Bill Nye has a plan to make NASCAR better than ever. But can it work?
NASCAR is right up there with football and baseball when it comes to sports Americans love.
Professional stock car racing is fast, thrilling, and a serious moneymaker. In 2012, NASCAR earned $3 billion in sponsorship money, more than double that of the NFL.
Breakneck speed and passionate fans are the cornerstone of this wildly popular sport.
But! Here's an idea: What if those loud, gas-guzzling stock cars were replaced with electric cars?
Think I'm nutty for even suggesting it? Don't blame me. It's all Bill Nye's idea. In a January 2016 op-ed for Aeon, the TV science guy and beloved bow-tie wearer proposed that NASCAR cars make the switch from gas to electric engines.
Nye, a Southerner and lifelong stock car enthusiast, says he is disappointed by the lack of innovation in racing and suggests that, instead of clinging to outdated modes of technology, NASCAR should embrace the future and make the transition to electric cars.
"Despite the excitement, NASCAR kinda breaks my heart," Nye writes. "It’s a celebration of old tech." He wishes NASCAR was more like NASA, where the focus is always on the future and innovation.
"I wish NASCAR set up Grand Challenges to inspire companies and individuals to create novel automotive technologies in the way NASA does to create novel space technologies," he says. He even has a plan, a vision, for what NASCAR would look like with electric cars:
"It’s easy for me to imagine an electric race car that completely outperforms a gas-powered competitor. Instead of refueling a gas tank, the electric race car pit crew would change battery packs. The car would be designed to roll up a ramp. The battery pack would be disconnected and dropped out. Moments later, a fresh battery pack would be lifted into place, and off our electric racer would go with time in the pit comparable to what it takes to refuel and service a conventional gas-powered race car."
While this image sounds idealized, the real question is whether it's even feasible. Can electric cars even compete with their gas-powered counterparts?
Yes. Yes, they can.
Electric vehicles are already on track to compete with NASCAR.
NASCAR vehicles are built for speed. They have large, finely tuned engines that can take in huge amounts of air. They run without mufflers and catalytic converters so nothing slows down the exhaust. All the other systems on the car are built to operate at high speeds and temperatures.
All of these factors, along with a skilled driver, allow NASCAR vehicles to get anywhere from 800 to 940 horsepower and go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 2.9 seconds.
It's not built to perform like a race car and weighs in about 1,000 pounds heavier than most stock cars, but initial tests make it clear that the Model S and other electric vehicles have potential for racing success.
While electric vehicles can compete with gas-powered vehicles, making the transition across NASCAR wouldn't be easy or affordable.
The speed and power required by the average NASCAR race car does not come cheap. One team, Joe Gibbs Racing, builds engines that cost around $80,000 a piece. One of those engines won't even get you through the nine-month NASCAR season. Not even close. Due to high speeds and punishing conditions, it only takes one or two races before serious engine maintenance or replacement is required.
Electric vehicles use motors powered by large batteries instead of fuel. While a fuel engine only lasts a couple of races, that's still better than the battery life of electric cars, which would need to have new battery packs installed during races because their range is 270 miles under traditional conditions.
While prices have fallen sharply since 2007, the cost of electric vehicle batteries is still between $300 and $450 per kilowatt hour. To be on par with gas-powered vehicles, researchers say that price would need to fall to around $150 per kWh, a milestone that's expected to be more than five years away.
For their part, NASCAR has taken a few major steps to offset the hefty emissions of their current cars. The 43 cars in the 2015 Daytona 500 used an estimated 5,375 gallons of gas. However, the cars use a biofuel blend made from corn that cuts emissions by 20%; since 2009, NASCAR has planted 370,000 trees, enough to offset their national series racing carbon emissions for the next 40 years.
Nye also predicts the influence NASCAR's adoption of electric cars would have on the consumer market and the economy.
While still years away from feasibility, a transition like this could give alternative vehicles and the sport of NASCAR racing a serious boost.
Imagine watching dozens of souped-up electric cars race around the track. Nye believes it would inspire fans to seriously consider electric cars for their own needs.
"The market for electric cars would go crazy. Manufacturers could not produce them fast enough," Nye estimates. "We could convert our transportation system to all-electric in less time than it took to go from horse-drawn to horseless carriage, 20 years maybe."
Though Nye is a font of optimism, he may have a point. Race fans are notoriously loyal and passionate. One market research firm reported 40% of fans are willing to switch brands to buy NASCAR-branded or sponsored products. This transition could be the boost EVs need.
NASCAR stopped releasing attendance data in 2012, but many signs point to declining numbers. And while it is still popular, TV ratings for televised races have dipped as well. Perhaps an innovative transition like this would inspire fans old and new to give the sport another look.
Critics will say Nye's plan for an EV NASCAR will never work. But imagine for a moment if it does.
Consider the innovation an idea like this begets, the emissions it could eliminate, the good habits it may inspire. Ambitious? Yes. Feasible? Maybe. Either way, the avenues for opportunity are enough to get anyone's motor running.