By Adam Tate, Associate Editor
As we move forward into the 21st century the threat of climate change and the reduction of resources have combined to make the world of motor racing greener and more inventive than ever. Series all around the world are turning to hybrid and electric technology, they have entire departments focused on sustainability, renewable energy and the purchasing of carbon offsets. We hear about this more and more in the media, but we do not often hear about the racing circuits themselves. As major sporting destinations, the tracks have a big part to play in making the racing world more sustainable and environmentally friendly. In order to learn more and get a glimpse at the what’s next, I contacted Circuit Of The Americas in Austin, Texas home of the United States Grand Prix to see how they are leading the pack and shaping the future. I had the wonderful opportunity to tour the circuit and interview Edgar R. Farrera, he serves as the facility’s Director of Sustainability and oversees numerous aspects intended to minimize COTA’s environmental impact. While many corporations now have departments focused solely on sustainability, Edgar is the first circuit based director of sustainability in the history of motorsport. He is a pioneer in the field and a genuinely nice guy. I drove to Austin where we sat down track side and talked about his plans, his hopes and what changes are coming for racing’s more environmentally friendly future.
AT: Whose idea was it to have a Director of Sustainability for COTA? Was it Bernie Ecclestone, Tavo Hellmund? How did that start?
EF: Right, well good question. From what I’ve heard, sustainability was part of the original vision of the group that got together and thought this up. Partly because we’re in Austin, that’s a big part of the local culture and that’s going to be an expectation of the city that was going to be an issue. But beyond that it’s written in our host agreement with the City of Austin. Most major sporting events will have a host agreement with their city and among the commitments and obligations that we have to the community is addressing 55 specific sustainability initiatives that we have to do every year. A lot of them are U.S. Grand Prix specific and then the rest deal with the day to day operations. So out of that came the need to create a department to manage that.
I was like wow we did it, we actually did it. You know there were so many challenges as we developed the project but that moment when they actually took off was like, wow it’s actually happening! They’ve started, there are the cars, I can hear it and all the cars made it past turn 1 with out any mishaps. It was very exciting. To me that’s going to be a very special memory I think for the rest of my life.
– Edgar R. Farrera on the start of the 2012 U.S. Grand Prix
AT: How did they find you for the job?
EF: Originally they looked at a couple of different options. One option was should they handle it internally, in house, which is obviously what they decided to go with, or should they just hire a consulting firm and bring in some kind of external team to be on retainer and deal with that day in day out. I think both of those options were still very much alive when I got involved in June 2011. A friend of mine let me know that COTA was looking for this position. I knew about the project because I’m a motorsports fan, I’d been following it but, I didn’t suspect that they were going to need someone with my skill set, so I was surprised. I had a job, but I was thinking about managing sustainability at a campus. I thought I was going to end up at a corporate campus, a university campus or even a medium sized city, that’s what I was planning to look at. And this is very much a campus, it’s the same size as a corporate or even some college campuses, but it’s a very different facility and it’s very fun. So I am glad I am here, but to answer your question more directly, I interviewed for it, lot’s of interviews.
AT: Are other tracks starting to do similar things, has there been cooperation from the FIA? Have other tracks begun setting up sustainability departments or does COTA still the shining status of being the first and only?
EF: Yeah, that’s an awesome question. I was told by the Formula One Management guys at last year’s race that I’m the first circuit based sustainability director in the history of Grand Prix racing.
AT: That’s awesome.
EF: I’m very proud of that. It’s a point of pride, kind of nerdy but never the less, I think it’s really cool. At the FIA level they do have a sustainability director, in fact I think they’re on their second one, who oversees sustainability initiatives across all motorsports. In fact they’ve recently rolled out a certificate program for motorsport circuits in Europe that we’re going to be looking at, based on a standard called ISO 2021, which is in turn based on the London Olympics from last year. They did a lot, they really pushed and looked at how can you make sports and major events more environmentally compatible. And then that became the standard. ISO has a lot of standards that the FIA has in turn tailored more specifically for motorsports. Closer to home NASCAR has an initiative, across the sanctioning body, across all of NASCAR, not focused necessarily on a track. We’re members of an organization called the Green Sports Alliance. I just came back from their conference last week. Pocono is the other motorsport venue that’s a member. FIM has a sustainability committee at the sanctioning body. More specifically than individual tracks I think it’s becoming an issue in sports and major events, so if you look across all sports not jut motorsports, but ball sports you’ll see that in the last two or three years NFL, NHL, MLB, they’ve all added sustainability directors. In fact the event where I was, the summit, once a year I get to sit down and talk to my colleagues, people who have the same title and we discuss these issues, and what you find out is when you have a big event and you bring in 100,000 or 200,000 people over a couple of days a lot of the issues, a lot of fan engagement issues, sponsor engagement issues, it’s the same or very similar whether it’s MLS or what I do here. And that’s the value of having these conversations.
