Editor’s Note: Charles’s background and intimate involvement is several aspects of racing and high performance make him uniquely qualified to share his thoughts and insights about a range of race-related topics. If you’ve enjoyed these last two “Enginology” columns, let us know if you’d like for us to revisit him for more thoughts.
Last month, we stopped Charles Jenckes as he was sharing some recollections of bygone Indy 500 events, relative to how they had been a breeding ground for the development and practice of new and emerging oval-track technologies. The following is a continuation and conclusion of our discussion and sharing of his thoughts.
The opportunity for developing new technologies made this event the greatest motor racing event in the world. I mean, all through the ’70s and ’80s it was different engines, stock blocks, turbo Offys, and then the four-valve European engines. And there were a multitude of chassis, including the Eagle and McLaren. At the same time, we had the evolution of external and internal aerodynamics.
Each year, we waited to see what would show up at Indy. Roadsters with the Novi engine, rear-engine cars, Smokey’s side-car, turbine engines, stock block pushrod engines and the first ground effects. The technology was often the story. A technical advantage would often lead to poor racing but the story was always fascinating. Now all the chassis and engines are the same.
I’m aware that Herb Fishel recently made a concerted attempt to bring change to what we have today and, unfortunately, it never came to pass. However, he did leave a legacy that you can find in the ALMS series by its adoption of several of the ideas he was attempting develop. In fact, this series is even being embraced by the EPA and DOE, the latter by way of Argonne National Laboratories. This is bringing a measure of relevancy to at least one segment of racing.
I realize this is a road-racing class and appeals to a different consumer than circle track racing, but some of Herb’s concepts are in practice. Peter De Lorenzo of autoextremist.com has put out some interesting concepts for hydrogen-fueled racing at Indy that would bring back cutting-edge, if not bleeding edge, excitement and relevancy.
Personally, I think the IndyCar community will become much healthier now that it will have three new engines coming into play. That’s going to increase the amount of competition among the teams as well as on the track. I see this as the resurgence of open-wheel racing, recapturing some of the audience lost to NASCAR.
So what are your views about the so-called “green racing” issue? You’re aware of Circle Track’s G.R.E.E.N. initiative and how it’s intended to showcase some possibilities for technologies and fuels that are alternatives to the current norm.
On the “green racing” issue, maybe Herb was just a few years ahead of time. That could have been part of the problem in accepting what he was advocating. The Indy 500 could be at least one starting point for taking steps toward a more green racing environment. Right now, I don’t think the time is here yet to see that happening at the Saturday Night level.
But on the alternative fuel subject, I think there are several factors involved regarding how this may play out. For example, a fundamental problem we have today is that the petroleum consumption by countries such as Brazil, India, Russia, and China is growing non-linearly. We’re in an economic lull right now because of the worldwide recession, but it seems like neither India nor China have slowed much. The consumption of fossil fuel is going to continue increasing, particularly for transportation, and I see this also happening at a non-linear rate of growth. In the face of all this, we’re likely going to see further maturation in the availability of fossil fuel resources.
There’s a theory regarding the continued production of oil called “peak oil.” Peak oil means that at some point in time, there will be a peak in oil production, after which the oil extracted each year will no longer increase. Effectively, this amounts to a reduction in available petroleum. When peak oil will occur is the question.
According to some top experts on the subject, peak oil will occur somewhere in the 2025 to 2075 time frame. It should be stated that several experts feel that if a peak occurs, it may be a century later. It’s also predicted that in this same time frame, the countries I just mentioned are going to experience explosive rates of growth that will place even greater demand on available petroleum. So at some point, demand will exceed supply, and at that point no one will be complaining about fuel prices, only availability.
Ultimately, it’ll be the cost per b.t.u. of fuel that will invigorate the desire to develop and utilize alternative fuels. So the question becomes, How do we prepare for this eventuality and, in the process, how do we become more carbon neutral? Of course, if you look at the amount of carbon produced by race cars, it’s not a significant quantity. But if you were to quantify the amount of carbon produced by all the cars people drive coming to and from racing events, it becomes more significant. I would speculate that if you measured all the pollutants from the race cars during the Daytona 500, that number would be exceeded in the first five minutes of when the spectators leave the race and are sitting there idling their vehicles.
The point you’re making was one of the arguments Herb made in his Green Racing Protocol initiative. However, he was quick to point out that the technology credibility created by having competitive race cars running alternative fuels could flavor how people felt about using renewable fuels in their road cars.
You know, when we think about carbon contributions we need to consider the total carbon footprint, not just what comes from racing. Of course, racing is very visible and that’s where the relevancy of alternative fuels comes into play. If it looks “green” and becomes more “green” in fact, it’s more relevant and acceptable to society. This is certainly something young people are thinking about right now as well, certainly more than we did in our earlier years. We were more concerned with getting to school or work. Owning a vehicle was a privilege. Today it’s considered a right. It seems like a lot of young people think vehicles are about as exciting as a toaster. They see cars as an appliance.
Let’s shift gears for a minute and put you in the role of a contemporary engine builder. What do you see on the horizon for continuing this area of circle track racing?
I would say that most guys who are in that business have an established record of performance, so if you’re already there, you’ve shown an ability to sustain a business. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is I don’t think the future is going to be much better in the near term.
I believe that as the economy gets better, so will this part of circle track racing. My guess would be that this may be three to five years from now. Until the housing situation and employment problems are fixed, we won’t see any real recovery for many people.
Until then, I don’t think there’s a great deal of disposable income to be spent on buying or leasing engines. And although I think the worst is probably over, it’s going to take some time to see some significant recovery.
Here’s another subject. There seems to be a growing number of “parked” race cars. What do you feel is contributing to this?
Well, the major reason is the economy and a general lack of disposable income. There’s also a measure of frustration in finding places to race that are competitive and affordable. Even in the lower classes of racing there are bills to pay, whether it’s fuel or tires or whatever else is fundamental to racing. So I think cars are getting parked primarily because of a lack of disposable funds. That’s the number one factor.
The number two reason relates to the attitude toward racing. By this I mean the passion that was handed down through family generations or the fact that certain geographical regions fostered and supported racing where young people became involved. But I think since there are fewer tracks and fewer people racing, the newer generation looks less favorably at the sport, primarily because there are so many more distractions for young people today than in the past. Bottom line, this just means that the “torch” isn’t being passed down as frequently as it once was.
At its present rate of growth and direction (or lack thereof), what do you see as the mainstream circle track engines five years from now, or maybe beyond that?
Well, over the next five years, I see the traditional small-block Chevy and small-block Ford engines as the dominant ones. There are a lot of parts out there that’ll probably be slow to decline in popularity in this time span. But I think the next one that’ll come into play will be the GM LS series engines. It’s still pushrod architecture with inline valves.
That’s not to say there aren’t other good engines out there. For example, I think Ford’s latest 5.0 liter offering is an outstanding engine, and Dodge’s Hemi is also great. They’re certainly worthy of being considered a popular addition to the mainstream circle track engines, but the LS already has an infrastructure and a head start.
I see the LS series engines as the choice, in no small way because it’s probably not as expensive and less complicated. So I’d say looking out to the 10-year time span, the LS series will be predominant.