"Win on Sunday, sell on Monday!" This axiom has driven most automakers to get involved in some form of motor racing over the years, but will the old saw stand the test of time with the eco-oriented vehicles of the future, asks Jeremy Burne?

Not many dispute the relationship between success on the track and success at the dealership, most acknowledge the global power of motorsports as a marketing tool for certain automotive brands. Many also concede that racing can serve as an accelerator of technology development - testing and proving, in short time scales, engineering concepts which can be applied to future passenger vehicles. Some of the most competitive, innovative and hard-working engineers can be found at the race track.

So leveraging motorsports as a marketing medium or research lab for energy efficient vehicles is a no-brainer. High performance, with energy efficiency, is not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why "green" cars can't be fast, sexy,cool and fun and they can be promoted as such.

Sadly, there is a decreasing relevance between most of today's race cars and those sold to the public. Resistance to change, and cost-cutting, within both the OE and motorsports sectors has stifled innovation and technology development over the past 15 years.

Yet, motor racing is the only major televised sport in the world, featuring an engineering challenge, where the rules can be changed as and when needed. If enough vehicle manufacturers wanted to race and to sell hybrid performance cars, for example, a race series will quickly adapt its rules to encourage this.

Formula One, seen as the technical pinnacle of motorsports, recently allowed innovative kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), but no sea change is on the horizon. Getting manufacturers and teams to agree on anything in F1 is the greatest challenge, right now!

In the US, the marketing behemoth that is NASCAR still uses 40 year old technology - engines with vintage components such as carburetors (first patented in 1886!). Don't hold your breath waiting for the stock car boys to show environmental leadership on the track. NASCAR shows little concern about any visible connection, i.e. "relevance", between its race cars and the "stock showroom" cars from which they purport to be derived. If it weren't for headlight decals and such, it would be hard to distinguish a Ford from a Chevy or a Toyota during a NASCAR race. NASCAR has a successful business model, but it is one that it is rooted in a heritage that might be hard to square with hybrid and electric car technology. In NASCAR, the drivers are the stars not the cars.

The premier open wheel series in the US, the Indy Racing League (IRL) is using 100% ethanol as its fuel of choice in its Honda engines and was the first race series in the world to do so. The Indy 500, the biggest race in the world, was won on ethanol, a powerful green message...and this has helped Honda. As an alternative fuel, ethanol has generated some momentum recently, much of which has been lost in the debate that switching to ethanol will cause world hunger and raise food prices. The jury is still out on this one while different sources are being investigated. It has, however, attracted new green sponsors to the sport (as has ALMS efforts too). IRL are currently planning and working on their new "centenary" car and many changes are expected, which will help further in the green area.

In the US, it is the American LeMans Series that has truly embraced green racing. They launched the Michelin Green X Challenge which rewards the most energy efficient cars for each race and class. They have also attracted support from the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. Sadly, this has not, as yet, translated into any significant new manufacturers entering the series (in fact both Audi and Porsche have pulled out of their prototype programs). But with ALMS, there is a clear vision and desire to make it happen.

So if the automakers are not ready to lead the charge into green racing, and the major racing series must wait for them to show leadership, who will step up to the plate and grab the opportunity?

There are promising signs. The TTXGP, the first zero carbon, all electric motorcycle race, was recently held on the famous Isle of Man race track and now plans to run a world championship for 2010. There is an emerging new generation of electric vehicle manufacturers who will want to engage in motorsports to help sell their innovative products. Companies, who are developing new battery technology and related systems and ramping up and jockeying for preferred supplier positions, may also see the virtue of motorsport as a mobile marketing and research lab. Companies who are serious about sustainability issues should look favorably on sponsorship proposals from green racing teams and series.

Whilst this scenario may do little to change the views of the petro-centric establishment, a whole new generation of prospective customers and race fans are growing up. They are serious about saving the planet which they will inherit, and are distinguished by their unprecedented affinity for technology and genuine concern for the environment. For motorsports to remain relevant as a marketing and entertainment medium in the years to come, it will need to race vehicles that are relevant to these consumers.
 

Jeremy Burne MBE

Jeremy Burne is US Director at TTxGP eGrandPrix and also serves as Director, North American Operations at Motorsport Industry Association (MIA)