AT: I was here for the Grand-Am race in March and I saw some of the sustainability projects first hand. The low-Flo water fixtures, the recycling. I thought it was particularly cool you had the ecology crew and the black land prairie restoration area, the land rehabilitation. How is that going?
EF: Right, we have several actually, what they call critical environmental features, but two are actually right by the track. The tall grass, native feature that we have to have. What we have is basically an exclusion zone so that people don’t walk in there, it’s fenced off. So that’s going well. We have a volunteer program, you said you saw the resource recovery, the recycling. So we are doing two stream everywhere between landfill and recycling and then we’re doing three stream with composting in a few locations, mostly back of house because that seems to be where it makes sense. For the Grand Prix we did four stream, where we did landfill, recycling, compost and food rescue. We had almost five tons from our food partner that went to the food bank. That was great, so hopefully we can improve on that for this November’s race and maybe even look at expanding that to other events next year.
AT: That is really wonderful to hear that y’all are addressing not only the environmental features, but food waste as well. One of the coolest things I’ve heard about COTA so far is the plan to expand for a R&D center. How is that going?
EF: Yeah, that’s been discussed a lot. When I first came on board and first started having lot’s of discussions with folks in the community who were somewhat involved in the R&D space, a lot of people with the University of Texas, over at Pike Power, they do a lot of EV related grid research and even over at the Jake Pickle which is UT’s research center on the north side of town. I really just wanted to listen and ask them questions. I used to ask them all the same question. So if they had a magic wand and they could do whatever they wanted, what would they do here? And I got a lot of different answers and it helped me understand what kind of value COTA had to their R&D efforts and I think what’s come out of it is some of the R&D value that we currently have is different from what I first envisioned. Some of the value is in creating relationships, it’s one of the things I heard over and over again, it’s different from this vision in my mind of this kind of brick and mortar facility where people are tinkering. Cause what happens is even though that’s still possible and that may happen at some point, a lot of these institutions already have facilities, they already have staff, they’re off site and some of the local research, like at the Jake Pickle it’s so cutting edge that they don’t really need to be able to go 200 mph. It’s so experimental that they can either do it in a lab or they can do it in a parking lot cause you know it’s just been welded by students and it’s not going to go super fast. You just want to make sure it moves and works. It’s more proof of concept rather than some kind of pre-production idea. But what most of them said they valued was the ability to create relationships with some of the organizations that come to COTA; automakers, teams, people who don’t normally come to Austin.
AT: Sustainability is still new at the circuit level, but it’s really been picking up steam for awhile in race car and road car design. Where do you see the future of that in racing and especially in the rapidly growing world of race car to road car transfer of technology?
EF: That’s a super question and something that interests me. Just an aside, on Thursday the 19th of September, the night before the ALMS race we’re actually going to have a forum in the Velocity Lounge on that topic. Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, the global head of Audi Motorsport is coming in from Germany. He’ll be there, one of the DeltaWing drivers will be on the panel. We’ll have two other speakers who are yet to be determined, but it looks like it will be somebody from Michelin and somebody from Corvette, it will be a good panel on that topic. So having Audi and DeltaWing will give us a great conversation as well as the other speakers, it’ll be just on that so come back. I think where it is going in terms of technology depends on the sanctioning body of the series, because you know one of the things about motorsport is it’s true that there’s lot’s of R&D pushing technology and getting an edge, but the rules always have to balance that with maintaining a sense of entertainment. You usually see, especially in Formula One, where if one team develops an innovation that starts to clearly give them too much of an advantage you’ll see it curbed. If the other teams don’t catch up within a few races you’ll see it curbed, because they want to maintain that competitiveness so that people enjoy watching it and it’s not just somebody who runs away with it. There’s a balance there between entertainment value and the pure R&D value and also they have to keep it somewhat “affordable” for those guys so they aren’t constantly redesigning and doing R&D. But you can see it in F1, there’s a big push on aerodynamics, some of theses aerodynamics and so specialized that it doesn’t really translate to anything else. You heard Ferrari make that comment last year. But you have seen the KERS, Kinetic Energy Recovery come out of that sport and go into some other motorsports and even begin to have commercial applications in buses and there’s even been research in using it for locomotives. Anywhere where you start-stop-start-stop you can capture that kinetic energy and reuse it. I think ALMS and WEC are both very interesting series, because they really are pushing, ALMS they use the green racing protocols from the EPA, DOE and Michelin and the WEC, where they really are rewarding who can go the furthest, the fastest with the least environmental footprint. And you see these different kinds of fuel; you see Audi winning with diesel-electrics and you see Toyota using gasoline and a capacitor for electricity. The DeltaWing in ALMS goes at it from a material science point of view, that different geometry but you’ve got this interesting balance of power that they always have to take into account. One fuel to another, you really are seeing different kinds of fuels competing and it’s really more of a battle to see who floats to the top. Which of these technologies has an advantage. And some of those do start to transfer over more readily to road cars. That connection between the track and the road has been there for a long time, you got ABS brakes and tires and safety belts and all kinds of things that go back to the beginning, but it’s very alive today and I think this transition to more efficient, cleaner, alternative fuels, it is very alive. You’re even starting to see some interest in electric racing. Formula E and then TTX, the e-bikes. Especially on the bike side, if you look at their performance they still don’t have parity with internal combustion, but you can see how they’ve been improving, you can see, you can forecast, it’s not that hard to believe that within several years that they can have some parity there which would be really exciting.
