Monday, October 19, 2009

The World's Baddest Hybrid



Steve Pruitt doesn't hate gasoline because it pollutes, because it's expensive or because it fosters geopolitical instability. He hates it because it weighs too much. And when the tank on his 680-horsepower racecar runs empty, his driver has to head to the pits to fill it up again.

n a move that's been met with some skepticism in racing circles, Mr. Pruitt, a Utah commercial real estate developer who fields a team in the high-stakes American Le Mans Series, has decided to take on manufacturers like Audi, Porsche and Ferrari with a car that runs, in part, on electricity.

What's even stranger—and what could have serious ramifications for many forms of racing all over the world—is that his plan seems to be working. "This thing is still in the 'putting a monkey in the capsule stage' " Mr. Pruitt says. "It's only going to get better."

The car, which Mr. Pruitt calls the GZ09-SH, shares much in common with the hybrid Toyota Prius. It combines a 4-liter gasoline engine with a 70-pound battery that holds a continuously regenerated charge. The car weighs about the same as a gasoline-only racer. It goes from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds and generates 525 foot-pounds of torque—which also puts it on par with competitors in the Le Mans Prototype 1 class, the fastest and most advanced class in this circuit.

But the difference in this car—its electrical system—gives it an advantage. The small but significant boost in power from the battery is continuously released throughout the event, making his car a hair quicker, especially coming out of turns. At its debut in May at the Utah Grand Prix, the car finished fourth out of five cars in its class. But it finished third overall out of a 24-car field in its next race in July. In two races since, it has finished no worse than seventh, despite some glitches. The car will compete again Saturday in the final race on the ALMS calendar, the Monterey Sports Car Championship at California's Laguna Seca Raceway.

As promising as these early results have been, Mr. Pruitt says the car hasn't reached its full potential. Not just in power—he's still tinkering with the setup of the battery—but in its ability to shave time from pit stops in longer races. The first race of next season, the 12 hours of Le Mans at the Sebring International Raceway, will require as many as 16 pit stops. Mr. Pruitt believes that his car's improved gas mileage may allow it to skip at least one stop next season, and several more after he's worked out the kinks. This could save anywhere from 14 seconds to more than a minute per race—a staggering amount in racing. Mr. Pruitt says the car is nearly 10% more fuel efficient than its competitors.

Scott Atherton, the chief executive of the ALMS, says he believes Mr. Pruitt is on the verge of a major innovation. If he succeeds, Mr. Atherton says, competitors are likely to copy him. In fact, that may already be happening: Scott Elkins, an engineer with the series, says at least three other ALMS teams are tinkering with hybrid systems.

Hybrid-electric technology is also making inroads in Formula One, the world's most prominent, spend-money-at-all-costs racing circuit. This year, as many as six Formula One teams started using something called the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) that recycles energy created by the car's brakes and holds it in reserve.

The technology, which is similar to Mr. Pruitt's system, stores the energy until a driver taps a button on his dashboard to release it, giving it a momentary burst of power. The teams have banned these systems for next season—as well as in-race refueling—in a bid to cut costs (they can cost as much as $40 million to develop) but the technology is attractive to teams.

John Griffin, a spokesman for the Indy Racing League, the series that hosts the Indianapolis 500, says it is planning to introduce a new engine and chassis in 2012, and that a hybrid technology is under consideration.

Nascar, America's most popular racing series, isn't making any plans to adopt hybrid technology. Robin Pemberton, Nascar's vice president of competition, says the cost of one hybrid unit is the same as "running two of our teams for a full season."

The hybrid-electric movement in racing started in 1998 when the U.S.-based Panoz Auto Development Company put together a car affectionately known as "Sparky." It took second place in an ALMS race before it was scrapped over technology limitations. The car's battery weighed nearly 400 pounds, taking up about half of the cockpit. "We were too far ahead of our time," says John Leverett, the Panoz director of engineering.

Mr. Pruitt read up on Sparky and also knew about the work Zytek was doing with McLaren's Formula One team. In April, he flew to England to meet with Zytek's operations director to "see if this thing was the real deal." He came back to the U.S. impressed enough to spend about $2 million on a car of his own. Mr. Pruitt has no sponsors. "I'm doing this out of the good graces of my wife," he says.

As for his race Saturday, Mr. Pruitt says he's expecting to place even while acknowledging the car is still in the experimental phase. Still, he speaks of it like a proud parent.

"We have the only car of its type in the world," says Mr. Pruitt. "It's fast, it saves gas and it's sexier than hell."

source: online.wsj