Electric off-road rally racers whine wheel-to-wheel in clouds of desert dust, scrambling past rocky outcroppings, catching air over the peaks of windswept dunes and, at times, colliding and crashing. The action and the scene might sound otherworldly—a lot like Star Wars podracing—but this event in Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, in April was the inaugural race for a new series called Extreme E.
What was made to accompany the racing seems equally otherworldly. Instead of the flashy halftime show or pitlane walk, fans also got a calm, beautifully shot environmental short in which a respected Oxford academic discusses the desertification and soil-erosion consequences that Saudis face, relating to global warming.
This thought-provoking series full of such teachable moments was created by Alejandro Agag, who has a deep admiration for Jacques Cousteau and is also the founder of the Formula E series that took F1-style racing all-electric starting in 2014. Extreme E is now sanctioned by the FIA juggernaut that runs Formula 1 and Formula E.
After the season opener, subsequent races have taken the series to Senegal and Greenland, while it’s due to be held in Santarém, Brazil, in October and Terra del Fuego, Argentina, in December. Each event highlights seemingly alien desert, ocean, glacier, Arctic, and Amazon landscapes, and offers a “legacy program” such as, in Senegal, mangrove restoration.
Extreme E wears its scout badges wherever it goes. It chooses venues already altered by climate change and professes itself to be an “all electric racing series with a purpose—to raise awareness of climate change.”
The series is hoping fans will join the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge, to make “small but impactful solutions to minimize their carbon footprints”—things like switching to a green energy provider or eating more plants. Its intended audience is Gen Z and Millennial “electric car buyers of tomorrow.”
Fans aren’t allowed to attend these “leave no trace” races, but they actually participate in the race outcome by picking a favorite who can choose their starting position. Teams start with a 536-horsepower all-wheel-drive racer made by Spark Racing Technology called the Odyssey 21, powered by a 54-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Green hydrogen—made via solar panels or wind, depending on the location, and then stored away—is used to charge up the cars. The whole series transports its cars and equipment on the St. Helena, a refurbished British Royal Mail ship that serves as a floating paddock and scientific base that’s the only piece of the series that has a combustion engine—converted to low-sulfur diesel, though.
There’s another noteworthy twist: Extreme E claims to offer a world first for gender-equal motor racing. Each team has a male and female driver, each taking a lap apiece. The traditional gender split of motorsports has been 90 to 95 percent male, according to Extreme E, and so the goal is to increase female participation.
Although Extreme E might connect on a lot of issues, it doesn’t yet offer much of a thread to production electric vehicles. GM, for instance, confirmed that its relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing are mostly marketing-related—bringing the look of the GMC Hummer EV to that team’s car.
“We hope as the series develops more manufacturers come on board so they can use Extreme E as a test bed for consumer-facing technologies,” Agag told Men’s Journal.
The 2020s are already shaping up to be a time of climate-change reckoning for companies, governments, and consumers. On one hand this is racing’s gambit to remain relevant, and on the other hand it’s the kind of motorsports bombast and bluster—quieter and all-electric—that could get a new generation excited.
It’s normal to have existential questions. Extreme E asks them out in the open—with the stunning backdrop of changing planet Earth.
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