Extreme E’s Bet On A Sustainable Future

If a race happens in the Atacama desert and no fans are around to witness it, has that race actually happened? Extreme E, an all-electric off-road SUV racing series founded by Alejandro Agag of Formula E, has challenged the concept of fan engagement since its first season in 2021 — but three years on, it was time to check back in with the series. Has the fan-free push really been working?

Full disclosure: Extreme E invited me to Chile to cover the 2023 season finale. They covered the cost of my flights and hotels, shuttled me into the midst of a copper mine, and fed me some frankly delightful food.

The primary reason that XE excludes fans from the track is its push for sustainability. Racing itself — as in, the on-track action — produces very little in the way of carbon emissions when compared to freight and travel to the track; XE reduces those emissions even further by hosting a limited schedule of events and transporting all equipment via ship. As a result, the series’ small staff are the only ones taking flights ahead of the event.

Series like Formula 1 have been able to estimate the carbon emissions from freight and travel for the equipment required to host a race, but it’s much more difficult to account for the impact of fans. How can you tell who flew, drove, or took public transportation? How can you tell where those fans came from? How can you estimate the impact of their meals, their trash, their waste? It’s almost impossible to uncover those numbers, but for the hundreds of thousands of fans that enter a track over the course of a weekend, you’re likely looking at a massive impact on the environment.

XE does away with all that. Without fans, the series doesn’t have to worry about the massive environmental impact that their presence could cause.

But at the same time, many X Prix are held in extremely remote locations; actually getting there can be a hassle even for team personnel. The Copper X Prix in Chile, for example, is located in a literal mine. Getting there required a 90-minute drive through the Atacama desert; on site, there were tents to escape the brutal sunshine and an ample water supply to combat dehydration. Throw fans into that environment, and you’ve got a recipe for absolute disaster.

“In extreme locations, a lack of fans is right,” Ali Russell, managing director of Extreme E, told me during a media round-table interview. “It’s the responsible thing to do these events without fans.

“If I look back at Greenland, it would have been right for us to have fans in Kangerlussuaq because it’s a town of 500 people. If you bring fans into a town like that, it’s like locusts: the locals can’t eat or work, and there’s not enough accommodation.”

For the drivers in the series, a lack of fans can be as enjoyable as it is foreign.

“It makes the weekend a little more laid back. You come into the paddock, and it’s really chill. It’s kind of like a practice day where no one is here,” Lia Block, driver at Carl Cox’s XE team, told me in a round-table interview. “But I do think I have to hype myself up more because there isn’t that interaction with fans or that big atmosphere.”

That being said, the series is looking to evolve. Russell recognizes the benefit of actually getting fans at an event, but only at venues where the track is located near a town or city. XE did invite a limited number of fans to the round in Uruguay — but it sounds as if the intention is to draw in curious locals, not hardcore race fans that would need to travel long distances.

It’s an interesting and admirable aim, but three years into its existence, XE still feels like a footnote in the motorsport world — something you follow if you’re already in the know, but not something a very casual fan would stumble upon. As XE continues to explore new opportunities to grow — including an entire revolution in its technology and format — it may be time to consider a more open atmosphere.

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