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Electric and Natural Gas-Powered Cars Could Join American Le Mans Series

  • ALMS

  • Scott AthertonALMS

  • ALMS

American Le Mans Series President and CEO Scott Atherton has green on his mind, but not the kind you’re thinking off. As the head of what is generally recognized as the country’s most environmentally-friendly major racing league, he is thinking of ways to make his series an even bigger showcase for the latest in sustainable automotive technologies.

Fox Car Report caught up with him at one of the “greenest” stops on the ALMS calendar, the bucolic road course at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, where he was holding court over the third round of the 2011 season.

FCR: In 2008 the ALMS launched the Michelin Green X Challenge, a championship within a championship that rewards teams for being fast and fuel efficient while promoting the use of renewable fuels. How is the program working for the ALMS as a promotional tool?

SA: It’s done a couple of different things. It’s brought the attention of race fans and manufacturers to what we consider to be the one example of green racing that really has some substance behind it. We’ve got four different alternative fuels being developed. You have Michelin making great strides increasing the effective use of their tires, such that the cars have to change tires less frequently, which is the ultimate goal.

You also have the other example of bringing really advanced technology into racing, which we hoped would be the case in this, where manufacturers are bringing technology that you and I have never heard of [such as Porsche’s flywheel hybrid system] and we’re hearing about it for the first time in racing. And it isn’t intended just to make a better racecar, but it’s ultimately there to develop that technology so that it can be applied to a consumer product.

FCR: You currently have cars in the series running on E10, E85, diesel and isobutanol. What’s next?

SA: The one example that I think is probably next up is going to be a natural gas car, to demonstrate the competitiveness of natural gas, and the ease and convenience of refueling, because right now that’s seen as one of the impediments. If you can take away some of what the consumer would describe as downside issues, and demonstrate its competitiveness and the fact that you don’t have to sacrifice anything, I think it would go a long way toward mainstream acceptance of natural gas as a fuel for any type of vehicle.

FCR: Do you see any way that a pure electric car could be incorporated into the ALMS?

SA: In time, yes. Currently, no. The technology doesn’t exist for a pure electric platform to compete at this level. It’s simply the battery life involved and the ability to maintain this level of extreme performance using that source of power.

We’re actually looking at a couple of different all-electric racing series that would not be part of the American Le Mans Series itself, but would be part of our weekend. Spec car, spec powertrain, to demonstrate the technology and to provide an environment to advance the technology. There are a couple of manufacturers who have approached us about doing just that. It wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about who they are, because in both cases we’re very committed to a non-disclosure agreement, but I think if you looked around the auto shows, and you saw what’s being showcased, you could easily figure out who we’re talking to.

FCR: One of the most exciting developments in racing in recent years was the announcement that the innovative, needle-nose DeltaWing race car has been accepted to compete in the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans. How instrumental was the ALMS in making that happen?

SA: We fielded the inquiry shortly after the decision was made not to have the DeltaWing be the next generation Indycar, and it was just to see if our form of racing would entertain bringing something as radical as that into the fold. This would be an ideal fit for the American Le Mans Series and it would be one of our proudest moments to introduce this revolutionary technology, in the form of half the horsepower, half the weight, half the energy consumption and all of the performance of today’s prototype in the new DeltaWing form.

Atherton adds that the DeltaWing could make its competition debut as early as next year’s ALMS season opening 12-hour race in Sebring, Florida, prior to heading to Le Mans. But with only about seven months remaining before the green flag drops, he cautions that there may not be enough time to develop the car before the race.

Still, the ALMS chief believes that the DeltaWing could represent the biggest game change in auto racing since mid-engine cars began their dominance of open wheel and sports car racing in the 1960s. He says that plans are in the works for it to run the full 2012 ALMS season as an unclassified demonstration vehicle, before a possible change in the regulations that would allow it to compete in the top prototype class, if the vehicle lives up to its promise.

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