The conservation of energy in IndyCar
It’s good to see IndyCar teams working so hard on being green. After all, it’s important that all racing series commit to conservation, recycling, renewal, and whatever else puts a smiley face on the critics of auto racing who decry motorsports as models of conspicuous consumption¹. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the employees picking up litter and emptying trash cans wear green (!) bibs that proudly proclaim “Ecology” as their department. I’m sure that title makes picking up the detritus of race fans so much more appealing. IndyCar has even added laps to races in an effort to conserve energy.
In 2013, IndyCar added laps at St. Pete, Milwaukee, and Mid-Ohio to discourage the use of fuel conservation from the beginning of the race. It seems fans actually prefer to watch cars pass each other for position on-track. Since a race like the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio normally calls for three pit stops to get to the finish, basic high school math proved to teams that if you slowed down and used less fuel, then you could finish the race on two stops. That seems like a sure-fire way to win a race, so why don’t all the teams do it? If going slower not only saves energy, thus making a series greener, but also enables a car to make fewer stops, it would seem to be the only choice for a politically correct and ecologically sustainable series.
Apparently, a high school math story problem, pit stop deltas, and yellow flags are the monkey wrenches that get tossed into the works here. A team conserving energy (saving fuel) to limit the number of pit stops by going slower allows teams who are not conserving energy (saving fuel) to go like hell, thus increasing the lead for these energy wasting, planet hating drivers and teams. Here is where the term “pit stop delta” gets thrown around by really smart guys like Jon Beekhuis. The pit stop delta is simply the time it takes to enter the pits, stop, and re-enter the track.
It is the fervent hope of our green, planet loving drivers and teams saving fuel that they do not fall so far behind the energy wasting, planet hating teams and drivers that the time behind the leaders plus the delta for them to make two pit stops is more than the delta for the energy wasters to make three stops. The problem is how far behind the energy savers fall while they are trying to save fuel. That time behind the go-like-hell leaders is the all-important variable in our high school story problem. If an energy saving car goes too slow, it falls so far behind the leaders that two pit stops cannot make up the difference. That is what happened at Mid Ohio.
Both Penkse Racing’s Will Power and Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti played the environmental card and went slow to save energy. They hoped for one wild card to be played during the race: a yellow flag. That is the other variable in the strategy to save the earth and win races. When yellow flags happen, it not only bunches up the field, it allows the noble energy conservers to save even more energy. The result is to let them drive like hell later because they saved even more fuel. Unless, of course, a race is run with no yellow flags, which is what happened at Mid Ohio for the second year in a row. The perfect scenario is for a yellow to fall after the savers have taken their second pit stop and before the users have taken their third pit stop. The result of that is a fuel saver becoming the leader. Power and Franchitti could not save enough fuel to race hard at the end. And part of that is because the IZOD IndyCar Series added five extra laps to the race. The result of those added laps was the fuel savers had to go even slower during the race to save fuel to use a two stop strategy while the three stoppers could continue to go like hell. The earth hating Charlie Kimball decided to go like hell and waste our precious resources to win the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio. Shame on you, Charlie!
So hats off to the earth loving fuel savers! Like tree hugging conservationists everywhere, you fought the good fight only to become the victims of the rampant and thoughtless exploitation of our precious fossil fuels. We can only hope that in the future, IndyCar will lengthen the distances of all races while limiting the number of pit stops. Then we will have a series that can proudly claim to be the best at using the least.
1. The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. I footnoted it for two reasons. One is to use the name Thorstein Veblen. I considered it as a Twitter handle, but it was already taken. The second is because his theories of leisure class, consumption, and technocrats are still viable today. Don’t read the book. Just check out this Wikipedia page.