Why racetracks are giving hybrids and EVs the cold shoulder


This is a tale of two racetracks, and how they handle—or don’t handle—electric and hybrid vehicles.

First, Atlanta Motorsports Park, in Dawsonville, Georgia, which features a Herman Tilke-designed two-mile road course.

“Electric vehicles are the future of racing,” says Jeremy Porter, AMP owner and CEO. Not only are electrics and hybrids welcome at AMP, Porter has installed five new Autel MaxiCharger DC Fast Level 3 chargers for his customers to use. “From hyperexotics to luxury vehicles to EV retrofits, everybody who comes to AMP deserves speedy charging off-track so they can get back to shaving off their times on-track.

“Our long-term ambition is to be an incubator for using mobility technology. Currently we have three EV technology companies at Atlanta Motorsports Park, and installing Level 3 chargers crystallizes our commitment to this tech.”

About 477 miles northeast is Summit Point Motorsports Park, a two-mile, natural-terrain road course in West Virginia that opened in 1969. Summit Point’s director of motorsports operations, Edwin Pardue, has banned the use of electric vehicles and hybrids on track.

While he says Summit Point supports electric technology when it comes to racing, the track has taken a “‘tactical pause’ in halting the use of electric and hybrid electric vehicles in all motorsports disciplines at our location,” until it can establish an emergency response policy that makes sense for a small track in a rural area.

Pardue is not alone. Carolina Motorsports Park, in Kershaw, South Carolina, which has a 2.27-mile road course, abides by a simple rule on its books: “No electric vehicles allowed on track.” A relative handful of other circuits have followed suit.

Summit Point Motorsports Park driving course 2008 BMW m5 interior action
Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Shortly after Pardue announced the electric ban, the National Council of Corvette Clubs announced its own ban affecting the new Chevrolet Corvette E-Ray, which uses electric hybrid technology to power the car’s front wheels, while a conventional V-8 sends power to the rear. The E-Ray isn’t on sale yet, but Bill Docherty, the Council’s vice-president of competition, said they wanted the rule in place “before the E-Ray was available, so members do not expect to compete if they buy one.”

The NCCC went even further than Summit Point, stating that if you bring your E-Ray to a motorsports event, you’ll be required to park “30 feet minimum from buildings and other cars.” Over the weekend, apparently, the NCCC board reversed course and now the E-Ray (and other hybrids) will be allowed full participation. But the original ban—which still applies to pure EVs—got a lot of publicity and started a conversation regarding what the policy toward electrics should be.

New Corvette E-Ray hybrid front three quarter
Cameron Neveu

Most electrics are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which consist of small battery packs nestled closely together. The number depends on the design and size of the battery; some Teslas have almost 8000 cells, while GM’s Chevrolet Bolt has 288 larger ones.

Battery fires are rare yet often make for big news when they happen. The fires burn bright and hot, as the batteries can suffer from “thermal runaway,” a phenomenon by which one small battery pack overheats or ignites, which overheats the battery pack next to it, and the one next to that one.

Trade fair fire dangers electric car batteries
Swen Pförtner/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Regular fire extinguishers don’t work in these cases. Most fire departments use one of two methods to deal with a battery fire: Douse it with water to cool it down—generally a lot of water, between 3000 and 30,000 gallons, depending on the incident. “Cooling takes 100 times more water than a gasoline fire,” the NCCC’s Docherty said.

The other method is to just let the fire exhaust itself, a guard against re-ignition once the battery stops burning. One method to prevent re-ignition, more frequently used in Europe, is to pick the smoldering car up with a forklift and dunk it in the water.

One of the highest-profile battery-defect cases in the U.S. right now concerns the Ford F-150 Lightning; production was halted until the company and its battery supplier addressed a fire that began in one new, parked Lightning, and expanded to two others. Another concerns the Chevrolet Bolt, which was recalled after 18 examples caught on fire.

The Lightning and the Bolt are not the only vehicles to suffer recalls related to battery fires. Automakers that issued fire-related recalls include BMW, Chrysler, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, and Tesla. Other industries have had recalls of lithium-ion-powered products as well, including computers and electric scooters.

Tesla charging port
Unsplash/Ernest Ojeh

The recalls are largely addressing thermal runaway issues, which often occur when the vehicle is stationary and charging. It doesn’t address fires caused by a damaged battery, either from a collision or running over a serious piece of debris. Automakers surround the battery with high-strength containers to protect it, but in some sort of devastating crash—the kind you might witness on a racetrack—the battery may still be vulnerable. Gasoline cars are vulnerable to these same risks, but extinguishing them is more straightforward.

