by Larry E. Hall
Electrics and hybrids are speeding into motorsports
On May 16, with a little less than two hours remaining in the Nürburgring 24 Hours race in Germany, a Porsche was leading. No surprise, Porsche race cars had won the four previous 24 hour races at this classic endurance event.
But this Porsche was different than the previous winners and the other 32 Porsche entrants on the track that day; it was a hybrid race car.
Based on the latest 911 racer, the GT3 R Hybrid is a type of hybrid most of us will never drive. Using a technology developed for Formula One (F1) racing series, the high performance vehicle replaces the passenger seat with a flywheel generator that spins up to 40,000 rpm. The generator captures and stores energy each time the vehicle brakes. Then, when the driver needs additional speed for passing or exiting a corner, a tap of a button gives a 160 horsepower boost for 6-8 seconds via two electric motors mounted in the front wheels.
There’s an additional benefit to this set up, one that hybrid car owners like to brag about—increased fuel economy. In this case, the GT3 R Hybrid needed to pit every ten laps on the 13-mile course, whereas competitors were making the stop about every eight laps.
Unfortunately, after 22 hours and 15 minutes, Porsche’s 480-hp naturally aspirated 4.0-liter flat-six gas engine that drives the rear wheels experienced a problem, sidelining the hybrid race car.
The GT3 R Hybrid isn’t the first hybrid race car to compete in a 24-hour endurance race, however. That distinction belongs to Toyota’s Supra HV-R hybrid race car that not only entered to race but also won the Tokachi 24-Hour Race in 2007. And, like the Porsche, the Supra HV-R employed a hybrid system most of us will never drive—a quick-charging supercapacitor.
Two-Wheel Electric Racers
Later on that same day, ten motorcycles lined up for an 11-lap race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma County, California. No surprise, Infineon (formerly Sears Point Raceway) has long been a venue for two-wheel battles.
But these motorcycles were different than all the others that had ever snaked their way around the 11-turn, 2.22-mile road course; they were electric bikes.
This was the opener of the Time Trial Xtreme Grand Prix (TTXGP) North American Championship series. TTXGP raced last year at the Isle of Man in Europe, but this was the first race in the U.S. The TTXGP is an international series (North America, Northern Europe and Southern Europe) specifically for clean-emission electric race bikes. Its stated mission is to “drive low-carbon technological innovation forward, to demonstrate that clean-emission transport technologies have matured and can be fun, fast and exciting.”
Each motorcycle is a unique prototype machine and the series regulations are purposed to place cutting-edge technology on the racetrack. And race fans get the benefit, as evidenced by the Infineon race where Shawn Higbee (Zero Motorcycles-Agni) and Michael Barnes (Lightning Motorcycles) battled it out until Barnes had to stop and reset the power management safety override with two laps remaining.
Electric Drag Racing
Been to a drag strip lately? If so, perhaps you’ve seen Tesla Roadsters clocking close to 105 mph in quarter mile runs. Gearheads are astonished when ampheads like John “Plasma Boy” Wayland almost silently blows gas gulping, exhaust belching challengers off the strip in his street-legal 1972 Datsun with quarter mile runs of an extraordinary 11.4 seconds at 114.8 mph—a time and speed that bests the 2011 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500.
Drag racing with batteries and electric motors has its own organizing body, the National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA). Check out their 2010 schedule at nedra.com. If you attend one of their events you’re likely to see Scotty Pollacheck drive the KillaCycle, an electric motorcycle that owns the quarter mile record of 7.864 seconds at 169 mph.
Motorsports has played a significant role in the vehicles we drive, with innovations on the track such as performance, durability, safety and tire technology making their way into production cars. Racing furnishes a model proving ground to test technological advancements under the most demanding conditions.
During a seminar at the Long Beach Grand Prix this past April, Jamie Allison, Ford Motor Company’s director of North American Motorsports, said Ford believes the racetrack is the perfect environment to speed up the pace of electric car development. In particular, rapid battery-charging systems, battery weight reduction and heat management techniques.
Oh, by the way, racing electric vehicles is not a new phenomenon. The first auto race held in the United States on September 7, 1896 was won by an electric car built by the Riker Electric Motor Company. An electric entered by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company placed second followed by five gas engine cars.