Conflict Among Race Enthusiasts Over EV Auto Racing

solar race car
CalSol’s solar race car warms up for a lap around the Sonoma Raceway

Sustainable racing – is it an oxymoron? Possibly. Yet on Friday, experts in the automotive and clean energy industries gathered at Northern California’s Sonoma Raceway to discuss how the traditional auto industry debate of sustainability versus performance might end up parked within a mainstream narrative of sustainability plus performance in garages across the world.

The second annual Accelerating Sustainable Performance Summit focused on topics ranging from a future where electric and solar are the mainstream to the potential role of sports as a catalyst for sustainability. Much of the discussion was held within the context of the auto racing industry.

“You race to win, not to be sustainable,” stated Marshall Pruett of, wasting no time before appearing to drop the hammer on the pro-environment position held by the majority of racing enthusiasts.

He even lauded exhaust fumes and roaring engines, components of racing that might disappear if electric vehicles took to the track. “The sight of cars going quickly is vital to our sport, but take away the sounds and the smells and we’re left with niche exhibitions played out in front of empty grandstands,” says Pruett.

While Pruett’s comments seemed to set the tone for the remainder of the discussion, they did not totally squelch more forward thinking panelists from offering their hopeful (and at times quasi-whimsical hypotheticals. Tom Collins of KleenSpeed believes we’re at an inflection point where on-road hybrids and electric vehicles like Tesla’s Roadster are on track to merge with the racing industry. Initial snickers morphed into a running joke when Collins projected that inductive strips on electric charging stations would replace pit stops on racetracks in 10 years. Such grand visions are fraught with uncertainty and the challenges are many. “It remains to be seen which technologies are going to drive the market down the road,” said Jeff Brown, President and CEO of Novvi, a renewable lubricants company.

summit panel
Panel debates the future role for sustainability in auto racing

Yet all panelists seemed to agree on a supplementalrole that auto racing could play in the movement toward a more sustainable auto industry. Scot Elkins of the American Le Mans Series and the International Motor Sports Association captured the essence of these roundabout arguments. “Racing itself may not necessarily be sustainable, but utilizing racing as a sort of laboratory for technological development (and as a platform for education and promotion) could move us more quickly toward a more sustainable auto industry.”

NASCAR itself boasts the largest sustainability program in sports. This year’s Sprint Cup series released several sustainability initiatives with partners including American Ethanol and Sprint’s leading wireless recycling program. Efforts to green the racing industry are not exclusive to the US. A new global racing series for all-electric (Formula E) cars will debut in Rio De Janeiro in 2014, according to a recent announcement made by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

The summit showcased some of the latest innovations spawned from this laboratory of auto racing during practice runs around the racetrack. Highlights included a track record-setting electric racecar capable of speeds up to 160 mph by KleenSpeed, and some of the highest ever performing electric motorcycles, developed by companies including Mission Motors and BRD Motorcycles. CalSol, a team of students from University of California at Berkeley, generated particular interest from the auto enthusiast crowd with their 100 percent solar-powered endurance vehicle. The CalSol racecar weighs just 525 lbs and, according the team leader, Michael Vogel, can conceivably run forever assuming full sunlight. He described the innovation as “what you’ll see 10-20 years down the road.”

Shifting away from racing, the summit also unveiled the Sustainable Performance Ranking Metric – a simple automobile ranking system designed by Dominican University of California’s Green MBA program in partnership with the Sonoma Raceway to demonstrate which vehicles best optimize both sustainability and performance. The metric lists electric vehicle leaders Tesla Model-S and the Chevy Volt Plugin Hybrid atop the overall ranking, while the Ford Mustang and the Toyota Camry LE Hybrid scored highest among non-electric vehicles. The system was lauded as a foundation on which to build a reliable assessment, however, its limitations are rife and seem all too palpable. The metric is exceedingly simple in its calculations and lacks adequate attributions for emissions, fuel impact, and safety, among others.

The metric system is one of several sustainability initiatives undertaken by the Sonoma Raceway in recent years. Others include Panasonic’s solar installation of almost 1,700 panels and the 3,000 sheep that mow the greenery surrounding the facility. The raceway has been recognized as a leader paving the way for sustainability in the broader sports industry.

Neill Duffy, Chief Marketing and Sustainability Officer for the 34th America’s Cup and Founder of Sports Impact Marketing opened the summit with a powerful keynote encompassing the imperative role of the entire sports industry in the movement for sustainability. “Sports can be more powerful than government,”Duffy said, echoing Nelson Mandela. “There is little else with the reach or influence of sports since it is fueled so heavily by dollars and consumer eyes.”

In terms of economic value, sports represent one percent of the global GDP, according to Duffy. “What we need next is a new recipe for embracing sustainability as a key business driver. I’m here because it makes business sense. We must embrace sustainability as a core part of the DNA of sports business.”

The sports industry – and especially auto racing – may epitomize competitive performance, yet because of its unique place in the world’s collective culture, isn’t it especially critical that it contribute to a more sustainable future? It is a hazy road ahead, but we can at least be encouraged by a noticeably growing vision of a future where high performance meets sustainability.

Travis heads up business development here at Previously, he has worked with several social enterprises including Calvert Foundation, SOCAP and Karisimbi Business Partners, a socially motivated management consulting start-up in Rwanda. He has also served in Guatemala as a Social Entrepreneur Corps Fellow and continues to support Wild River Organics, his family’s organic fruit farm. Travis received his BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. He can be reached at