The potential for involvement of tire companies, electronics manufacturers and computer giants seems very clear. Getting the most from a design will require new ways of thinking about how and where a car uses energy and how to make it more efficient. The same disciplines of aerodynamics and engine design that now push a race car through the air at 200 mph will be redirected into the more practical problem of building a fuel-efficient automobile that can travel at more relevant speeds.
Why am I dusting off this old idea and running it up the flagpole again? Over the past year, as gas prices fluctuated wildly and the economic markets tanked, I spoke to several of my friends who are in the racing business. They were lucky enough to have kept their jobs during the downturn, but many of their friends and coworkers hadn't been so fortunate. Yet each of them still saw racing for what it is today: more about entertainment than for competition or technological advancement. With money tight, and faced with environmental challenges in the future, maybe it's time to rethink the entire equation. Promoting technologies in front of the paying public might be both entertaining and socially responsible.
Where I failed the last time I wrote about this was in getting manufacturers interested. That will be the real key: to get car manufacturers to take such a challenge seriously. For so long they have been convinced by sanctioning bodies that racing's role is primarily entertainment; the idea that it could really improve the world is all but inconceivable. What would be needed would be an appeal to the corporate ego akin to the one that drives BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Toyota to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Formula One engine rivalries. It is possible, but it would require carmakers to recall what racing really means.
When you boil it down to its essentials, racing has always been about managing energy to go as far and as fast as possible. Pit stops under caution and NASCAR yellow flags for debris often scramble this, but in its essence racing will always be thus. If you want pit stops, give them two gallons and make them go 200 miles, but limit the on-board energy to the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. What I propose is that we limit the amount of energy to a pittance and make the goals as difficult to attain as possible. Racers have always shown an ability to overcome obstacles and achieve the seemingly impossible. I said it in 2001 and I'll say it again now. What I want is to for once give racers and racing engineers a problem that is really worth solving: the future of the automobile.