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Electrifying Auto Racing: Going Green at the Track

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By Debra Atlas
September 9, 2011

SONOMA, CA — Within the world of motorsports, there is a steadily growing awareness that the industry needs to be more green. NASCAR is moving slowly in that direction at a number of its tracks.

But racing isn’t going to be petroleum free anytime soon, says Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point), located in northern California, in the hills of Sonoma County.

Infineon is considered by some to be a leader in sustainability with its many green initiatives. The raceway recently hosted what is hoped to be the first annual Accelerating Sustainable Performance Summit. This invitation-only event focused on the innovations, challenges, and technological advances related to the future of sustainable automotive development and marketing.

The industry is slow to change, Page says, mainly because “the technologies to make those changes aren’t widely available or tested.”

But Page says motor racing is a terrific resource for showcasing new technologies. “In terms of engineering of propelling new technologies that aren’t petroleum based,” Page says, “we’ve become a player in engineering and testing.”

This year, Infineon featured the Audi TDI diesel technology. It is not the same diesel we know from 30 years ago, Page says. It is cleaner-burning technology.

To power this new technology, Infineon uses a new fuel from Amyris, a company that provides sustainable alternatives to petroleum products. The TDI Audi ran laps around the track at the Summit to demonstrate that these cars—and this cleaner fuel—could deliver the same kind of performance as their petroleum-based counterparts.

When it comes to “green” fuel and NASCAR, ethanol enters the picture. Indy cars run on 100-percent ethanol, Page says. And even NASCAR is running on a 15-percent ethanol blend. It is a murky picture, however, given the controversy that ethanol comes from a food crop.

But auto racing is evolving right along with the green movement. All the major high-performance brands have or are developing hybrids. Consumers can relate to the huge power of a major brand like Ferrari, for example, which introduced its Ferrari 599 HY-KERS last year.

At Infineon, Page says the raceway wants to add green performance elements into the equation. Infineon wants fans to see that even its business places a high priority on sustainable practices, he says.

“We think it’s important and we do it in a visible way,” says Page.

Infineon has even held its first all-electric motorcycle race, the TTXGP, and has plans to repeat the event next year. See footage of the past race here:

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Motorcycles are not the only electric vehicles to take to the track. Infineon also has raced both electric and hybrid vehicles. Perhaps one of the more exciting spectacles seen at the raceway has been the demonstration of the power of “green” cars, including the Tesla Roadster, the low-slung two-door, emissions-free electric supercar.

“The purpose behind (this car),” says Camille Ricketts, Tesla’s communications manager, “was to prove that electric cars were capable of everything that any one of the most coveted sports cars were capable of, to dispel the notion that electric cars handle like golf carts.”

Tesla has made a splash in the world of motorsports, beating internal combustion vehicles around tracks at racecar rallies around the world. This is an amazing supercar, says Ricketts, a perfect fit for the Supercar category that many tracks have recently added to their events list.

“Tesla is making electric driving a no-compromise zone,” Ricketts says.

Utilizing 6,800 of these lightweight, high-capacity and long-lasting batteries, Tesla has broken the mold of what is possible for electric cars. The Roadster runs for 245 miles on a single charge on Panasonic’s lithium ion battery.

Along with Tesla’s Roadster, the Summit featured demonstrations of other “green” vehicles, including an Audi Q7 TDI powered by biodiesel, a Mission R by Mission Motors, and the Nissan Leaf, which also is powered by Panasonic lithium ion batteries.

Long known as a leader in the manufacture of quality electronics, Panasonic Corporation’s history also is entwined with auto racing. A Formula One sponsor for many years, Panasonic has been a long-time supplier of multiple components for consumer automobiles as well, says Peter Fannon, vice president of technology policy for Panasonic Corporation of North America.

Although not yet well known for this in the States, Panasonic manufactures EV chargers and the on-board charging module, a single integrated unit where the plug from the wall goes into the car, bringing power to the car, distributing it, then managing it to run the electric drive train. Currently, Panasonic is the only manufacturer to offer this feature. Panasonic will be providing the on-board charger module for the new Nissan Leaf.

Electric vehicle owners may be among fans who are looking more and more for auto racing to be fuel friendly. Page, Infineon’s president, says the raceway plans to introduce audiences to the idea that there are performance options for sustainability one can feel good about.

“As the technology grows and you can put on a competitive race people will want to watch, things will move forward,” says Page. “ … [P]erformance and sustainability are not incompatible.”

Ricketts, from Tesla, agrees: “Sustainability can be achieved without sacrificing performance.”

For more on Infineon’s use of solar energy and its other green initiatives:
Car Racing and Energy Efficiency—Strange Bedfellows? Not Anymore

Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

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