Written by Alanis King for InsideEVs
NASCAR revealed one possible future: a race car with a battery and 1,300 horsepower. Can the old-school racing series really go all-electric?
NASCAR is in the midst of a decade of radical change. Before the decade ends, those changes could include electrification. 

This past weekend at the Chicago Street Course, the first street circuit in the Cup Series’ 76-year history, NASCAR debuted a prototype electric race car.

This car dumps the pushrod V8 and rear-wheel-drive for a 78-kWh battery and three electric motors powering all four wheels to the tune of about 1,300 horsepower. And it’s not just the drivetrain that aims to be more sustainable.  The bodywork is made from flax, and NASCAR debuted it as part of the company’s goal to have net-zero operating emissions by 2035. 
Now, net-zero operating emissions doesn’t mean NASCAR’s top levels will go all-electric any time soon, or maybe ever. The most likely scenario is that the sport moves toward a hybridized system like the ones already used in series like Formula One, which went hybrid in 2014, and IndyCar, which made the switch over the weekendSports Business Journal reports that NASCAR could go hybrid as soon as 2026, but timelines change—IndyCar’s hybrid got delayed significantly amid the pandemic. There’s talk and speculation about a standalone electric series, but nothing concrete yet.
Yet an electric NASCAR racer previews what may be possible someday. Even for a sport where nobody bats an eye at a truck series anymore, the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” ethos helps explain why the prototype is a crossover: The automakers who race in NASCAR still have to go where the buyers are, and these days, they’re not going to sedans and coupes like they once did.

Still, the online reaction to NASCAR’s EV prototype was mixed, with some folks discussing the sport’s embrace of the future and others just responding: “WOKE.” More nuanced criticism came after test driver David Ragan said the car accelerates, brakes, and turns well, since NASCAR drivers and fans often like race cars that are hard to handle. 

So, what should you think about electrification in NASCAR? Let’s break down three pros and one big con of what the future may hold.
PRO: Casual spectators likely won’t notice a difference between gas and hybrid power 

“Hybrid” is a scary buzzword. Just look at the reputation the Toyota Prius garnered over the years. Especially in the gas-guzzling 2000s, a lot of regular people thought it was too eco-conscious. Bland. Boring. 

But that perception is changing quickly. Hybrid sales are skyrocketing as more buyers face rising gas prices but don’t necessarily want to go fully electric. In the coming years, more cars that were once purely internal combustion-powered will likely add hybrid power. Plus, while hardcore fans of a series will notice tweaks in strategy, fuel mileage, and car operation with hybrids, casual spectators likely won’t. 

Over the weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, IndyCar went hybrid for the first time, with an electrical system paired to the car’s 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 engine. I asked a friend who works in the sport and attended the race if there was any difference between spectating the non-hybrid car and the hybrid one, and they said: “Negative. All sound was normal. In terms of vibes, literally no difference. Could not tell [it was a hybrid].” 

PRO: Motorsports is a marketing platform, and it needs to be relevant 

Motorsports isn’t just a marketing platform for the companies on the cars’ liveries. It’s also a platform for the automakers and technology companies that build and race the cars. Because of that, it’s more enticing for those companies when the race cars have some relevance to the ones they’re selling. 

NASCAR currently runs pushrod V8s in all of its three American national series. Its two lower divisions, the Truck and Xfinity Series, run four-speed manual transmissions, while the Cup Series runs a five-speed sequential. Less than 2% of new cars sold in America last year were manuals, and we as a society are moving away from V8s and toward hybrid and electric cars. The current NASCAR racers get about 5 mpg, so it’s not like they’re in line with current passenger-car fuel economy.  

Automakers want to advertise new technology, not old—meaning if a series doesn’t keep up, it could lose its manufacturer support. Without manufacturers, you can lose a series.
PRO: Fully electric racing has its own benefits 

While NASCAR won’t go fully electric anytime soon, there are benefits to an EV racing series. Electric race cars like the ones used in Formula E, which became the world’s first major electric racing series in 2014, are quiet. That means engine roars can’t cover the other sounds that happen during a race: wrecks, tire squeals, and other mechanics of the car. 
The lack of engine noise gives spectators a different, and sometimes more intuitive, experience, because you can hear when things go wrong. Plus, the lack of piercing noise can make spectating a race more like other sports—one of my favorite races to attend is when NASCAR uses mufflers in a football stadium because the lack of noise means the stadium’s entertainment crew can play music and interact with the crowd mid-race. 

Less noise also makes the idea of a race friendlier in places with dense populations or noise ordinances, bringing the sport to an audience that likely wouldn’t go near its traditional venues in less populated areas. 

CON: Motorsport needs to be marketable to survive 

Motorsport is a marketing platform for companies and manufacturers, but the sport itself also needs to be marketable to spectators. Electrification brings a few marketing challenges. 
The first is that it’s harder to make fully electric racing feel compelling, as Formula E has shown. Yes, attendance has been up in recent years. But while every Formula E race I’ve seen has been a blast, the series has struggled to become an end goal for racing drivers. Instead, it’s a step on their ladder—whether that step is up to another major racing series or down from one. 
Hybrids are also a hard sell in a world of pushrod V8s. When I was in high school, kids with big diesel trucks would see Priuses and “coal roll” them: accelerate and purposely spit a bunch of black or gray exhaust as they drove by, as if to offset any of the good the Prius driver did for the environment.

NASCAR is a much more progressive organization than it was 10 years ago, but there’s a loud segment of the crowd that doesn’t like that. When I think of them, I think of the coal-rollers. 

But perhaps the hardest marketing problem to solve with electrification in any racing series is that people don’t like change. Even F1, which switched to hybrids 10 years ago, still has a loud group of fans and casual spectators who yell: “Bring back the V8s!” Before V8s, there were V10s, and so on. There’s a large coalition that still cries for those too, and a large coalition of NASCAR fans who want the sport to “Bring back the stock cars.” NASCAR stock cars haven’t been truly “stock,” as in cars you can buy off the dealership lot, since 1966. 
Those people don’t usually leave the fandom of a racing series. Otherwise, we wouldn’t hear from them. But they do loudly criticize it.
OVERALL: You can’t fight the inevitable 

The biggest change with potential electrification in NASCAR won’t be in how the series operates or competes. It’ll be in balancing the interests of its old-school fans and its automakers. Many old-school fans won’t want change, but automakers need it to sell their electrified technology. 

Perhaps people don’t like change because it reminds them that they’re aging and changing, too. But time marches on, and so do we—in electrified race cars. 

Click here if you want to see more of NASCAR's latest prototype in action!