IT’S TIME: THE NASCAR HYBRID

IT’S TIME: THE NASCAR HYBRID

By | 2018-05-30T14:16:07+00:00 May 30th, 2018|The Blog, The Latest|10 Comments

A few months back, I wrote that the autonomous car was a bust, and I still feel confident that it is. But this past weekend’s All-Star Race and its new rules package got me thinking about a related, fundamental question: What is the future when it comes to cars—especially in relation to motorsports?

To me, the answer is really simple. Hybrids.

Obviously, that’s a bit of a no-brainer since there’s already hybrids on the road, but there aren’t really hybrids in racing. The closest thing out there currently is in Formula 1, and for reasons I’ll explain, it’s not that popular with fans.

But that doesn’t mean that hybrids aren’t the future of racing. In fact, not only am I sure that hybrids are the future of NASCAR—I believe it’s essential to the success of the sport that we embrace hybrid technology as soon as possible.

 

Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography

HYBRIDS DONE RIGHT

Back in March, I was at a fan event before the Las Vegas race, and noticed that there were a lot of international fans in attendance. I wound up talking to people from Germany, Ireland and Australia—where, incidentally, the Formula 1 race season was about to begin. I asked them why they were in Vegas instead of back home, heading to the Formula 1 race.

“We don’t go to F-1 races any more. We don’t like the cars,” they explained. “They don’t sound right. They’ve switched from big engines to small engines, and that made the cars too quiet. They sound like vacuum cleaners.”

That’s one of the factors of the kinetic energy recovery system—called KERS—that’s used by Formula 1 vehicles. KERS takes the energy from braking, charges it into a battery pack, and then returns it to the cars when they need extra power. The idea behind it was to reduce costs, but going to a smaller engine was a big mistake.

Race cars that don’t sound like race cars isn’t acceptable. If that’s going to be the cost of hybrid vehicles, a lot of NASCAR fans will want to throw up, and rightly so. Our fan base associates stock cars with a throaty V-8 engine, and so do I. That shouldn’t change. If we switch to a four-cylinder or V-6 in NASCAR, we’re going to lose a lot of fans.

But having a KERS system similar to what they have in F1—that can recover energy and use it as needed—is the perfect foundation for the NASCAR V-8 hybrid stock car. The way I envision it, we’d be creating one of the best engines in the world, and it would keep the roar that NASCAR fans love.

Here’s how I imagine it working.

The NASCAR KERS system will supply the cars with a small extra reserve of electric energy—almost like having a nitrous button—that would give drivers a boost of power whenever they need it. When maxed out, that extra boost could last a full lap or two, and it could be used in two different ways: either as a substitute for gas power, or to complement it.

In addition, to make sure that drivers have to use the KERS system, the new NASCAR hybrid would have a 10-gallon fuel tank—basically, half of its current size. This would make the cars harder to drive, which I think as a race car driver, is never a bad thing. Race cars should be hard to drive. Without having the fuel to spare, racers also would be forced to use the electric system throughout races, both in critical and non-critical situations. It’s not hard to imagine what it would do to teams’ strategies throughout each race.

In terms of the racing, I think it would be incredible. Today, our cars have a max of about 750 horsepower. Potentially, a hybrid would have almost 1,000 horsepower with the KERS system and the V8 combined. They would get up to speed immediately.

Let’s say a yellow comes out. According to our new parameters, all cars would switch to electric in their hybrid engines in order to save precious fuel. In that moment, the field would go silent, and wouldn’t be burning gas anymore. This would be great for our fans because it would bring down the wall of useless noise for a few minutes while we’re under caution.

But the second the race goes green, the field—at least those cars in it that still have their KERS reserve power—is firing on both the electric and the gas-powered systems. They’re using the energy they’ve recovered during the race. For the next lap or two, until the electricity is used up, you’re watching the most powerful race cars ever going extremely fast.

And that’s just during a caution. This could be applied to qualifying as well.

Or think about how race strategy would change as the KERS system recharged during a race, and you had that extra boost available to you at a critical point near the end, right when you needed to make a pass. You hit the button and boom. You’ve got that power, and we’ve got a kind of finish that doesn’t exist in NASCAR today—or anywhere in motorsports, for that matter.

As a driver, this would change the way I drive in a good way. More power makes the car harder to manage. That puts control of the car more in my hands, and less under the influence of elements I don’t control like aerodynamics, things of that nature.

Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography

THE BENEFITS

There are a number of compelling reasons to go hybrid. If you look at the motorsports landscape right now, there’s an all-electric series called Formula E. Manufacturers are spending money like crazy on electric engines in Formula E because they all want their brands associated with electric vehicles.

Contrast that with NASCAR, where we’re having issues with manufacturers because they’re trying to divest themselves from gas-only V-8s and other impractical engines, which aren’t relevant to today’s technology. Our sport relies heavily on manufacturers to be successful. Without them, we can’t operate.

To be clear: I don’t think that electric cars are the future. The poor infrastructure and manufacturing waste associated with electric cars (and especially with their batteries) make that certain. I believe that hybrid vehicles are the future.

If we switch to hybrids, we accomplish several things.

First, we engage our original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in a new way that has never been seen before. Right now, OEMs spend millions of dollars in racing and they develop a few parts, none of which are really mission-critical parts for them.

Imagine if instead, we’re helping them develop this KERS-style hybrid technology. Once the OEMs got the KERS system right with their race teams, they’d be able to get it right on street cars, too—much more efficiently than the rare existing KERS street vehicle like the McLaren P1, which is a far cry from mainstream.