Summit Point and the 19,000-member National Council of Corvette Clubs are concerned about both thermal runaway and damaged battery fire scenarios. Not only because of the possible injury to drivers, spectators, or corner workers, but to property. A serious battery fire on a racetrack can damage the surface to the point where repaving might be required, thus shutting down the track until repairs are made.

Carolina Motorsports Park curb work upgrades
Carolina Motorsports Park

Are Summit Point and Carolina Motorsports Park outliers? Probably not. “It’s too early to call anyone an outlier,” says Heyward Wagner, director of experiential programs for the 51,000-member Sports Car Club of America. He is in charge of the SCCA’s “Track Night in America,” the program for which the club rents out a facility and lets enthusiasts drive their cars on track, typically for about $150. Wagner has Track Nights at about 30 tracks in the U.S., and so far, three tracks have told him they don’t want battery-powered cars.

Owners of cars like the Ford Mustang Mach-E or the track-ready, 1020-horsepower Tesla Plaid can’t participate.  Under such restrictions, neither could supercars like the Porsche 918 Spyder or McLaren Artura. “Everybody is learning right now,” Wagner says. “We do have tracks that have told us that electrified vehicles are not welcome, and a track where they asked owners of electrified vehicles to sign a unique waiver.”

It’s a problem, Wagner says. “What is known is that an electrified vehicle fire is a different animal than an internal combustion engine fire. Nobody debates that. It requires different equipment, it requires different training, and that represents an investment for a track to make to be future-forward.

ATL Motorsports Park Aerial
Atlanta Motorsports Park

“It’s also an investment that municipalities have to make just to deal with what vehicles are on the road, and will be on the road in the future. The good news is that the technology that needs to be developed is being developed at a societal level. This is not just a challenge for motorsports.”

It’s not surprising, he says, “that different tracks take different approaches. We have 130, 140 years of data on ICE engines and fires. And maybe 10 years of useful data on electrified vehicles.

“One of the most important things for enthusiasts to keep in mind here is that the inclusion of electrified vehicles is very important to the sport’s future. I think electrified vehicles are engaging an entirely different mindset and demographic of enthusiast. There’s a tech angle that draws people in that an ICE vehicle probably wouldn’t. There’s also a reality that for this sport to be ready for the future, we need to be able to get out of the line of fire, no pun intended, on questions regarding environmental impact.

Carolina Motorsports Park fuel pump
Carolina Motorsports Park

“Noise [for example]: There are so many things tied to that sound that so many of us love, that are potentially detrimental to our sport. Autocross in particular … the ability to acquire and retain sites just because it’s quieter will be significantly impacted in a positive way. And some tracks, like NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, have had to go to great lengths to continue their business with the neighborhood’s sound regulations.”

Electrified vehicles present an opportunity “to be better citizens and better neighbors with that technology,” Wagner says. “It won’t be a flip of the switch from ICE to EV, but it’s technology that could make our space significantly more accessible and bring a lot more people to the sport. It’s really important for us as an industry to figure out how to solve this.”

Atlanta Motorsport Park delorean
Atlanta Motorsports Park

The good news: Both motorsports and the public-private sectors are working on the issue, says Eric Huhn, facility and laboratory safety engineer at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Huhn has also been a volunteer firefighter since 2015, and he’s well-versed on battery fires. Last month, he taught a Racing Goes Safer seminar on the topic at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

“I’m hearing more and more about tracks that won’t permit EVs and hybrids, and I’m not surprised that tracks are taking this stance,” Huhn says. “Out on the streets, the fire service is getting more and more experience with battery fires. And that experience is telling the fire service that these fires don’t behave like the fires we’re used to.

“The chemical reaction happening in a lithium-ion battery fire is completely different from how oil fires, or fires involving composites, work. That being said, you’re many times more likely to have a fire in an internal combustion vehicle because of all the flammable liquids. But those fires are easier to manage.”

Atlanta Motorsport Park miatas
Atlanta Motorsports Park

If a track doesn’t have near-immediate access to city or county fire services, asking a facility to have a 3000-gallon pumper tanker in the fleet is unreasonable. There are some new technologies that have shown promise; both the Rosenbauer Battery Extinguishing Technology (BEST) and the ColdCut Cobra involve piercing the battery box from the bottom and injecting water into it to cool the cells. The BEST system is remote, with the operator 25 feet away, while the ColdCut system requires a properly outfitted firefighter to get a little closer. It uses a thermal-imaging camera to show where the hot spots are in the battery, and the ColdCut operator proceeds from there.