AT: If you had a magic wand, are there any big projects you’d like to do here like onsite renewable energy or photocatlytics for emissions reduction, something kind of pie in the sky?
EF: I’ve been trying to get some onsite photovoltaics here, haven’t been successful yet, haven’t made all the pieces fit yet, but I have gotten close. I’d love to see some onsite photovoltaics, and some solar canopies to provide shade in the plaza. It’s a very visible kind of way for people to understand what you are trying to do. I’d love to have some EV charging and I’d like to get some electric cars out here doing something, I think all those things will happen, it’s just taking a little bit longer than I expected.
AT: So what is a typical day like for you working at COTA?
EF: A typical day, they’re really fun, they’re varied, but they’re very enjoyable. Some days I do have a lot of paperwork and I’ll be at my desk or at the downtown office and I’ll be working on contracts or something like that. We just had a cycling event here, our first professional cycling event last Saturday. So you know the insurance, the contract. Those things will be interrupted by planning for some upcoming event. We’ve got the F1 in Schools final here in November, I’m busy coordinating elements of that. We have compliance with out host agreements or progress on some of the environmental or public outreach initiatives, like the forum we’ll have on the 19th. Every once in a while we’ll have celebrities who have some interest in the environment who will come through and we’ll interface with them. It’s always fun. Or I’ll just be up here doing just work and there will be something fun going on out on the rack and I’ll get to see some fun machinery, which I always enjoy.
AT: One last question, what is the best thing about working at COTA and what is your favorite memory of working here so far?
EF: I think the one memory that I’ll probably never forget is last year’s Formula One Grand Prix. When the five lights went off, when they tore up turn 1 for the first lap because it was so emotional.
AT: Send chills up your spine?
EF: It did, it did. I was like wow we did it, we actually did it. You know there were so many challenges as we developed the project but that moment when they actually took off was like, wow it’s actually happening! They’ve started, there are the cars, I can hear it and all the cars made it past turn 1 with out any mishaps. It was very exciting. To me that’s going to be a very special memory I think for the rest of my life. But what do I like about being here? There’s just so much to like. One is, I’m a motorsports guy and it’s just such an exciting, exciting place to be, at the newest motorsports facility in the world where I get to do stuff that nobody else has done before. We’ve now have the Austin 360 amphitheater, it’s cool enough just to be working on all the motorsport portions, now we have concerts too. There’s a learning curve there, it’s a very different event, but very fun. And to have learned last month, or the month before that we’re going to be the site for the X Games for the next four years. Which is another kind of event, a sports festival, but a really fun one working with ESPN and their team. You put that together and you’re like wow, all day. If it’s not a concert, it’s going to be X Games planning, it’s going to be some kind of festival planning, it’s going to be getting ready for the next race. We have smaller events here that don’t always get as much attention, but I’ll work on the outreach to schools, F1 in Schools, the solar car race here in the summer, Formula Solar that I worked on which was a lot of fun with the colleges. There’s always something and even when it’s not related to me I’ll come out here and there will be some exciting machines on the track.
AT: That sounds so amazing. Thank you Edgar, you’ve got a great operation and a bright future out here.
EF: Thank you, be sure and stay in touch and come back out when you can.