Last week, Bill Nye started a bit of a storm with this post on Aeon: "If NASCAR embraced electric cars it could change the world." In it, Nye expands on a chapter from his most recent book, where he calls for NASCAR to ditch its internal combustion engines and replace them with electric ones. "We could convert all of our racecars to electricity — right now — and show the public exactly what electrons can do," Nye says.
The tone sounds familiar to that of the reactions when all-electric racing series Formula E made its debut in 2014. And guess what? Those fears were unfounded. Formula E is already a plenty good racing series, and it's just as exciting up close, even without all the engine noise and methanol fumes.
But a full-on bait-and-switch will never work. NASCAR would crumble overnight if it went all-electric, and besides, he glosses over a few (big) technological barriers.
There's already an electric racing series — and it's good, too.
Nye starts by touching on the argument that, in some respects, electric cars can outperform cars that use internal combustion engines. He's right; the P85D and P90D versions of the Model S have beaten some of the best cars in the world in various drag races. And while he points out that the Tesla Model S weighs more and puts out less horsepower than a typical NASCAR car, Nye believes that giving a company like Tesla a few years might be enough to level the playing field a bit.
A poster on Jalopnik's community blog, Opposite Lock, went even deeper, factoring in how new rules in NASCAR will limit the horsepower while pointing out that Road and Track got a much higher horsepower reading when it tested the Model S. And, as the post shows, the 0-60 times between NASCAR and a Model S are basically the same.
But there are some big hangups. The Model S is speed limited to 155mph, and even if Tesla bumped up the Model S's top speed, the battery would likely get much worse mileage at sustained, high speeds.
Electric cars aren't good enough to race on big oval tracks — yet
And that brings us to the biggest barrier that no one has quite solved. With a few more years, Tesla might be able to eke enough performance out of the Model S to have it compete in a straight line with the likes of Kyle Busch. But the batteries that power electric cars are still nowhere near being able to last on the big oval tracks that NASCAR spends most of its season running on. These tracks offer little to no opportunity for regenerative braking, which adds energy back into the battery. Worse, too much heat will build up in the batteries if you push an electric motor that hard for that long.
Most of NASCAR's tracks are big ovals more than a mile long.
Both of these issues play a big role in Formula E, which Nye either chose to ignore in his piece, or flat out doesn't know about yet. Those cars can only make it through about 25 to 30 minutes worth of racing before their batteries die, and that's with the ability to use regenerative braking in just about every corner. And during each race, the drivers have to worry about the heat in the battery almost as much as they have to monitor the remaining energy.
"The two most important factors that we look at during any race is thermal management and energy management," Dilbagh Gil, team principal for the Mahindra Formula E team, told me last month. "Last year, many times we finished the race with energy left over in the car which we couldn’t utilize because we had maxed out on temperature."
Racing EVs on high-speed ovals "will take a significant breakthrough in battery technology"
Formula E runs its races on tight street circuits, while NASCAR typically competes on oval tracks that are up to 2.5 miles long. And they run much longer races than Formula E, too, often eclipsing 400 or even 500 miles.
John Waters, who developed the battery packs that powered GM's ill-fated EV1, touched on this a few years ago. At the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, he said that "racing in excess of 150 mph on high-speed ovals will take a significant breakthrough in battery technology for EV race cars, or racetracks, to be competitive in the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR events."
NASCAR might be able to get away with electric stock cars on the series' smallest half-mile tracks like Martinsville or Bristol, where braking in the corners could help keep the battery alive a little longer. But it would take many more years before an electric car runs 500 miles at Daytona.
NASCAR should experiment
I'm fine with Nye wanting NASCAR to head in this direction. In fact, I think any motorsports series — big or small — should be considering how they can incorporate electric vehicles into their products. I don't want to see every internal combustion racing series die off, but there should be room to test out EVs as a support series, similar to how Formula E will run a driverless series, Roborace, next season.
And Nye even sort of accidentally proposes this at one point. "There’s no reason why NASCAR couldn’t be like that: a race with rules designed to reward the coolest, most advanced vehicle technologies," he says. But instead of asking NASCAR to replace its entire racing product at once, we should be asking the series to start by adopting this kind of contest as a supplement to the main series.
Without easing fans into EV racing, racing culture will always fight it. Even then, it'll be an uphill battle — I've seen lifer race fans walk down grandstand steps backwards because they didn't want to watch the supporting class on the track.
Formula E may have already found fans who don't want to deal with loud engines or gas fumes, but it has the advantage of being a global series. NASCAR is as American as it gets, and we're a country that just bought more internal combustion cars than ever in 2015. Even as the series struggles, Nye's dream is still a long way from reality — but that doesn't mean NASCAR can't start down that road right now.
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