Imagine if you will, a future where NASCAR Sprint Cup races feature not the overhead valve, V8 engines found in today’s stock cars, but electric motors that run off of lithium-ion batteries.
And, instead of filling a car full of fuel on a pit stop, teams replace a used lithium-ion battery with a new one.
Does this sound far-fetched? A decade ago, I would have said yes. It would have sounded almost as preposterous as flying cars — at least in my lifetime.
But, with the way things are heading, I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see the electric counterparts to today’s sedans circling NASCAR tracks.
Granted, we have a long way to go. But, this could work. With the cutting-edge technology used in Tesla Motors’ Roadster, powerful electric cars are not as far off as they once seemed. The company’s roadster accelerates from 0-60 in less than four seconds. And, while the car’s top speed is limited to 125 miles per hour for safety, with advances in both safety and the technology, I’m sure it could be used to achieve higher top speeds.
If NASCAR were to someday switch to electric cars, they could do away with the onboard fuel system found in the Volt. A combustion engine would not need to power the car to recharge the battery because teams could remove the battery during a pit stop, once its charge is lost.
Any switch to electric NASCAR race cars would most likely hinge on advancements in the batteries and safety.
Currently, lith-ion batteries have a high internal resistance, which increases over time and use, resulting in a drop in the voltage at the terminals. The amount of power needed to crank out 200 mph would give the batteries an extremely short life. They would discharge quickly.
So, batteries that can provide 200 mph for 40-50 laps, depending on the track, would need to be developed before NASCAR could even begin to consider a switch.
And, at some point, the batteries wouldn’t be able to be recharged enough to power the car. It is a very real possibility that NASCAR could only get one use out of a battery. That’s not very cost effective, but the allure of zero emissions might be enough for NASCAR to consider it worth it.
Lith-ion batteries can also explode if they overheat or are ruptured. Temperatures inside Cup cars can reach 120 degrees, which could increase the risk of an explosion. Add in the high likelihood of accidents that could result in an explosion, and the potential safety risks might be too high.
Before any switch can be considered, NASCAR would have to design a nearly indestructible compartment for the battery that can be accessed for pit stops, and will help keep the battery cool.
Other safety measures would have to be implemented as well. NASCAR would have to find a way to protect drivers from explosions; tracks would have to find a way to protect fans and track workers from explosions.
Track and safety crews would need to be re-trained on how to deal with accidents because there are different protocols when dealing with the lithium-ion batteries and their chemicals.
And, tracks would have to replace refueling stations with battery recharging stations, which can require a large initial investment.
Outfitting Sprint Cup teams with electric cars would cost more initially than continuing to use the gasoline-powered equipment. Teams would have to build all new cars. They would need new safety equipment at their shops and training on how to handle the batteries.
Switching to electric cars could also result is layoffs from all major teams because the engineers in their engine departments may not know how to build and maintain electric motors. That said, teams would have to hire new engineers and scientists to work on these electric motors, which could offset the layoffs.
At the end of the day, a switch to electric Sprint Cup cars is quite a ways off, if it ever happens. But with what Tesla and other electric-car makers have achieved, the idea is not as ridiculous as it once seemed.