The 2012 Ford Focus Electric will serve as the pace car for NASCAR's Capital City 400 at the Richmond International Raceway on Saturday.
The 2012 Ford Focus Electric will serve as the pace car for NASCAR's Capital City 400 at the Richmond International Raceway on Saturday. Ford

NASCAR will have its first-ever all-electric pace car at the Sprint Cup Capital City 400 race at the Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on Saturday.

All decked out in NASCAR livery will be the 2012 Ford Focus Electric vehicle that the Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) unveiled on video this week.

The advent of electric cars in the NASCAR universe follows intense innovation in the automotive industry. It is symbolic of the effort to make the American flagship of motorsports at once more environmentally aware and more technologically innovative.

We use the opportunity of pace vehicles to really get our products out in front of the [NASCAR] fan base of 75 million, Tim Duerr, Ford Racing's motorsports marketing manager, said Thursday.

Electric cars and hybrid-electric systems are slowly making inroads into auto racing.

Formula One World Championship Ltd. began using a kinetic energy recovery system, or KERS -- an electric-boost system similar to the regenerative braking systems found in many hybrid and electric cars -- during its 2009 season.

In Formula One, KERS was introduced firstly to promote the development of environmentally friendly and road car relevant technologies and secondly to aid overtaking during the race, according to the Off-Track newsletter.

Green technologies, as represented by hybrid or electric cars, have been employed by NASCAR even longer, since Ford deployed a Fusion Hybrid as a pace car for the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway in 2008. Hybrid or electric vehicles as pace cars were introduced under the auspices of the racing league's NASCAR Green program, which it began that same year.

The program has focused on recycling and on promoting alternative fuels and drivetrains. Notably, NASCAR switched to using Sunoco Green E15 racing fuel last year.

The Power To Change

NASCAR's use of E15 -- as well as of hybrid and electric pace cars -- mirrors the automotive industry's rapid adoption of green technologies during the past four years.

Importantly, the associated changes have been about performance, in getting more performance without trading off anything, Mike Lynch, NASCAR's managing director of Green Innovation, said Thursday.

In fact, the switch to Green E15 was largely motivated by the fact it provides an additional 10 horsepower to each of the race cars fueled by it. The primary consideration in applying new technologies to motorsports has been whether the technology will improve the racing product, Lynch said.

We launched NASCAR Green three years ago, and the pace of green innovation has really sped up, Lynch said, explaining that the appearance of the Ford Focus Electric at the Richmond race is a natural reflection of changes in the auto industry.

With hybrid and electric cars increasingly becoming features of the automotive landscape -- not only because car companies seek to meet ever more stringent corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards but also because they seek to meet the market demand for green cars -- motorsports in general and NASCAR in particular have gone along for the ride.

Dollars And Sense

NASCAR's promotion of alternative fuels and drivetrains is neither just the outcome of environmentalism nor only the result of a sport following an industry. It also makes business sense to car companies like Ford. Big business sense.

The sport itself is really a visibility and validation of the cars involved, including the Ford Focus Electric pace car, Lynch said.

Putting the Ford Focus Electric in front of the pack of NASCAR racers guarantees it a broad audience of dedicated fans, many of whom are in the market for cars. About 100,000 fans are expected to see the Ford Focus Electric pace the field at Richmond in person this weekend, according to Ford Racing's Duerr, and, of course, millions more will watching the televised race via Fox.

Thirty-five percent of new car intenders [i.e., consumers planning to buy new cars] are motorsports fans, and 78 percent of motorsports fans follow NASCAR, said Duerr, who added, Nearly 70 percent of Ford Racing fans will consider one of our products.

Setting The Pace

Mark Fields, executive vice president of Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford, hatched the plan with Ford Racing to feature the Focus Electric as a NASCAR pace car when he first drove the vehicle last year.

NASCAR tested the Focus Electric for such use last month, and it concluded the vehicle was more than capable of meeting the challenge. They were very impressed. They weren't worried about the power train, weren't worried about the batteries, Duerr said.

The pace car must be able to accelerate fast enough first to get in front of the field of racers in the event of a yellow caution flag and then to lead the cars at 45 mph.

It's a big deal that an all-electric car with incredible energy efficiency is able to really pace the field, Lynch said.

Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales, and service, will be behind the wheel of the Focus Electric pace car on the way to the green flag Saturday, the company announced Friday. After the start, NASCAR's Brett Bodine will take over his normal duties as the series' regular pace-car driver.

Having the Focus Electric serve as a pace car raises the profile not only of that Ford model but of every Ford model. Ford races one of its models -- the Fusion -- in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition.

Setting the pace at the Capital City 400 at the Richmond International Raceway could mark the beginning of a racing career for the Focus Electric. A possible Focus Electric racing series is under serious consideration by Ford Racing, according to Duerr.

There is a lot of interest, Duerr said. It's certainly a possibility, but nothing's been officially decided yet. Because the Focus Electric does not produce any exhaust, he added, such a racing series could be conducted indoors to avoid rain-outs.

It would be a very, very competitive environment to have racing, Duerr said.

Check out the Ford Focus Electric video: