of those technologies would involve non-petro fuels, such as the biobutanol being pioneered in the ALMS by Mazda in conjunction with—this is a big irony, but let’s look past it—British Petroleum.
But pursuing many of the “efficiencies” mentioned above presents a pretty puzzle. If you’re lopping off cylinders, cutting displacements, restricting revs, muffling exhausts with turbos, perhaps one day abandoning internal combustion altogether…how do you keep an exciting sound?
Maybe artificially. I’d been pondering this myself, and now I heard Atherton of the ALMS speak of Clemson University research into “a very high-end sound system that, potentially, lets you decide what [engine] noise you want to hear. ‘Sound by wire.’ Digital, not combustion… You heard it here first.”
Later, I sat in the Pacific sunshine and scribbled a flurry of thoughts. Imagine watching a race, either in the stands or at home, while wearing headphones that let you choose any exhaust tone you please: one of the immortal V-12s, say, or a big-block Can-Am V-8, or perhaps some novel note you devise yourself. As in cooking or bartending, you could trade sonic recipes with your headphone buddies; hey, dude, check this out.
Or maybe the sounds in your ear needn’t be artificial at all. And maybe they can go beyond exhaust sounds. How about embedding pickups elsewhere in the engine, so we can hear the cam gears meshing, and the pistons slapping, the fuel squirting in—the entire symphonic crescendo of the magnificent IC machine (providing we can retain it in racing), not just the mere, monodimensional exhaust events?
But how to link these transmitted sounds to individual cars as they pass you? How to contrive the Doppler shift? And that intoxicating, ever-shifting aural interaction of different engines in endurance racing? I suppose each race vehicle of the future will have to transmit a discrete code to your individual receiver as it whisks by—silently, of course, unless you’re wearing your ’phones.
I tried to throttle down my racing imagination and consider soberly: Apart from the engine music that has captivated enthusiasts since the Gay ’90s, does it really matter what turns the wheels?
Sure, we love our IC firebreathers with their finely crafted cranks and rods and valves, the more intricate the better. But really, isn’t that so 19th century? We have to think about our sport surviving the 21st.
We may love fossil-fueled flames and fumes and noise, but does the wider public? Even though auto racing represents a tiny percentage of the fossil fuels burned each year, hysteria over noise or fuel wastage or petro-pollution may eventually lead to calls for shutting us down. Show of hands: Who remembers what happened to racing in 1974, during the “Energy Crisis”?
As for those exhaust notes we hold so dear, because even today’s most ardent race fans do most of their spectating via TV, where the true sound doesn’t come through anyway, maybe ear candy is becoming less and less of a factor except for us grizzled (and deaf) old geezers.
Maybe future fans won’t even know about exhaust notes. Schooled to be Green and enthusiasts of electro-cool, they might be perfectly satisfied with battery-powered race vehicles whose loudest native noises would be tire howl and the hiss of aerodynamic turbulence. Heck, maybe racing would become quiet enough to hear drivers shouting at each other.
The die-hard exhaust fans among us might remain unsold on such a future, but the Long Beach conference did make me remember an earlier time of anxiety. In 1970, at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Jackie Stewart suffered the loss of one of his closest friends. The way Jochen Rindt died, slaughtered when his flimsy aluminum car impacted a frail steel guardrail, reinforced Stewart’s determination to strong-arm racing into becoming safer.
He met bitter resistance. Many feared the stubborn Scot’s crusade would destroy their sport. How can you make a car crash-safe without emasculating it? And anyway, danger is integral to racing, was the attitude. Makes it matter. Enhances the romance.
One day at the height of the controversy, I found myself in confrontation with my boyhood guru in racing journalism. I had written something endorsing Stewart’s point that racing must be seen to police itself, lest policing be imposed upon it.
Denis Jenkinson squared up to me at the next GP. His eyes were snapping-angry and the little man put a big roar in his voice. “If we follow what you say to its end, we’ll have to give up motor racing!”
Jenks and I remained friendly, to my great relief, and I am even more relieved to see, all these decades later, that even though Jackie’s views did prevail, we kept on racing. Indeed, we have vastly more racing now than then, and I dare say it’s generally of higher intensity and quality.
Yes, drivers feel freer to “rub” each other now, which I for one do not find sporting. But no longer do I step away from a car-side chat with a friend and watch him accelerate away with the disquieting thought, “I wonder if that’s the last time we’ll ever talk…”
F1 alone killed one or two drivers a year when I started reporting. We hardened ourselves to it, calling it inevitable. Today, fatalities are so infrequent, they shock us. Thank you Sir Jackie and everyone else who made that happy change happen.
I wonder if racing enthusiasts of 40, 50 years hence will look back on our time and wonder how we were ever so carefree with our use of petroleum.
Those of us wary of change need to be upbeat about Going Green. When Jenkinson and others protested Jackie Stewart, they were seeing the safety issue in terms of old, familiar know-how. They couldn’t foresee new technologies that would, eventually, stop killing racers without killing racing. I suggest the present controversy will have the same outcome.
Anyway, isn’t a Greener (and perhaps quieter) future better than no future?