If you have ever raced a tiny electric car around a plastic track in your parents’ basement while imagining yourself behind the wheel, this one’s for you: for the first time ever, NASCAR will feature an all-electric pace car at its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race coming up at Richmond International Raceway on April 28.
Ford Motor Company has just announced that its 2012 Focus Electric sedan is the lucky EV to get the nod from NASCAR, and as a PR stunt this could leapfrog Ford into territory marked out by EV and hybrid frontrunners Nissan, Toyota and GM. Though it might seem that Ford is taking a bit of a risk by tying an eco-friendly EV to a notoriously gas-guzzling sporting event, given NASCAR's recent history maybe it's not such an odd pairing after all.
NASCAR as a new technology showcase
By turning the spotlight on the Focus EV at a NASCAR event, Ford gets to showcase the performance capabilities of electric vehicles to a key, mainstream group of car purchasers. That could make a huge difference as EV manufacturers pitch the new technology to a public that is hesitant to dip its toe into the electric car market.
Aside from price, EV performance and battery range are two hurdles that manufacturers have to overcome. A steady drumbeat of complaints from conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh over GM’s gasoline-electric Volt hasn’t helped, either.
However, racing events are traditionally the venues at which car manufacturers show off unfamiliar new technology and establish street cred, so although NASCAR - the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Inc. - is not typically associated with sustainability it’s still a powerful showcase for the Focus EV.
NASCAR as a green tech showcase
Do a little digging around the Internets, and you'll find that car racing fans may actually be more receptive to new green technology than the general public, partly because they are beginning to get a heavy dose of exposure to sustainability on the NASCAR circuit.
In 2008 NASCAR began recruiting sustainable-related companies for partnerships and sponsorships through its NASCAR Green program. One recent example is Liberty Tire Recycling, which has teamed up with Make Motorsports.
On a bare bones level, the partnerships familiarize racing fans with new green brands which are plastered all over uniforms and cars. The level of exposure can go much deeper, though, as demonstrated by a major road safety campaign announced earlier this year.
The new campaign, aimed at teen drivers, partners the biobased motor oil company Green Earth Technologies with NASCAR driver Tayler Malsam and actor Bryton. By interweaving traffic safety with the fuel efficiency of safe driving the campaign features an unashamedly green message, as articulated by Green Earth president Jeffrey Loch:
"Sustainability, a word linked to environmental practices, is really the long-term maintenance of responsibility. Tayler and Bryton are perfect ambassadors as we team up with NOYS and RADD to help our youth recognize that personal responsibility extends beyond traffic safety to the environment."
NASCAR and the solar power connection
The racing world also scored big this year with the announcement that the well-known driver Patrick Dempsey (well-known if you follow NASCAR or Grey’s Anatomy, take your pick) has teamed up with solar giant Trina Solar for a new philanthropic endeavor to provide communities in need with solar modules.
An increasing number of racing fans are also meeting up with renewable energy in the form of solar power at race tracks such as the Infineon Raceway in California and the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, and the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway got into the act last year by sponsoring its first ever Emerging Tech Day, showcasing clean technology to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500.
Professional sports and sustainability
That’s all on top of a general move toward adopting sustainable technology and environmental conservation that cuts across the spectrum of organized sports in the U.S., including baseball, football, hockey, golf, and basketball – which in turn, is fomenting a competition as to which sport gets bragging rights for the most green.
Using this competition to leverage your sport’s profile has not been lost on Mike Lynch, managing director of Green Innovation for NASCAR, who announced the pace car pick:
"With the largest sustainability program in sports, the NASCAR family is proud of Ford Motor Company's accomplishment with the Focus Electric pace car and what that means in terms of the tremendous impact of American innovation now and in the future."
As for Ford, though a bit late to the EV game compared to other car manufacturers, it has leaped squarely into a head-to-head challenge with the Nissan Leaf.
In a press release announcing its pace car status, Ford claims that the five-seat Focus Electric is certified by the U.S. EPA to run on equivalent of 105 miles per gallon (that would be MPGe), and the Leaf is certified at 99 MPGe.
Gentlemen, start your engines!
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.