A call to return to stock car racing's roots, with EVs

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An e.dams-Renault Formula E race car during the FIA Formula E 2014 Beijing ePrix at China’s Beijing Olympic Green Circuit in Sept. 2014. It marked the first ever Formula E race, an all-electric racing series. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

A disclaimer up front: I’m an avowed skeptic when it comes to electric vehicles, and I would have to quadruple my level of interest to reach “ambivalent” when it comes to almost every form of auto racing. But with that said …

I think automakers and their race teams have an opportunity to replay the glory days of stock car racing with EVs and learn much in the process. That’s because EV racing would be far more interesting to me if all of the vehicles were stock, the race was a designated distance — say, 200 or 225 miles — and no recharges or vehicle changes were allowed. Each race would be a test of technology and strategy, and an opportunity for a factory-backed race team to prove both on a given Sunday.

The adage from the glory days of NASCAR, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” rang truest when the cars on the track looked and acted like those one could find on a dealership lot. The cars NASCAR runs today — whether they’re nominal Toyotas or Fords or Chevys — have much more in common with each other in terms of components and performance than they do the vehicles they’re supposed to look like at the local dealership.

That was on purpose, as a way to demonstrate the skill of each driver (and, let’s be honest, as a way to market them) as he or she was pitted against others in similar machines. Auto racing, then, transformed into driver racing, with the brands and the nameplates fading into the background, along with the crowds and subsequent sales.

But like a century ago, EVs have brought us to the cusp of a new era, a time when different automakers are pursuing different technologies along different paths toward a common goal: a viable, affordable, useful mass-market EV. This is why automakers got involved with racing in the first place: as a crucible, a place to test technology, under extreme conditions, and in direct competition with those trying to beat them in the marketplace. It’s also why they should get involved again.

There’s already electric racing, of course, but like NASCAR and Formula One racing, Formula E is divorced from reality, and unlike anything you’d see in a showroom. It’s a speed race, one that tests the skills of the driver, but involves little strategy that’s useful to a potential EV buyer.

Don’t believe me? How useful is it to someone shopping for an EV to have a driver change cars in the middle of a race?

But imagine a race — say, on an undulating road coarse such as Sonoma Raceway, Circuit of the Americas in Texas, or Road Atlanta — with stock EVs from Tesla, General Motors, Volkswagen Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, etc., lined up side by side.

Who wouldn’t want to see a starting line with a Tesla Model 3 lined up between a Chevy Bolt and a Volkswagen I.D. Crozz, with a Mercedes-Benz EQC next to a Jaguar I-Pace and Audi e-tron? All right off dealer lots, charged up and ready to go.

The finish line would be 200 or 225 miles away, all within the defined battery range of each of these new vehicles under a full charge. Yet, the drivers couldn’t just stomp on the accelerators in a sprint when the green flag drops; a great deal of strategy would likely be required to reach the finish line with juice still in the batteries.

A car with a bigger battery pack might be able to hold a higher top speed for a longer duration, but would the added speed and weight of the battery pack drain the energy faster and leave it coming up short?

Or say, an EV with an aggressive regenerative system, like the one in the new Audi e-tron, might gain from the long downhill and chicanes, where it could recapture energy, but would that be enough?

Or maybe a vehicle with the best battery thermal management system outperforms the competition on a given day, given the weather?

The point is, there would be a lot of variables that would make such a race interesting and relevant to consumers who might be willing to consider buying an EV.

And the absolute best thing about such a true return to stock car racing?

The folks in the stands would be able to converse with one another without shouting.

Even I’d watch that. And I hate racing.

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