When Will the Indy 500 Go Electric?

Yesterday Takuma Sato became the first Asian driver to claim victory at the Indy 500 on the 101st running of the event, marking yet another milestone in the venerable history of the track known as the Brickyard and the event which bills itself The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Having been raised in Indiana, I have many fond memories of days spent at the track, watching time trials, watching the spectacle itself and simply being a part of the enormous happening that makes The Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the day of the race one of my favorite places to be on the planet. One of the things I like best about the race and the track is the tradition. Returning to my hometown to attend the event is something I look forward to every year. It represents a sort of continuity that I find reassuring which is made that much more meaningful through all the hallowed traditions that have been established over more than a century now, from the first few notes of “Back Home Again in Indiana” in the moments leading up to the start, all the way to the swig of milk taken by the victorious driver in the Winner’s Circle, the Indy 500 is a pageant of tradition. Though, in spite of this continuity, the race has also seen its fair of change over the years.

For example in 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first female driver to qualify for the race, paving the way a way for women like Lynn St. James and Danica Patrick who made their own lasting contributions to the history of the Brickyard. In 1991, Willy T. Ribbs became the first African American driver to compete at Indy, breaking down yet another barrier. Meanwhile, the track came to be appreciated by fans outside of the Indy Car series. I was privileged to attend the inaugural races for both the NASCAR and F1 series in Indy in 1994 and 2000, respectively. However, not all the changes at the Brickyard will be remembered so fondly. In 1996, a wide rift opened in the open-wheel racing world, as influential insiders feuded over the rules that governed the sport that was at the time was rapidly losing market share to stock car racing. The split persisted for 20 years until the leagues were finally reunited in time for the centennial running, though not before the stature of the IndyCar series and the 500 were greatly diminished.

Of course the technologies employed at the track have also evolved over time, including the fuels that power cars in their 200 laps around the two-and-a-half mile oval. Notably, following the fiery seven-car crash that claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964, gasoline was replaced at the Brickyard by less volatile, alcohol-based fuels. Methanol initially was selected to replace gas and was the fuel that powered Tom Sneva’s car as he made history in 1977 as the first driver to qualify at the Brickyard at a speed exceeding 200 mph. Eventually ethanol fuels took over. In the 2006 season, a fuel that was a 90%/10% mixture of ethanol and methanol was tested and in 2007 the league advertised “100% Fuel Grade Ethanol,” the first competitive auto-racing series to utilize a renewable fuel. The increased power and fuel mileage of ethanol subsequently led to rule changes, reducing engine size and fuel tank capacity.

Ethanol seemed like a logical choice at the time, given the importance of corn production to the state’s economy and so when gasoline prices spiked in 2008 to a national average over $4 a gallon, this choice seemed all the more like the march of progress. Indeed, the ethanol-based fuel used today offers many benefits over the gasoline or diesel used by most drivers in their daily commutes, including a substantial reduction in a variety of air pollutants such as sulfur emissions, carbon monoxide, particulates, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides. However, the supposed carbon-neutral benefit of ethanol is thin to say the least and, to the extent that biofuels place energy and food demand at odds with each other, it’s a stretch to think of it as a truly sustainable choice. With climate and sustainability occupying an increasingly important place in American life, it seems fitting to consider how these values will be reflected at the Brickyard going forward. This ultimately brings me to the question I originally posed in the title of this piece: when will the Indy 500 go electric?

That’s a question that is not-so-easily answered. While the track might be a touch slow to adopt mainstream social norms and steeped in tradition, it has never completely shirked progress. The authentic words of excitement and encouragement in the stands and on social media following Sato’s victory ring true with the Hoosier Hospitality for which my home state is known and more importantly, reinforce that the track is not a closed loop. On the other hand, while minds might be open to new faces in the winner circle, the idea of something as seemingly innocuous as electric-powered engines at the track is almost…well…unthinkable! When I unofficially polled a handful of my friends – fellow Hoosiers who are just as enamored with 500-history as I am – the notion was met with a resounding “NEVER!” And yet electric vehicles (EVs) are nothing new. In fact, at the turn of the previous century, over a third of the automobiles on the road were powered by electricity. It wasn’t until 1912 when the electric starter was invented by Charles Kettering, replacing the clunky hand crank and making ignition of internal combustion engines convenient, that EVs were finally more or less replaced on roadways. Still they had some performance advantages and dominated the land speed record until 1924.

But today we are faced with new realities which make EVs a compelling alternative to internal combustion vehicles. To see which way the winds of change are blowing, one only need look to the example of Tesla which sold over 76,000 vehicles worldwide in 2016 and now boasts a market value of almost $50 billion, more than either GM or Ford, each of which accounted for sales volumes measured in millions of units last year. It’s not surprising that Big Auto is racing to catch up. Although it’s a little challenging for me to imagine the Indy 500 without the roar of internal combustion engines, I find myself intrigued by the possibility of the high-pitched whine of electric motors taking their place. It’s exciting for me to consider being a part of what I would view as progress, but maybe I’ve just been sipping too much Kool-Aid. When it comes down to it, energy policy in the US can be an incredibly polarizing subject. Tesla’s carbon-free ecosystem of products, exemplified by their stunning selection of EVs, which complement energy generation and storage products, do not yet have universal appeal. The value of a reduced carbon lifestyle is not shared by all Americans, so much so that just mentioning the existence of this choice that many Americans make, let alone the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions, is enough to evoke the ire of others. Although EVs alone do not necessarily imply a carbon reduction per se, their association with the carbon-free lifestyle to which many early adopters aspire cannot be denied and so EVs represent a polarizing force which I believe is truly at the heart of what makes the concept of an electrified 500 so unthinkable. But maybe this point of view shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, going electric faces considerable cultural inertia to overcome in a state where elected officials recently chose to effectively kill the solar industry through a phase-out of net metering, a thinly-veiled protectionist measure aimed at propping up the state’s dying, but still influential, coal industry – or at least throwing a bone to those who still support it. Nonetheless, my ardent hope is that my fellow Hoosiers will keep an open mind to the aspirations of those of us who are looking to the future and see EVs as an important technology that will get us there.

Maybe the end of people driving vehicles – not to mention, racing them – makes the subject moot. The disruptive potential of autonomous transportation is profound to say the least, suggesting the days of people relating to the concept of a human behind the wheel of a vehicle might just be numbered. It’s certainly not unthinkable to consider the possibility that the spectacle of automotive racing itself might fade into the twilight of history, perhaps one day even being viewed as barbaric as gladiatorial combat by future generations. That’s a sad thought to me to contemplate, but if auto-racing and the Indy 500 really are living on borrowed time, maybe it’s worth asking, what is there to lose in trying something new?

While I will always find meaning in the traditions of the race, change is quite possibly what will keep them around a little longer. With that in mind, it might be worth reflecting on the words of David Bowie, the ultimate master of self-reinvention, who once remarked: “…as you get older the questions come down to two or three: how long have I got and what am I gonna do with the time I’ve got left?”

Robert Kalbouss2018-09-04T10:05:24-04:00