NASCAR is one of the storied sports leagues in the world. Its cars and teams and hosts of action figures are rock stars to much of the NASCAR universe, and the sport has taken on an unmistakable American swagger in the years since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic 2004 crash – not least of all because NASCAR has been uniquely, and almost comically, able to cope with the country’s increase in crime by promoting itself as the biggest safe space.
But there are no guarantees in the sports world, and such is the case with NASCAR. The sport that has lacked dramatic new innovation for the past three decades is now moving toward hybrid engines, a change that, if successful, could make the long-lasting appeal of the sport’s nostalgia less certain.
A hybrid engine, based on electric power or something similar to it, is one of the themes of a big Brookings Institution talk today (question of the day? Why do U.S. mayors become frustrated, but then fail to produce any leadership when preparing for the coming sea of natural disasters?) and has been making the rounds among NASCAR writers lately because Jeff Gordon was testing a prototype in Sonoma a few weeks ago. According to NASCAR’s website, “The use of advanced technology is expected to open up opportunities for improving competition in everything from engines to tires to on-track event rules and officiating.”
Other issues laid out in the presentation include NASCAR’s role in auto-racing safety, the Texas state legislative race (the House of Representatives in Austin, as you may have noticed, only has one Republican and one Democrat) and funding for scientific research.
But the potential advantages of hybrids to racing have been under discussion for a couple of years, with the impetus coming from the energy industry. NASCAR had always excelled at raising visibility with its engines, and an idea called the NextGen engine has been designed with very specific goal: to increase horsepower for race cars while reducing air pollution and eliminating carbon-dioxide emissions. The commission is watching closely: It approved three prototypes late last year, although no current driver has been permitted to put one in a race car.
The NextGen idea seems perfect for NASCAR, which already had been making the most of its new technology to deliver fans more television advertising, better social-media interaction and, for the record, a much better racing product on the track. NASCAR spokesman Rob Poetsch told the Indianapolis Star last year that the NextGen plan is being pursued through “a rigorous, well-planned and highly coordinated process,” and its development seemed to have a very distinct appeal to the sport’s well-known past and its future. The new engine had the smallest reduction in emissions of any car in its class during its test at California’s Sonoma Raceway, even lessening the need for NASCAR to establish a non-profit organization for the sport to gain financial support from the EPA.
But one of the big selling points of hybrid cars or parts – it’s much, much quieter – is that it won’t cut the amount of noise surrounding the racing, a convention the crowd respects to a certain extent and calls “goosebumps.” In that sense, hybrids could make the sport more like its competitors, all of whom feature technology of one kind or another in the cars they drive. How much more loud would a NASCAR track be?
It’s too early to say, but NASCAR and its fans will learn soon. And while it will be fun to pretend that the coming hybrid era has arrived, this is an obvious point to which the audience will soon be well acquainted: If they’re not worried about noise levels, why should they be.