June 25, 2009 at 11:35 PM ET
ALMS via Argonne Nat'l Lab
A GM Chevrolet Corvette (bottom) and a Porsche RS Spyder were the two
winners of the first Green Challenge at the Petit Le Mans race in Atlanta
last October. The winners were selected based on a formula that factored
in energy efficiency, petroleum displacement and greenhouse-gas
emissions as well as speed during the 1,000-mile race.
The race doesn’t always go to the swiftest. Nowadays, some auto races go to the most fuel-efficient, or to the most environmentally friendly, or even to the best business plan.
That doesn't mean you should expect a NASCAR prize to go to a Prius anytime soon. But it does mean you'll see different kinds of scales for judging the cars that go onto the track - scales that you might even use when you buy your next car.
"Race cars actually move the technology of street cars in several ways," John C. Glenn, an environmental specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, explained today in a news advisory keyed to a green-tech conference. "One, the technology of race cars develops at a much faster pace than the technology in street cars. And two, they form the basis of what kind of cars people want. They see cars racing on the track, and that's the kind of car they want to buy."
Glenn discussed the trend toward greener racing at the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in College Park, Md. His theme was that racers can be mean and green at the same time.
"We clearly did not want to change racing. We didn't want to make it boring and slow," he said. "We didn't feel as if that would accomplish our goal, which is to get people to use more energy-efficient vehicles and to stimulate the development of more energy-efficient technologies."
Glenn and his colleagues have been working with race organizers for years to move closer to that goal. In 2006, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy joined up with Argonne National Laboratory and SAE International to form the Green Racing Working Group. The group notched its first big success last October when the American Le Mans Series conducted its first Green Challenge, a "race within a race."
Rather than holding a separate competition for green vehicles, the Green Challenge judges scored the cars already entered in the 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans endurance race at Road Atlanta, using a formula that accounted for the cars' energy efficiency, greenhouse-gas emission and petroleum-equivalent fuel cost.
The Le Mans race was the perfect place to start, Glenn said, because the rules permit a wide range of "street-legal" fuels including E10 and E85 ethanol blends, sulfur-free diesel and gas-electric hybrids.
And the winners are ...
When all the numbers were factored together - including vehicle mass and average speed - the order of finish for October's Green Challenge turned out to be slightly different from the outcome of the overall race: A Chevrolet Corvette that finished fourth overall in the Le Mans won first place in the Green Challenge's Grand Touring class, while a Porsche RS Spyder that came in sixth overall won first prize in the Prototype class.
Tom Wallace, GM's global vehicle chief engineer for performance vehicles, called the Green Challenge results "Corvette Racing's greatest victory." Glenn was pleased as well - pleased enough to spread the green-racing gospel far and wide.
"When I talk to people involved in racing, I tell them, 'You're coming to a crossroads. You can either be the poster boys for global warming, or you can be part of the solution. It all depends on you,'" he said.
It looks as if the message is sinking in: This year, the American Le Mans Series has extended the green-racing series to run all season as the Michelin Green X Challenge. The teams with the best records at the end of the Le Mans season in October, as calculated using the formula developed for last year's race, will grab the green glory.
Michelin is also retooling its enviro-racing initiative on the international Le Mans circuit to go with the Green X Challenge branding.
X files: Fight the future
As long as we're talking about auto racing's X files, we should touch upon the highest-profile green-racing event on the agenda: the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize. In April, the Auto X Prize's organizers announced that 111 teams were accepted into the competition, and spokeswoman Carrie Fox told me today that 96 of those teams have gone on to the next step of the contest by turning in their business plans.
Business plans? Maybe A.J. Foyt didn't need a business plan for the Indy 500, but the financial details are an integral part of the Automotive X Prize preparations. Teams have to show not only that they can field a car capable of getting 100 miles per gallon (or its energy equivalent), but also that they can produce 10,000 or more of those cars for the automotive marketplace.
Over the next few months, the X Prize judges will analyze the business plans and decide which teams will go on to actual track tests in 2010. Fox said the detailed rules and schedules for the competition ahead - including on-the-road semifinals and finals - should be announced sometime in the next few weeks
Contest planners can't yet predict exactly how many cars will participate in the races to come. "We're still so amazed at the number that have made it through the first couple of phases," Fox said.
One thing's for sure, however: The X Prize finals won't be like most auto races. For example, the vehicles will be sent out in a staggered start. "The cars won't ever be side by side," Fox said. With so many one-of-a-kind cars in the competition, the X Prize teams can't afford risking an Indy-style pileup.
Another unusual twist is that the race may not be quite over when it's over. It will probably take some extra time to run all the numbers on energy equivalents, fuel efficiency and greenhouse-gas emissions.
But in the end, someone could come away with a NASCAR-scale payoff measured in millions of dollars. Now that's a kind of green worth waiting for.
More on auto tech: