This month's column will temporarily depart from its original format and shift not only subject matter but into a first-person conversation that includes notable perspectives from someone who is clearly at the leading edge of changes evolving (and that should evolve) in the global motorsports community. And least you forget, readers of this magazine fall into that category.
I first met Herb Fishel in 1967. He had been hand-picked by Zora Duntov to focus his young engineering skills on the design of Mark IV (big-block) engine components. In fairly rapid ascension, he moved into other "Product Performance" roles that saw him assume capacities that included coordinating the GM product development (and racing) efforts of such rivals as Smokey Yunick and Junior Johnson, simultaneously. That feat could be likened to making bedfellows of hard-nosed arch enemies, and he did it successfully. When the Buick V-6 program was budding, it was fertilized by Herb who by that time was heading Buick Division's high performance and motorsports efforts. He then moved back to Chevrolet Division to lead its similar motorsports charge, later to direct the motorsports efforts of all GM divisions. His record of GM-linked team and individual wins at virtually all levels of motorsports in the ensuing years will likely never be equaled. To list his accomplishments and accolades would consume this space.
Now retired from GM, he continues in the shadows of moving mountains in his time-honored roll of visionary, only this time he has stepped out of what might be called the traditional "box" and is addressing the global world of motorsports and its inevitable future. Each of us can benefit from his observations and predictions, if only we'll pay attention. To that end, we recently managed to capture some of his time and thoughts for the benefit of those who read this column. Pay very close attention.
How do you view the landscape on which motorsports is performing today?
"I think the overriding issue today is that you just can't ignore the realities of energy, environmental and economic issues, and the whole idea of sustainability. Of these, sustainability really amounts to social responsibility. We've come into an era of multi-dimensional challenges not unlike the automotive industry experienced in the past, first with safety and then with a fuel shortage in the early '70s. Right now, just about anything we talk about has global implications. And, quite frankly, this includes motorsports."
More specifically, how can you relate this to racing, possibly at the higher levels since this usually creates a trickle-down effect to other classes?
"Racing has gone through an incredible period of growth and popularity, at almost every level. It's difficult to think of any series that hasn't prospered during the last few decades. The entertainment aspect of racing really came about with television, back in the early '70s. Plus, that entertainment level was fueled by a significant growth in sponsorships. Of course, when tobacco could no longer be advertised on television and became popular on race cars, there's no doubt the exponential growth of major racing series events came as the result of tobacco money. This era of entertainment has continued to include modern times. During this period of evolution, it seems like all the components in the higher levels of racing became almost over-refined and branded. Examples could include manipulating races to provide close competition, race cars that hit the grid like pieces of porcelain and drivers who were labeled as super-stars."
So given this state of affairs, how do you see current economic times affecting racing as we know it today?
"Well, what's happened is that we're seeing economic realities affecting almost everything around us, particularly at the race sponsor level. I think we're at a still-to-be-determined point in not only what racing is now, but will become in the future. For example, I think we'll see the 2009 NASCAR season start with a smaller field, although major events will probably have the appearance of being OK, at least initially! I think after an early season surge, we'll begin to see a gradual and diminishing reduction in competitors at this level of racing. And then, of course, fewer competitors leads to unemployment. Eventually this will impact the supply chain and other related segments.
Keep also in mind that during what I'm calling the 'explosive' period of racing growth up to this point, a large part was funded by sponsorships. While I don't know the exact figure, I'd estimate that around 70 to 80 percent of racing, at the top professional levels, was funded by sponsorships. It's just a direct payment where others are paying others to pursue their passion. Racing doesn't survive on purses. Now, all of a sudden, every major corporation in the world is under a microscope regarding any expenditure that isn't directly related to the bottom line."
Would you characterize all this as representing a rather dramatic state of change?
"Precisely. For many years, particularly while at GM, my goal was to help make racing relevant to the automotive industry. To that end, I've always worked and pushed as hard as I could for specifications and regulations that truly made the great things about racing and the high performance industry helpful and supportive for a much bigger thing called the automotive industry, including suppliers. Now, we've come to a junction where we can either change or not change and 'go south' where, virtually overnight, what we know could become vintage racing. In the spirit of entertainment, racing as we know it has become a 'spec' series. We have spec tires, spec engines, spec fuel, spec chassis; all in the name of promoting close and exciting racing. That may change this year because of my belief in how the sponsorship community will adjust to economic times."
In view of the landscape you've described, and because I know you've been working literally beneath the radar on some viable options that embody environmental considerations, what do think lies ahead?
"The idea of energy efficient racing, or 'green racing' as you might term it, is something I really began focusing on when I retired from GM in 2003. It turned out a number of other people were already thinking along similar lines, including motorsports principles in England and certain spots in this country. People like Bob Larsen (Argonne National Labs), John Glenn and Tom Ball (Federal EPA), Wayne Juchno (SAE), and other pockets of thought and interest were beginning to focus on possible alternatives to current views and practices. Furthermore, as the OEMs accelerated their research into alternative fuels and propulsion systems, it seemed to me like the most phenomenal window of opportunity for racing to become relevant again, at least to the extent it had been in during my lifetime. So it was through contact and discussions with these people, a few Tier 1 and 2 suppliers and others from the academic community that we were able to stay under the radar and develop the Green Racing Protocol that has now been endorsed by the EPA, SAE, DOE, and other factions in support of the concept. This protocol has been adapted by the American Le Mans Series and, in fact, could be used by any racing series or high performance organization. It provides a framework for making them environmentally responsible and compliant, energy efficient and operational in the true sense of being a sustainable business model."
Given this much progress to date, where do you see your focus during this year?
"Well, in a nutshell, that's been the journey. My objective right now is to begin looking at other aspects of the protocol; potential addendums that will include a scientific determination of what volume of greenhouse gases are produced by a typical race car at a given event. We'll then come up with a number and the 'green race' actually becomes a race within a race. Then the next step is to begin measuring emissions or other criteria pollutants. This year, we'll continue moving in that direction and expect to also have a place for hybrid race cars to compete head-to-head using bio fuels, ethanol, or even low-sulfur diesel. I guess from a visionary standpoint, it's not out of the question to see a starting grid at the Indy 500 be 33 vehicles representing multiple engines with multiple energy sources as true research and development platforms with leading-edge, environmentally sensitive platforms for the industry. So that's what I've been doing, am doing, and plan continue doing until it becomes a reality."
I'd like to add a couple of additional thoughts for your consideration this month. While I believe it's unreasonable to assume change of the type Herb has outlined will come quickly, it will likely be economically-driven and become reality much faster than not. In the interest of editorial responsibility, Circle Track will continue to provide its readers the updates and leadership for making certain you remain aware of changes and opportunities in the motorsports community. History has clearly demonstrated that for virtually all situations in which change occurs (wanted or unwanted), opportunities reside for the better. Collectively, we need to dig deeply enough to make them apparent. There's little or no evidence to assume current changes on the landscape of racing fall outside this pattern. Don't hesitate to let the CT staff know your feelings on the issue. At finish line, we're all in this together.