The most striking representation of NASCAR’s new eco-awareness takes center stage Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, where an all-electric Ford Focus pace car will lead the field of 43 thundering stock cars to the green flag.
It will be a proud moment for Ford engineers, who get to showcase their latest breakthrough in energy-efficient vehicles before 90,000 rabid NASCAR fans and a nationwide FOX viewing audience. (The all-electric Focus, which retails for $39,995, goes on sale in 16 targeted markets this year, including Richmond and Washington.)
It will be no less significant for NASCAR, which has made green initiatives a priority in an effort to position itself as environmentally responsible.
“Green is ubiquitous now in the U.S.,” says Mike Lynch, NASCAR’s managing director of Green Innovation. “You can’t talk to a school kid or adult of any age and not have a sense that their green consciousness has shifted. NASCAR is an opportunity demonstration space for green solutions.”
If it weren’t for the singsong chime the Focus Electric makes when the starter is pressed, a driver might not realize that it’s on. That’s how silent Ford’s first carbon-free passenger car is.
It’s friendly, too, displaying images of butterflies on the dash as a reward when a driver accelerates and brakes gently enough to conserve extra power in the 600-pound battery that’s tucked under the rear seat.
But could this five-door hatchback with neither engine nor tailpipe be the future of NASCAR—especially when the sound it makes hurtling down Richmond’s backstretch at top speed could be drowned out by a purring cat?
Not next season. Maybe not for another decade. Maybe never.
Third-generation racer Kyle Petty, now a NASCAR analyst with Speed network, suspects that the car-buying public will decide.
“If you go back to the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, the era of muscle cars, Americans truly, truly had a love affair with the automobile — the styling, the engine, the sound. They loved that throaty V-8,” says Petty, 51, the grandson of NASCAR’s inaugural Daytona 500 winner (Lee Petty), son of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty and father of a 30-year-old (Austin Petty) who drives a Prius hybrid.
“In the end, if the consciousness of the country shifts, the sport itself will have to shift.”