Editor's Note: "Promoter's Corner," which appeared here last month will be returning next month in this spot, alternating every other month with "Takin' the Green."
We had the opportunity recently to sit down with Lee Slezak of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). His official title is Manager-Advanced Vehicle Systems Simulation & Evaluation Office of Freedom Car and Vehicle Technologies. While that's a mouthful, Slezak is one of the key figures in and driving forces behind the government's Green Racing Initiatives and a guy who shed a lot of light on why going green is so important for the racing industry. The first of a two-part interview, this month we discuss how Green Racing got its start.
CT: What inspired the concept of green racing?
LS: The concept of green racing really started with some of us at DOE and EPA talking about how to properly advance technology in the transportation sector so that we would be less reliant on foreign petroleum. We would produce fewer emissions, and improve energy security by eliminating foreign oil imports. While we were talking about it, it became clear that racing wasn't really as relevant as it once was.
Racing used to be an arena where manufacturers would push the envelope of technology, they'd bring new systems and new ideas to the track and they'd show that those systems and technologies could work and could be reliable. And it had positive benefits. It was a much faster way to develop technologies than just doing research and development in a laboratory.
It also was a great way to develop a market understanding of the technologies while creating a demand for it, because people saw these technologies on the track. They had to have them because that's what made those drivers go fast.
We (the DOE/EPA team) decided that auto racing offered a prime opportunity to try to bring some of these newer technologies that really are efficient and really are green to a wider audience of racers and fans.
Auto racing's a great place to develop technologies that don't produce the pollution that so many other technologies produce. At the same time you can show that you can be as fast, if not faster, with the green racing technologies, than you can be with conventional technologies. So it's a great way to help racing get back to some of its roots and make even better competition and show that racing can be a leader again, this time in a green movement.
CT: Talk a little bit about and the development of the Green Racing Challenge.
LS: When we first started working on the concept of green racing at DOE and EPA, we partnered with the Society of Automotive Engineers as well as with auto manufacturers. Then, we brought in different racing sanctioning bodies to help develop a set of protocols. In the process of doing that, the ALMS (American Le Mans Series) came back to us on several occasions and said, "What you are trying to do is really something that we believe in, it's a direction we want to carry our series. We think it can help boost the competition," referring to both its prototype as well as its GT categories.
CT: So, you actually built a competition within their race events?
LS: Yes, we developed a scoring system based on the protocols that came out of our Green Racing Working Group and applied it to the 2008 Petite LeMans at Road Atlanta. Through the scoring system we were able to come up with a winner for what we began calling the Green Racing Challenge Award. After the race was over, we gave out the first two awards (one for the Prototype division, one for the GT division) for green racing ever given out in this country.
CT: How do you determine the winner of the Green Racing Challenge Award?
LS: It's really a mathematical calculation that is designed to reward the team that goes the farthest, the fastest with the smallest environmental footprint, all while using the least amount of fuel. The formula for each team is weighted based on its fuel, powerplant, and other factors so that everyone is competing on a level platform. We have a trailer that contains the computers and electronics that track the performance of each team in real time during the race, so we can watch the progress of the teams throughout the race.
CT: Two-thousand-nine was the first full year of the Green Racing Challenge, right?
LS: Correct. ALMS ran a full season with the Green Racing Challenge. Along the way, Michelin joined in and started the Michelin Green X Challenge, which uses the same set of rules and system as we do. During each event, we score each of the teams and at the end of that race Michelin gives out an award for the GT car and the Prototype car that has the best score for that event.
On the DOE/EPA side, we accumulate those scores from race to race to race and at the end of year we give out our season-long award. It goes to the manufacturer that had the team, or teams, with the lowest score. It really gets down to not just the teams adopting it but the manufacturers bringing these technologies to racing.
CT: How's acceptance of the program been?
LS: In the last year we went from basically a couple of teams running E85 off and on plus one diesel team running with ultra-low sulphur diesel, and now we've got two different factory teams running ultra-low sulphur diesel. We've got teams in the Prototype division running E85, such as Drayson Racing, owned by Lord Drayson currently the Minister of Science in the United Kingdom. They're actually using cellulosic E85. We've got multiple teams, such as the Porsche teams, the Corvette teams, and others in the GT category running E85. We've just seen so many changes and so many technological advances.
CT: Other than fuels, what other advanced technologies have you seen come into the Challenge?
LS: Last year was the first time we've ever seen a prototype vehicle running a hybrid system. The Corsa hybrid, a team based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. It is an independent team which worked with Zytec out of England to develop a prototype hybrid and the team ran it in the series last year.
It's a tough challenge for an independent team without manufacturer backing as many of your readers can probably relate to, but the team has done amazingly well with what it was able to bring to the track. In several instances they were right there challenging the factory backed teams running conventional prototype technologies.
So that was a real push with hybrid vehicles and now we have several manufacturers coming to us wanting to discuss bringing in prototype hybrids of their own, even in some cases bringing GT class hybrids into this series.
CT: It sounds like this program has made significant strides in a short period of time.
LS: The Green Racing Challenge has really evolved over the last year from kind of a novelty among all of the competitors to something they're actually interested in and that they want to win. They'll run their strategies not just to win the race but to win the Challenge awards as well.
Let's face it; Green Challenge is about going the farthest, the fastest with the smallest environmental footprint, and using the least amount of fuel. That's what racing's about-you want to go the farthest, you want to be the fastest, and one of the best ways to do that is to use your fuel the best way you can.
So green racing isn't something to make racing slower, less competitive, or boring. It's actually something that fits and goes hand in hand with strategies
that racers are already using, and have been for decades, to make sure that they're the first ones across that line at the end of the race.
Next month we get even further in depth with Slezak about how the DOE's Green Racing program can positively impact short-track racing in this country. Stay tuned!