I Still Think This Could Work
I rarely recycle my columns, but an idea I had in April 2001 just seems too good to let go. In that issue of the magazine, I had proposed a new kind of racing series. "Imagine a car," I wrote, "that will travel 100 mph while also delivering 100 miles to a gallon." I envisioned a race or even a racing series where the first team to reach 100 miles while using just one gallon of gasoline would be the winner. Back in 2001, it seemed like a way to put more relevance into racing. Today, with economic meltdowns and scalebacks of corporate involvement, it might be the only thing that will save racing.

What I envisioned at the time would still work well today. Cars would be required to have two seats and a specific volume of luggage space, say the size of four grocery bags (paper, not plastic). Minimum weight should probably be in the 1,000- to 1,200-pound range. Wheelbase, width and overall height could be held to some reasonable size too.

I even worked out how the race would be run. The format will be familiar to devotees of sprint car racing. First of all, the cars would run on a paved oval. There would be four heats. In each heat, each starter would be allowed the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. If you use a diesel engine, you get less than a gallon of diesel oil as that fuel has more energy per unit volume. If yours is an electric car, you get to charge it with the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. The race begins from a standing start. In each heat, the top three finishers get to advance to the feature. Everyone who finishes fourth and doesn't transfer gets to run in a consolidation race and the top three will also make the feature race. Eventually, as the entries became more sophisticated they could move to road courses, where braking and accelerating would give hybrids an advantage.

The trick here is that the person who goes the farthest in exactly one hour, before running out of fuel, is the winner. Imagine the race strategies. Think your car will go 100 miles at 100 miles per hour? Better get up to speed fast and stay there. Think your racer can go 60 miles in an hour on a gallon of fuel but will only go 40 miles if you run flat out? Better pace yourself. One strategy might be to run hard, go far and run out early, hoping the distance you've traveled will make you the winner. Add the complications of accelerating away from a standing start, and dealing with traffic and drafting, and your racing skills will definitely be a major part of this game. So will technology.

Although there has been some steady progress in automotive technology since 2001, there have been no real game-changers. Back then I wrote, "As new technologies are uncovered to make the cars go further and faster, additional rules may need to be added. Hybrids pose an interesting problem, for example. They get a gallon of gasoline in their tanks, but they also have energy stored in their batteries. Of course if we let them have their battery power, but then don't let them add any more battery energy between heats, they will have to find creative ways to use the extra juice to their best advantage. If they use it too soon, they won't have anything left for the feature. If they hold back, they might not make the big show."

Now as then, I still think cheating--or creative interpretation of the rules--will be a big part of the competition. Back then I noted that this is not necessarily a bad thing. What we are looking for here is creativity and innovation in solving the basic problem of performance versus economy. Some teams will find ways of making their cars go farther and run faster and it's that kind of thinking that will have a positive effect on the future of the automobile.

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