In that way, NASCAR would be more relevant to the car world than it’s ever been.

In addition, as I’ve already suggested, hybrids would also create an opportunity for NASCAR to put on better racing than ever before. With KERS technology, drivers would have to be far more strategic and engaged in systems management—which, quite honestly, is what great drivers should be.

We’d have more passes for the lead, and more scenarios that would help us be more entertaining as a sport. As we try to cultivate the next generation of fans, more dynamic racing driven by a hybrid NASCAR V8 seems like the right direction to be headed in.

Across the board, this is a win. The time is right, and the time is right now.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

THE CHALLENGES

What are the challenges to making this happen?

The first thing that everyone’s going to say is that switching to a KERS hybrid system will cost too much money. I don’t believe that. I’d argue that big teams will always find a way to implement new technology that benefits them. Will it be hard for the smaller teams? Absolutely. But the truth is that struggling teams are always going to be struggling teams. We can’t let that get in the way of making the sport better.

Another problem is that hybrid cars require battery cells, and batteries are extremely dangerous. Put them in a race car that wrecks big sometimes, and at some point, they’re going to explode and catch fire. According media reports, that’s already happened in a few Tesla wrecks over the past couple years.

Safety standards would have to be rigorous. Thankfully in NASCAR, the cars have a big roll cage. There’s a way to make it work—probably by putting the battery in the center of the car, next to the driver. Regardless of the specifics, I’m confident we can find a way to get it done safely.

Another issue would be outlining the parameters for racing. When do you get to use the KERS afterburner, and how long does that extra boost last? Does the race leader get to use the afterburner? There are enough questions about how all of this would work for a whole other discussion, but to me, the real discussion is simply the ability to think about racing in a new way. Having this technology opens up that discussion.

SHAPING THE FUTURE

There’s one last benefit to going hybrid, and it has to with the future of cars in general.

Yes, hybrids already exist on the road, but there is still a lot of potential to make pretty significant efficiency gains. I can’t think of a better arena than motorsports to help bring those improvements about.

When it comes to cars, there is no laboratory more potent than the world of racing. We’ll push ourselves to the limit for a one horsepower improvement. If we’re working with OEMs on hybrid technology, some of the money and resources we put to use on the track will eventually make the cars on the roads better, too.

That’s a future that everyone can believe in.

10 Comments

  1. bob May 30, 2018 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Brad, when I go watch a race I want to see good old fuel burning cars run 200mph. NOT ELECTRIC!!!!!!!!! Don’t be a fool and drink the KOOLAID of ELECTRIC VEHICLE CRAP!!!!!!!!!! Nascar fans don’t want this.

  2. Patricia Horton May 30, 2018 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Never, no and no. Hard to believe the automakers would even consider this. NASCAR began pitting automakers against one another, and what won on Sunday, sold on Monday. STOP trying to change things.

  3. Anthony May 30, 2018 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    Brad I honeslty like the idea, you have my vote. But we also need to modernize the technology on the cars too. That why I like the V8 super cars too.

  4. Nicholas Dove May 31, 2018 at 3:21 am - Reply

    I like your thinking, Brad. We have to be open to ALL forms of tech while continuing the legacy of raw power. The KERS system isn’t one that I’m familiar with (being an Motorsports enthusiast with an American focus), but it could be provide a source of relatability that the sport has lacked since the NASCAR generation 2-3 era. I’m looking forward to further researching this topic.

  5. Devon Martinez May 31, 2018 at 4:12 am - Reply

    Brad, I agree whole heartedly. I think you might be the most free thinking man in NASCAR. Never lose that. This sounds like a sustainable future to the sport. Thanks for writing!

  6. Austin Ripp May 31, 2018 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    wow

  7. Sam May 31, 2018 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Honestly Brad I’m not a huge fan of your racing, however I’m a fan of your knowledge and support to the sport! This blog is spot on and very well written. I hope top officials here about this and start working on it, and when your done racing years from now don’t become a analyst… become someone who helps grow this sport just like this! Thank you for the insight Brad and have a wonderful day.

  8. Hugh May 31, 2018 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Not totally against it but it is one of things I would need to see live to give a Yes or No. But if fans revolted after each of first couple races then NASCAR must be prepared to revert back quickly.
    Brad you may be able to tell me how I am wrong but I think the added expense going EFI in CUP has not made the racing better. Lots of laptops and engineers that were never around before at top $$$ expense. As fans we didn’t see any difference other than no longer can an small independent engine shop complete.

  9. BillC20 May 31, 2018 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    NASCAR needs more than alternative power sources to retain relevance beyond the crack-spackle audience.

    4-speed manuals? WTH? 90% of the tracks don’t require any down-shifting either – why not run automatics since you’re not fooling anyone.

    More downforce please, and no restrictor plates. Talladega and Daytona are unique venues and should be celebrated in all their glory.

    Get rid of the repetitive ovals (CMS and MIS are virtually identical aren’t they?), race more on tracks that require turning left and right. Why is that so hard? The history of NASCAR is partly based on moonshiners hot-wheeling it on backroads isn’t it? Those roads had no right turns? Tracks like Bristol and Martinsville are awesome for their uniqueness (small and high banked, and flat respectively).

    And the ‘playoff’ format. Just stop that. Its far worse than DRS zones in F1.

  10. Don May 31, 2018 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    Gas engines or go home! Screw hybrids

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