Want to get to a hydrogen economy sooner? Make all the cars in the Indy 500 run on it.

This is one of the few industries in the world that has a sport organized around its products. Motor racing attracts millions of spectators around the world who enthusiastically cheer on their favorite cars, teams and drivers.

It's a phenomenon that the computer, bio-tech, or financial service industries will never, ever replicate. Why? Because race cars have a certain cache. There's a magnetic attraction to the way they look, the raucous noises they make and the spellbinding speeds at which they flash across the track. There is something about that awesome power and the inherent dangers that appeals to a wide swath of the public.

And there is a long, rich history to it. Ever since the automobile was invented, people have wanted to race it. Car racing actually began in the late 19th century and has slowly grown to become one of the largest spectator sports in the world.

Yet as any racing aficionado knows, the sport is undergoing a disturbing development. It's becoming more about entertainment and brand marketing and less about the technological development that attracted most of us to it in the first place.

Motor racing was the way inventors, engineers and companies proved that their products were superior to anyone else's. It was the perfect venue to hone their technical and organizational skills, because the crucible of competition produced better results faster than the methodical business approach needed for large-scale production. It pointed the way to the future, because the leading-edge technology that was combat-tested on the track would ultimately show up on production cars, even if it took a decade or two. And, best of all, it garnered enormous amounts of free publicity and media attention that gave great exposure to the brand.

When the major automakers got behind their motor racing efforts in a serious way they often produced some of the most memorable machines ever made. My favorites include:

  • The fabulous German Gran Prix cars of the 1930s, the silver Auto Unions and Mercedes-Benzes, which admittedly became propaganda symbols for the Third Reich, but which also pushed development in metallurgy and a host of other disciplines.

  • The Chaparral Can-Am cars of the 1960s, with General Motors Corp.'s very secret but very active involvement, which took the use of active aerodynamic devices to levels that are still not matched today.

  • The Ford GT-40 that proved so dominant for so long in long distance racing and was one of the first race cars to experiment with using computers for some design work.

  • The winged Plymouth Super Birds and Dodge Daytonas that took aerodynamic development to a new level in NASCAR. The image of these cars coming through the high bank of a super speedway is one of the most impressionable in the history of racing.

  • The Lotus STP turbine cars at Indy, which despite their failures, turned the racing community on its ear and attracted more public attention than any other car I can ever remember at the 500.

What always attracted me to these cars is that they were so purposefully built. They pushed the technological envelope. But today's race cars are becoming parodies of those great cars of the past. The pendulum is swinging too much toward “the show” to the detriment of technological progress.

Just look at NASCAR. It has degenerated to the point where they have to put decals of headlights and grilles on the cars so spectators have some way of recognizing them as the production cars they're supposed to represent.

Just look at CART and F1 where the race cars are borrowing electronic and safety technology from mass production cars — technology transfer in reverse!

I'm not against the commercial success racing is currently enjoying, I'd just like to see it improve the breed and push the technological envelope. It would be to the industry's advantage to show how its involvement in racing is leading to breakthroughs in reducing emissions, boosting fuel economy and improving safety. Even those people who don't really like motor racing would look on it more favorably if they knew it was being used as a test bed to make cars cleaner, safer and more efficient.

If the auto industry truly wants to get to the hydrogen economy, then it should do more than just run a demonstration project in California.

I think it was someone at autoextremist.com who suggested that all the cars in the Indianapolis 500 be required to run on hydrogen in 2008 — a fantastic idea. The public would be agog and the industry would be more credible when it argued against raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards because it would be pointing to a better alternative in the future.

The same goes for safety. It's inconceivable to me that race drivers are still getting killed for the sake of entertainment, just as it's conceivable that an air bag could have saved Dale Earnhardt's life. Why not use racing as the ultimate test-bed to develop the materials, sensors and components that will make passenger cars even safer than they are today?

The auto industry and racing community have a vested interest in seeing this happen. Not only will they retain the respect of aficionados like myself who want to see that racing truly improves the breed, they could attract a whole new level of fans and spectators for whom it would be all the more relevant.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” and “American Driver” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.