Can Nascar Be Successful with Hybrid and Electric Cars?


Wes grew up around cars at the family business. He makes no attempt to hide his love of early 90s GM products, and still repents selling his sweet '94 Pontiac Sunbird a few years back.

“This is idiotic. This, along with other recent decisions, will be the death of Nascar.”

As quickly as the news came out that Nascar was officially looking at hybrid and electric technology, there were the usual naysayers. The people that now have a NEW reason not to watch Nascar in the future. Yet they always find a way to the comments section on Nascar-related articles…

While the comments section is not the place to gauge the potential success or failure of really anything, there is some legitimacy to the more rational concerns being raised. Can Nascar – a southern sport born of loud engines and fossil fuels – make a successful transition into hybrid, or even electric, technology? 

Hybrid Racecars and Engine Noise

While certainly not highest on the list for racing engineers, the hybrid/electric Nascar controversy almost has to start with the topic of engine noise.

Nascar’s biggest selling point is the cars. The existence of the car is what separates Nascar from other stick and ball sports where the human is visible and fully in charge. While drivers make a difference, people line up to watch the cars roll out onto the grid just as much as the drivers.

And one of the greatest parts of the car’s involvement is the noise is makes. Yes, speed wins the day, but the fact that V8 engines are thundering past in a pack of 40 cars is many times the hook for new fans, and the staying power for traditional fans.

How does the sport deal with the move to possible full electricity without addressing the noise loss? Do they make it artificial, or consider it a part of progress and hope the fan comes along?

Related, but probably less important is fuel efficiency. While it may not be the main factor that goes into the technology on the racing side, there is certainly an efficiency angle. And for a variety of reasons, traditional Nascar fans have been resistant on this front as well, as the love for gas guzzling V8s is “the way of the sport” to many.

Hybrid Racecars and Racing Strategy

Possibly the most intriguing aspect of hybrid cars in Nascar is how it would affect racing strategy. This, again, would be a departure from the past, but the saved energy in hybrid racing creates a new element to racing at a time when Nascar is already in change mode.

The first application of hybrid cars would likely be at short courses or road courses, where there is more braking involved. The hybrid technology would not be solely to extend range, but to utilize the technology to improve performance.

“Braking is typically used as a mechanism to get the power back into the batteries. As far as when you actually apply the power. I think that that’s what we need to study … and work through with our OEMs on how it’s deployed,” Nascar SVP for Racing Development John Probst said.

A potential idea here is that energy from braking could be stored up during the race and used by the driver to complete a pass, get off pit road, or whatever application they felt necessary.

“Is it deployed automatically in some pre-canned strategy? Is it deployed in the form of a button that the driver hits to get extra power to make a pass or complete a pass? Those are all areas that we have to look at,” Probst said.

Timeline for Hybrid Racecars

The announcement of Nascar’s potential foray into hybrid and electric technology comes at an interesting time for the sport, as they continue development of the Next Gen car for the 2021 season. And by all indications, the Next Gen car will continue the low horsepower, high downforce strategy that Nascar seems to have committed to on its direction. That strategy is a controversy all its own.

Where things get interesting with the new hybrid context is with regenerative braking and how that will play into the racing. With the low downforce package, there is less braking happening than ever, with 1.5 mile tracks that previously required letting off the gas or braking essentially being run at full throttle with the new rules package.

So Nascar has to figure out how the new rules package, with the Next Gen car seemingly following that same path, will figure in with regenerative braking that could increase power on the cars. From a distance, it would appear to be a mismatch in ideology.

As for the Next Gen and hybrid technology, Nascar has said that any changes will happen in 2022 and after to give them time to fully develop the Next Gen for the 2021 season. But it would appear that the sport is fully committed to not only hybrid, but electric, in the future.

“We’re pushing to go full electric. I don’t know where the balance nets out for us long-term, but some form of hybrid technology is certainly on our radar…after 2021,” Probst said.

How fans react to the change will be the ultimate test, as Nascar continues to exist at a crossroads of keeping the traditional fan happy while attracting and retaining new fans.

Will hybrid and electric cars be racing in Nascar? Or will Nascar cease to exist? A case can be made for both avenues.

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