The world’s fastest motorsport features eight racers speeding 250 miles per hour around an oval circuit, a little faster than NASCAR—“and just 30 feet higher,” said Jeff Zaltman, CEO of Air Race Events, which sponsors the annual Air Race 1 World Cup.

His group is now launching an electric offshoot. By 2020, pilots will streak across the sky in electric-powered racing planes.

The sport has existed in various forms since a 1909 race in Reims, France, and the Air Race 1 World Cup requires pilots to design and build their own planes within a few specifications. Pilots take off side by side and fly single-seat aircraft eight laps around six pylons over a mile-long course. The next incarnation will advance the sport to a new technological frontier. Air Race E will ditch kerosene fueled engines in favor of electric power.

“The technology has always seemed quite far off because electrification in aviation is probably 20 years behind where it is in automotive,” Zaltman said. Engineers designing large electric passenger airliners face significant limitations of battery size and intricacies of weight balance. Electric engines for airplanes are “essentially a different technology” than cars, Zaltman added.

A few years ago, however, Zaltman had a revelation: “It occurred to me, ‘Wait a second, that’s only if we’re talking about carrying passengers a great distance, but for an air race, we’re talking five minutes, five laps.’”

Air Race E is currently in talks with manufacturers about development and design for the electric aircraft. Among the pre-existing partnerships in electric aviation is one announced last November in which Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens are collaborating with the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on a hybrid plane, the E-Fan X, that would be used for propulsion of a commercial jet.

“The big airlines and the big companies like Airbus are taking an interest in these very small aircraft, and they all have their own projects because they know that’s where the technology starts from,” Zaltman said. “The testing and proving of these very small engines are going to be influential in the development of the bigger ones.”

Zaltman joined the U.S. Navy out of high school. He worked on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier as a technician maintaining the avionics (aviation electronics) and weapons systems of the A-6E Intruder, an attack aircraft. He later earned his own pilot’s license, although he doesn’t harbor any intent to join the races. Through his career in aviation, Zaltman learned about the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., which annually attract more than 150,000 fans.

“There actually have been quite a lot of forms of racing and quite a lot of events in air racing, but they’ve just always been off in the periphery,” he said. “There’s just so little known in the mainstream sporting worlds … Why does nobody know about this?”

In 2003, Zaltman founded a company called the Flying Aces to manage events and develop media rights within air racing. The Flying Aces negotiated an exclusive broadcast contract with the World Air Sports Federation for every aerial world championship—including hang gliding, hot air balloons, blimps, skydiving, helicopters and more.

After that, he started Air Race 1 in 2013 but also spent the summer of 2016 as a senior vice president heading sales and partnerships for Virgin Racing’s Formula E team. That experience helped crystallize the idea of an airborne version.

Air Race Events CEO Jeff Zaltman. (Credit: Nathapoom)

Air Race 1 is the only international multi-plane racing event. Competitors like the Red Bull Air Racing series instead involve solo flight time trials.“Safety is paramount to us, which is why we only race one plane at a time,” said Red Bull Air Racing CEO Bernd Loidl in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2010. The National Championship Air Races event in Reno has endured multiple fatalities, including a devastating accident in 2011 when a crash killed 10 people. Air Race 1 has thus far avoided significant incidents.

“They know what’s at stake,” Zaltman said of the pilots. “They’re not going to get as close as it would take to make something tragic happen. But they’ll be within a couple of meters. They have passed within a few meters of each other, and they’ll be going as tight as they possibly can.”

As Air Race 1 pilot Yves Clarke told the BBC back in October, “It is not inherently dangerous, just unforgiving of bad preparation or poor airmanship. The training, coupled with experience of other pilots, makes it doable and safe.”

At its launch, Air Race E will be supplementary to Air Race 1, with both races occurring at the same event. Zaltman envisions a time, however, when Air Race E will supplant its predecessor in importance. The goal is to offer a similarly compelling sporting event while simultaneously promoting cleaner energy and stimulating technology.

“It is crucial that we have a structure like Air Race E in place to provide the leading edge to development while propelling the sport and inspiring audiences,” Formula Air Racing Association president Des Hart said in the launch announcement. “The electric revolution is poised to change aviation, and Air Race E will play an important role in the advancement of technology.”