Inside the deal: How IndyCar is working with Shell and Firestone to fuel its sustainability drive

BlackBook Motorsport speaks to Bassem Kheireddin, technology manager for Shell’s motorsports division, Cara Krstolic, director of race tyre engineering and production at Bridgestone, and Mark Sibla, chief of staff for IndyCar, to find out more about the series’ introduction of sustainable tyres and renewable fuels.

The 2023 season represents a big step forward in IndyCar’s efforts to become more sustainable.

In collaboration with its partner Shell, the US-based open-wheel racing series has introduced 100 per cent renewable fuels for this year, becoming one of the first major motorsport properties to do so. IndyCar has also worked with long-time partner Firestone to roll out a sustainable tyre constructed from guayule, a product derived from a desert shrub.

Both innovations were on display at the season-opening race in St Petersburg as IndyCar looked to start 2023 with its best foot forward. While it was a debut for the sustainable fuel, the guayule tyre was first on show last season, with an initial introduction in Nashville.

Either way, this is seen as just the start of the series’ sustainability journey.

“We want to be the most sustainable racing series in North America,” says Mark Sibla, chief of staff for IndyCar. “I think the fact we’re coming out with 100 per cent renewable fuel in 2023 is a huge factor of that.

“There’s other series out there that have plans [for sustainable fuels], but it’s a few years from now. So we’re very proud of how quickly this came together. Working with Shell, it’s certainly something that we’re going to talk about this year because it’s a big deal.”

Fuelling change

While Shell was only announced as IndyCar’s official fuel in May last year, the company had been taking steps to produce sustainable fuel long before that. If anything, it represents a small piece of the puzzle in the energy giant’s own efforts to implement more sustainable practices.

“On the motorsport side – and really it goes beyond motorsport – our sustainability initiatives [are most important],” Bassem Kheireddin, technology manager for Shell’s motorsports division, tells BlackBook Motorsport. “Each of our companies has set a target in terms of becoming a net zero energy company for Shell by 2050 or sooner. This particular piece of work on the fuel is a piece of that journey.”

It’s hard to discuss sustainable fuels without mentioning Formula One, which is set to introduce its own solution in time for the 2026 season. It could be viewed as a point of pride for IndyCar to have achieved the same goal so much earlier, but Sibla sees it differently.

“I think when it comes to sustainability, it’s less about competing and it’s often [about] how we keep pushing each other ahead,” he explains. “We’ve talked with the folks at [all-electric series] Formula E and they’ve been fantastic and shared insights on successes and challenges.”

While this is a promising start, it could be argued that fuel consumption is only a fraction of a motorsport series’ overall emissions, with areas like logistics contributing significantly more towards a series’ environmental impact.

“It’s a piece of the bigger picture,” Kheireddin argues. “You’re not going to reduce your emissions overnight, and it’s going to be a progression. With this 100 per cent renewable race fuel, I can tell you that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions reduction are about 60 per cent compared to fossil-based gasoline.”

While the substance being used in IndyCar is not yet a zero-emission fuel – and Shell is clear that this is merely a step on the path to decarbonising motorsport – the foundations are in place for the formulation of this solution to develop over time and become even more sustainable.

What’s more is that initial steps around IndyCar’s logistical operations have been made in collaboration with series owner Penske Corporation. Most transporters now use renewable diesel to ferry the cars around the country, a practice that was first introduced after last year’s Indianapolis 500.

This season, all cars will run with Shell branding pointing to the buckeye, the external opening to the fuel cell where teams refuel during races

“So last year, right after the Indianapolis 500 at our event in Detroit, all of the transporters that were carrying race vehicles – approximately 26 – were filled with renewable diesel,” explains Sibla. “You don't have to change engine architecture. You don't have to do anything like that. It's not biodiesel, it's a different form of diesel.

“We've decided this year that we will continue that, obviously starting it much sooner with the first event [of the season]. I know the teams fuelled up here [in Indianapolis] prior to departing for the event. But then you think of the transporters that we carry, whether that's tech inspection or timing and scoring or in our administrative offices, as well as our sister company IMS Productions – that’s something we’re going to do for this entire year.”

Last season also saw electric trucks used at the Indianapolis 500 to transport the race tyres from the Bridgestone warehouse to the track, which is one small part of Firestone’s sustainability focus with IndyCar.

