Mid-Ohio American Le Mans Series: Why a Tire Company Sponsors the Green Racing Trophy—A Look Backward and Forward
by Joanne Ivancic (Advanced Biofuels USA) You’d have a pretty dangerous drinking game if you downed a shot every time a car racing announcer said “a slight air pressure adjustment” or if you liberated a piece of clothing for every tire change.
The relationship of properly inflated tires to going fast safely using as little fuel as possible has long been a staple of quality race management. At the consumer level, improved gas mileage from properly inflated tires took the spotlight when gas prices entered the $4.00/gallon realm. Race fans and long-haul drivers alike explained to the late night comedians that this was NOT a joke.
So, maybe it makes sense for a tire company to be identified with fuel efficiency and with racing. Since 1898, Michelin has been identified with racing, although then it was as the supplier of the removable pneumatic tire used by the winner of the world’ first long distance bicycle race. And since 1998, its mascot, Bibendum (known in the US as The Michelin Man), got a sustainable mobility themed racing event for its 100th birthday.
In 2006, members of the US Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, SAE International, and several automotive industry leaders came together to form the Green Racing Working Group to develop the Green Racing Protocols. These protocols call for a joint DOE/EPA/SAE International awards program to incentivize, recognize, and reward automotive industry leaders that go the farthest and fastest with the smallest environmental footprint for energy used.
This project fit best with the innovation-driven philosophy of the American Le Mans Series. The ALMS Petit Le Mans 10 hour endurance race in 2008 inaugurated the Green Challenge award. No other US racing series has jumped on the bandwagon, yet.
In 2009, Michelin saw the opportunity to expand beyond Europe the sustainable mobility innovation-through-racing philosophy it celebrated with the Challenge Bibendum. Throughout the season, two teams – one prototype and one GT – that demonstrate the best overall performance and fuel efficiency with the least environmental impact win the MICHELIN® Green X® Challenge award, based on the Green Racing Protocols, with an overall award presented by EPA/DOE/SAE at the end of each season.
In 2007, it created the 10,000 Euro Michelin Energy Endurance Challenge at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in 2008 extended that award to all of the races on the European-based Le Mans Series. It made sense to expand this in 2009 to the US.
That said, it still seems unusual for a tire company to be so obsessed with promoting technological developments far beyond anything to do with tires. It seems a bit altruistic for a company known for a keen eye for the bottom line.
A spokesman explained, Michelin recognizes the importance of seeing the big picture relationships. Just as tire pressure and tire wear assert great influence on the overall performance of a vehicle, the other elements of mobility influence how tires perform, thus, the importance of observing and interacting with the many elements in that broader perspective. And, when a company can promote its product as performing well longer, it should gain market share.
Since the beginning, Michelin has raced to “learn, win and sell.” By its support of racing and by its support of technological innovation from a big picture perspective, Michelin intends to continue its pain-in-the-neck, nit-picking, observation and detailed analysis of how its products work under as wide a range of conditions as it can find, in relationship with as many different technologies as possible. Each partner that races on Michelin tires deals with an assigned engineer who gathers, records and transmits numerous points of data and information from each practice, test run, qualifying laps and race. And after they are worn beyond usefulness, all Michelin tires are returned to the company and eventually recycled.
Michelin’s participation in racing to learn, to revise, to develop, provides a model of how a sustained, broader, big picture viewpoint can benefit race competitors and fans as well as everyday consumers.
Now, if EPA/DOE/SAE and other sponsors such as Michelin would give the Green Challenge real “teeth,” as Bryan MacDonald of Highcroft Racing put it last year, with real prize money and substantial incentives, it could motivate teams, their sponsors and partners to work on proving the value of even greater innovations.
Another frustration mentioned by a number of competitors is the penalty imposed on successful new technologies. To keep the racing close, innovations that prove particularly effective in improving performance, efficiency or sustainability are effectively penalized by requiring other modifications such as adding weight to compensate for the performance advantage. From an entertainment perspective, that makes sense—and consumers still reap the advantage of the new technologies. But it twists the heart of the entrepreneur and competitor who work so hard to find a new, better way to have additional burdens imposed on them to “level the playing field.”
So, our challenge to the Green Racing Challenge leaders is twofold: 1) Find a way to put “teeth” into the Challenge incentives; and 2) let new technologies show what they can do and have resulting enhanced performance motivate their competitors to do as well or better by adopting the winning technologies or developing new ones. That’s an old-fashioned idea from Michelin’s and auto racing’s past, but worth considering to drive racing into a fruitful sustainable future.