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Bill Oursler On Getting Gassed

I know I’m an old fart. I know this because I’m at the age when aches and pains prevail, and when I attend more funerals than I do weddings (not that I particularly like either). Still, as an old fart, I’ve been around a long time in the business of motorsport, and I’ve seen it change dramatically over the years.

Atomic Rooster
Consider for a moment that five years after the green flag dropped on the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, for example, three quarters of the starting field was either dead, or had been forced to retire because of injuries. As we would say here in America, that is an unacceptable loss rate, more matter what the sport. And, our sport did something about it. Racing is still dangerous, yet, we’ve spent as much, if not more money on safety and protecting the drivers and spectators as we have on going fast.

Today, death remains part of the equation. But, so too does it in commercial aviation, and like commercial aviation it is a rarity, not the norm. We should be proud of that, for not only have we saved lives, in doing so we have allowed racing to become a major player on the stage that is international professional sport. Yet, as I write this, racing is about to undergo yet another period of re-examination and change that could substantially alter its very nature, perhaps for the better, perhaps not, for it has acquired a social conscience.

How very, very, crude….
In the United States gasoline prices this year have soared, and while everyone in politics and the media is quick to blame the lack of a reliable supply of crude oil, the true fact is that the U.S. has not built a new oil refinery since 1978. Clearly the population has grown since; a population whose society is built around the motor vehicle. Therefore the logical conclusion must be that the shortage of gas (or petrol for you British) isn’t to be found on the crude oil side of the equation, but rather on the side where it is refined.

And, how could that happen? The answer is simple; those who do the refining make more money if they limit capacity, both in the fees they can charge, and in not having to invest capital in building new refineries, which while beneficial to the public, might not have such a positive effect on their bottom line. Still our friends in the oil industry couldn’t pull this off alone. They’ve had help; help which has come from the environmental lobby which has used the refinery issue to change our social habits when it comes to fossil fuels.

So, having ranted in print about what I see as something of a cover up, is all of this a bad thing? Not necessarily.  The truth is most intelligent people agree that fossil fuels are indeed at the heart of the looming global warming crisis. I live in Florida. I like being on the coastline. What I don’t like is the prospect of being part of the ocean and not the land. In other words, viewing the coast from the liquid, or wrong side, as opposed to solid (or mostly so) earth beneath my feet, is not what I have in mind for my truly old age.

In the bio sphere….
Yet, if the oceans continue to rise as the polar ice caps melt, that is exactly what I could face. So when Scott Atherton and Tim Mayer from the American Le Mans Series embrace the use of alternative fuels, in this case ethanol, for their championship, it gets my attention. And, while it may take several years to get there, one suspects that by the beginning of the next decade, the ALMS might be totally propelled by this bio fuel, which could well help me stare out at a view of my backyard rather than God’s own, and very large swimming pool.

Perhaps more important, than the ALMS’ commitment, is the commitment by the whole of motorsport from Formula One through the American open wheel Champ Car and IRL tours on down. In its earliest days motorsport was a proving ground for the then infant automotive industry. Today, it has become so again. One may complain that as aerodynamic knowledge has increased, along with a parallel electronic invasion of the sport, modern race cars have lost that vital individuality that was at the heart of what made them so interesting. One can’t go back on either of those fronts: cars will continue to look the same, and electronics will continue to motivate and demotivate them.

Klaatu…. Verada…. Necktie….
But, underneath as engineers and designers turn their attention to the vastly differing ways in which the people of the earth face the challenges before them, their solutions to solving those issues will making the sport not only more interesting, and more relevant, but could well play a key role in saving the planet. I used wonder what justification I could use when my mother suggested that I should find a “real occupation,” rather than one with no aspirations of improving the society in which we live. Now I have that answer.

                                                                                                    Bill Oursler
                                                                                                      July 2007

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