Both systems require far less water than simply dousing the car and the battery with thousands of gallons. The ColdCut Cobra can be mounted on a small, specially-designed fire truck that does nothing but fight battery fires. That may be accessible for a racetrack, once track-related interest is great enough among electric car owners to justify the expense.

But for now, expect more tracks to ban or limit the use of electric and hybrid cars. “I really can’t blame them,” says the SCCA’s Wagner.




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Read next Up next: National Council of Corvette Clubs lifts competition ban on E-Ray


    It’s not like the old days when racing was the endurance test for production. When you get right down to it, racing is really boring to watch.

    How many times would an EV have to stop and charge running the Indy 500 and how long would the pitstops be?

    Yes they are going to have to make changes. However, the majority of hybrid drivers didn’t buy them to take to the race track. If I take mine it will only be to get to the track to watch the races

    I am in the merchant marine and remember the FELICITY ACE which was a great big roll on roll off ship loaded to the gills with Bentleys,Audis and Lamborghinis. When a thermal event occurred there wasn’t much anyone could do but get off and let her burn. I guess we won’t be able to buy these overseas built cars at some point because they will be too dangerous to import and the industry is very motivated to find some kind of answer.

    First NASCAR severely restricted turbines; now it is EV’s and Hybrids? Sure doesn’t sound very progressive or research oriented to me! Maybe NASCAR needs a reboot, to the back pages of history?

    This is something of which a natural progression will take its place. Trying to push something to happen is always very difficult. The bottom line is when the demand is there the tracks will be prepared. They will have no choice but to prepare for this or their business will take a turn and start declining.
    I don’t want to get into talking politics but if the government would stay out of our business world It would run so much better then trying to force it to happen. Whenever things are forced prematurely to happen its usually not the best outcome. Be patient give it time everything will work out for everybody.

    Two very good reasons for tracks banning EVs:

    1) The tracks aren’t equipped to handle EV battery fires, and can’t get help from municipal services in most cases either. As noted, being able to do so is a significant investment in training and equipment that would drive track costs up for everyone. There are few EV racers, so it doesn’t make sense to penalize the majority of racers with higher costs… FOR NOW. As EVs get more popular/prolific at the tracks (if?) the added expense will be a necessity. Another issue is that while the batteries may be great for a street car, higher discharge rates of racing will make them overheat faster, leading to a greater possibility of fires. I think that last statement is underrated by EV owners.

    2) Performance levels are different. If I were running a track I’d sponsor different races for EV and ICEVs. Performance is radically different. Electric motors have almost instantaneous torque, ICEVs take a few seconds to build it up. So EVs have greater response off the line and accelerating out of curves on road courses. An EV should be able to outperform a similar ICEV hands down. Sort of like NASCAR banning certain engines, not allowing them to compete in the same races would just level the playing field. There should be SEPARATE events for EVs and ICEVs. Mixed events might be interesting, but I’d expect the EVs to dominate, assuming similar vehicles and driver skills.

    Is there anything a buyer of EV race cars do to increase the HP of an electric motor ? I don’t know and as far as EVs being the future of racing it will be further in the future than they think. The cars are fast and noiseless and tinkering them for performance probably not as easy as ICE cars. One day the EVs could take over or they could be the biggest flop especially when trying to charge them with an electric grid that is already inadequate and getting compromised.

    Hybrids have been on track a long time. Porsche ran one in ALMS years ago . NHRA has opened to EVs in bracket racing & the Summit series had a national championship last year. I was in a autox at AMP & watched a dual motor tesla ( I am no fan of Tesla) with 4 grown men in it come within a few tenths of FTD against full on race cars with slicks & good drivers . To say I was impressed was an understatement. Forget about being a culture warrior & enjoy the progress. This is the golden age of performance & you can have it all.

    I’d say to have EVs race on different days than gas cars so you can attend either or both races. And the tracks can be set up for both kinds of fires on different race days. I’m not against EVs but rather than pushing them so much why not give everyone time to learn how best to deal with them.

    Fear of change. Fear of the “different.” Finding excuses to discriminate. It all sounds very familiar.

    Unfortunately this problem will take care of itself as club racing dwindles and tracks start closing. EV’s don’t and won’t hold the same appeal.

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