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Could the Indy 500 go electric by 2030?

Formula E just completed its two-race tour of the United States with events on the streets of Miami and then Long Beach, bringing in mixed reviews.

There are many fans who love the innovation that comes with electric cars opening a new frontier of racing, but a lack of speed, along with lack of a battery charge and the torturous sound of slot-car racing, are issues that keep the sport from being mainstream motorsports.

These are early days for electric car racing and there remains much to improve upon the product.
By comparison, the Indianapolis 500 is the world’s oldest and most historic automobile race. In addition to the legendary heroes that have raced and won the Indianapolis 500, it is also a race that at one time was a proving ground for the automotive industry. Such innovations as the rear-view mirror, disk brakes, seat belts and fuel injection were either borne or developed from the Indianapolis 500. Even in latter day Indy 500s, tire technology and electronics have been part of the technology transfer from racing to today’s passenger cars.

In 2015, the automobile industry is at a crossroads. Because of strict government regulations the passenger car industry must create automobiles that can run longer on less fuel – more miles per gallon – or operate on alternate fuel technology such as hybrid or rechargeable electric cars.
So if the Indianapolis 500 is to have a relevant connection to the automotive industry, could the “World’s Greatest Race” feature electric cars by 2030 or even 2050?

“It absolutely could be,” said Michael Andretti, a team owner in both the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula E. “You never know. It’s amazing what they are coming up with with that technology. When you start getting competition they are going to be building cars that can go 300 to 400 miles on a charge. They have a car now that has 1,000 horsepower. It’s a brute – full electric. It’s coming – cars that can really perform.

“What’s cool is it’s like 1911 all over again. Look at the cars as being the Marmon Wasp (the car Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911) and what they did in five years. That is what we are hoping to achieve in Formula E – competition is going to accelerate the technology. That is what I’m hoping to see. I’m hoping to see the kid that goes out and buys his first electric car that is what he goes out to buy the rest of his life. We’re not after people like my dad – we’re going after the kids – a new audience.”

Andretti’s Formula E team includes Scott Speed and Jean-Eric Vergne as drivers.

Critics of the sport argue they can’t stand the sound of a Formula E race with it’s whiny electric transformer sound.

“The sound is something the traditionalists don’t like but my argument to that is one of the problems we have and it’s a big problem trying to bring new events downtown is the noise,” Andretti said. “Noise is actually a problem. We don’t have that problem anymore with Formula E. It’s pollution. This is an all-green series and you have to look at it differently than a traditionalist would look at it. You have to have an open mind.

“Most of the old people don’t but we aren’t after the older guy anyway.”

Could that be the sound of the Indy 500 in future decades?

“Who knows what it will be in 25 years,” Andretti said.

Don’t count fellow IndyCar Series team owner Bobby Rahal as a believer, however. Over the weekend, Rahal said on social media that when it comes to Formula E he is “all for progress but this isn’t racing.” Rahal takes an old fashioned viewpoint of racing that it includes noise, smell, color and even a degree of danger.

But time and technology will march on. And the 2030 or 2050 Indianapolis 500s are far, far into the future and by then, racing cars may not be recognizable by current standards.

So, is it conceivable that by 2030 the Indianapolis 500 might have electric cars in the race?

“You can never say never,” said INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Derrick Walker. “Is that something we’re working on? No. It’s not in the immediate future.

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“When you look at it you should ask the fans. Do you want to sit around for three hours and listen to electric cars go around that track? Do you want to see multiple cars used to finish the 500-mile race with big charging stations? In 2020 that may be a fact of life. You never say never.
“Are we looking at that? I would say it’s a stretch too far for us. It’s not where we are looking. We want to keep going on the track we are on so in 2020 it will be a variation on the formula we have now. I don’t think that is what our entertainment venue is about.”

Auto racing is a major form of sporting entertainment. But has the entertainment aspect made today’s racing less relevant to the automotive industry?

“We are interested in being relevant to the automotive industry and electric cars have made great gains in our lifetime,” Walker said. “The short answer is if our engine manufacturers came to us and said they need something very relevant to electric cars it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to open things up and there are ways to introduce and do that. But when you look at current battery technology there are some limitations that would change the format of our racing big-time, so I don’t see that in our immediate future. To make a dramatic technological change like that to our series we would have to have a clear mandate to do that from our manufacturers. When they want to make that they will be telling us and we would take a look at it.

“The technology is moving fast and that is why I say never say never. We aren’t opposed to progress. It’s managing that progress and innovation so that we can still put on great racing that our fans want and that our teams and manufacturers want to do.

“It’s a collective decision but never say never.”
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