Going green on tyres

A partnership that can be traced back to the first ever Indianapolis 500 in 1911, Firestone has a long history with IndyCar when compared to the relatively new deal with Shell.

Most recently, the Bridgestone-owned company has developed the guayule tyre. It may take a few attempts to get the pronunciation right (why-yu-lee), but there’s nothing confusing about the potential this product has.

The eco-friendly tyre is partially composed of a natural rubber derived from the guayule desert shrub, which requires less reharvesting than traditional sources of rubber. Initially trialled during the Pit Stop Challenge at last year’s Indianapolis 500, the tyre made its competitive debut at the August race in Nashville.

“Bridgestone has just announced a US$42 million investment into the guayule programme,” Cara Krstolic, director of race tire engineering and production at Bridgestone, points out. “When we started, there was a very small amount of material available for us to use. It wasn’t quite a full race quantity worth of material, so in order to make a big impact we opted to go for a small quantity.

“In our case, the Nashville race made sense because of where it was in the schedule and because it was a street course. At street courses, it’s probably the lowest speed so you don’t have any sustained loads or sustained corners.”

Following a successful debut in Nashville, the guayule tyres (pictured above) returned at the season-opening race in St Petersburg

On the back of the successful trial, the tyre is now being used at all street courses in 2023. The only thing stopping the wider adoption of the tyre is the current lack of availability of the material. As Firestone scales up the ability to mass produce, it becomes more likely that the guayule tyre will be used as the alternate tyre at more races.

“Maybe for 2024, it might not be [used at] a lot more races, but hopefully beyond that we would see [it become the] alternate tyre [at all races] or maybe start to be used in Indianapolis,” Krstolic adds.

What’s most impressive, though, is the speed at which Firestone ramped up its production capabilities to make the sustainable tyre a reality in IndyCar. The company had been working on the guayule tyre concept for ten years, but producing a tyre that can handle the rigours of racing is an entirely different proposition.

“The development cycle was very quick,” Krstolic says. “So we had about a year before we actually introduced it, before we started testing materials, doing evaluations of the material itself, then building that material into our tread compounds and sidewall compounds.

“[Then], understanding what the properties of that compound were once you mixed it and once you've cured that compound, [you need to] compare that to our current tyres and then actually build the tyres, test them on track and [bring] them to the racetrack.”

This year is also going to see Firestone deploy sustainable tyres produced from recycled plastics across the entire Indianapolis 500 event. Interestingly, this has come about through a collaboration with fellow IndyCar partner Shell.

“We're working with our partners from Shell and a couple of other organisations to be able to purchase materials that actually are associated with recycled plastics,” Krstolic explains.

“Those recycled plastics then get put into the individual chain of a polymer. If you think about a polymer as a long paperclip chain, each paperclip on that chain is an individual monomer. And those monomers are sourced from sustainable materials.

“So we're able to take those monomers that we put together, put them together into one polymer chain, and then put that polymer into our race tyres.”

Building for the future

Should IndyCar look to grow its brand through new events further afield, questions will follow about the series’ commitment to sustainability, especially if rumoured expansions beyond North America come to fruition. Argentina is reportedly being considered as a destination, a move that would add considerably to the organisation’s emissions.

Sibla points out that “we’re very focused right now on North America”, adding that it would take “a very unique opportunity” for the series sit up and take notice. A return to the South American country for the first time since 1971 could certainly fall into that category.

For IndyCar’s partners, though, the focus will remain on ensuring progress continues to help the series hit its sustainability targets.

“We’re going to continue to push the limits on the track and innovation is in our DNA,” concludes Kheireddein. “Whether this is innovating around formulating fuels and lubricants or finding ways to help IndyCar on their decarbonisation journey…we will continue to innovate together.”

Krstolic adds: “These are small steps that we’re taking. We all love racing, and we want the sport to be enjoyable for those people that come after us – we want our kids to enjoy racing. We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.

“Between what Bridgestone is doing through Firestone Racing and what Penske Entertainment is doing through IndyCar, all of us need to have this focus on sustainability to let our sport stay around.”

Want to hear more from IndyCar and Shell? Join us at BlackBook Motorsport Forum on 27th April in London, uniting key stakeholders in the global motorsport for the only dedicated B2B industry event. Click here to find out more and book your seat in the room today.