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Will racing give Ethanol legitimacy?

by Tim Wohlford
Monday, May 19, 2008

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Ryan Hunter-Reay's Ethanol sponsored IndyCar
Gail Miller/AutoRacing1
Okay, let's be honest here...  AutoRacing1.com hasn't always been a fan of ethanol fuels for any vehicles, much less our race cars. However, perhaps there is a method to the madness, and maybe, just maybe, ethanol – and other “green” efforts -- will not only make a better world, but give auto racing a new legitimacy.

**

Starting in the aftermath of the 1964 Sachs-MacDonald crash, Indy car racing relied almost exclusively on methanol for its racing fuel until 2006, when Paul Dana finally convinced the manufacturers of ethanol – the corn liqueur “white lightnin” extra-carbon-atom-added cousin of methanol – to sponsor his IRL Indy car, AND the entire series, AS WELL AS provide ethanol as fuel to the entire series.  Critics – notably those from the Champ Car ranks – howled, making jokes about booze from the corn fields sponsoring cars that sounded like tractor motors.  Other AutoRacing1.com readers simply noted that American ethanol – almost totally made from corn – needed over a gallon of petroleum to produce a gallon of ethanol.  The questions fell on two fronts: Would ethanol prove to be a suitable fuel for auto racing?  And, would ethanol prove to be a long-term solution as a replacement for gasoline?

To the surprise of many, ethanol proved to be a great fuel for auto racing, in many ways superior to the methanol it replaced.  As most AutoRacing1.com readers know, methanol fumes are nasty, quickly leading to watery eyes and burning sinuses.  When spilled on the skin it is likely to cause chemical burns.  Spill it on the ground and you've got a contamination issue.  In other words, it's nasty stuff.  By contrast, ethanol actually had a higher octane, produces a bearable (if not pleasant) smell when burned, and like a bottle of Everclear (200+ proof booze), it has no negative effects when spilled on human skin.

In fact, ethanol IS simply pure grain alcohol, the same stuff that Junior Johnson used to haul in his younger days, corn in a jar, mighty mighty fine, white lightning.  Racing ethanol is actually 98% pure ethanol, with 2% gasoline added to keep the Feds happy.  Ethanol (and Rahal Letterman Racing) spokesman Eric Mauk explained, “The tariffs on transporting a tanker of 100% ethanol fuel, which would be corn liqueur, to take it across state lines, would cost you something like a quarter of a million dollars.”

Eric's team became the spokespeople for ethanol when Paul Dana joined Rahal Letterman Racing in 2006.  Sadly, Paul was killed before he saw the project through to completion, but his legacy is certainly intact as a man who changed Indy racing for good, possibly forever.  Rahal Letterman Racing still retains a car sponsored by the ethanol manufacturers, and have taken the lead in championing the ethanol cause.

Not only is ethanol nicer to work with, it's been very friendly to racing, and race budgets.  Mauk commented, “It's been amazing... We haven't had an engine failure (from ethanol), we're getting better gas mileage, so the fuel tanks are smaller, lightening up the cars.  One hundred thirteen octane – it was only 107 with the methanol – that extra octane gives you better response on the road courses, you're quicker off and on the throttle, meaning better lap times on the road courses.”  Indeed, the IRL hasn't seen a motor failure of any kind for at least a year and a half.  So well proven was the technology that the Champ Car people were considering moving to 85% ethanol (E85) for this season, one of the few times when the IRL showed the CCWS a better way of doing things.

Ethanol's sponsorship of the IRL has allowed the producers of ethanol that one doesn't have to accept awful performance for alternative fuels. “And that was the whole hook for the ethanol industry,” continued Eric. “And that's why they're here... to show the performance benefits of ethanol.”

However, the issues raised in the past few months on ethanol no longer center on whether the stuff works as fuel – it obviously does – but on the effects of using corn in a massive production of ethanol.  Mauk observed, “It's a different feel this year.  The same people that put so much time and effort into promoting Ryan (driver Ryan Hunter-Reay) and our race team last year are finding themselves fighting on so many different fronts.  Time magazine comes out and says that, 'Ethanol should be abolished'... there's so many critics now that they're spending more time fighting those off and less time here...”

Fortunately, the Indy 500 is the world's largest PR event, and the manufacturers of ethanol are getting out a new message.  First, they are perfecting the process of corn-based ethanol production.  Eric explained to AutoRacing1.com, “Lifeline Foods in St. Josephs, Missouri, is the plant that's the exclusive fuel supplier of IndyCar Series.... They're now able to use the entire kernel of corn, using part of the kernel of corn to use ethanol, and using the part of the kernel and making food out of it.  And they're taking what's left over from that and converting that to fuel their plant.  So what that's doing is that it lessens that ratio that a lot of people want to talk about, saying, 'Well, it takes more energy to power your plant than you're getting out of ethanol that you're producing.'  They're lessening the need for outside power.  And right now, they're the only ones doing it... (but) I think you're going to see a lot of other plants around the country doing this.  They've almost got the process perfected where they use every single bit of every kernel now.  Not only are you getting food, and you're getting your ethanol, but you're getting distiller grains that are going back into cattle feed.  That's a much more efficient use, something that wasn't done in the ethanol industry 2 years ago.”

However, ethanol producers know that corn isn't the final answer.  Mauk explain that, “Right now they're using corn because it's plentiful, the process is more advanced... To get this foothold that they've got, and getting just the idea of ethanol accepted, that's why they're going with the corn right now.”  However, there are 3-4 different sources that they're investigating.  Perhaps the most promising technology, the holy grail in this business, is something called “cellulosic ethanol” which uses lignocellulose-- found in virtually every plant – to make ethanol.  If perfected, it would mean that virtually any plant materials, including switchgrass and waste paper, could be used.  In addition, cellulosic technology would greatly reduce greenhouse gases emissions as compared to gasoline and current ethanol products.

Granted, there are all sorts of jokes that start with “if” that end with punch lines like, “My sister would be my brother.”  However, think of it this way – it's been a long time since auto racing was truly a proving ground for auto technology, perhaps decades.  Suddenly, auto racing is transformed from a somewhat politically incorrect pastime to a means to save the planet, or at least wean us away from fossil fuels.  It's not a thought that is confined to Indy.  The new specs for the next generation F1 / FIA engines are being debated, and rumors abound that some “green” ideas will be included.  If auto racing can keep some alternative fuel ideas in the public mind, then perhaps they can gain funding, and buy some time, as they close the 100-year head start that petroleum has on these ideas.  Just as it took decades for the rear view mirror – an innovation pioneered at Indy – to be widely adopted, so too it will take time to perfect any alternative fuel, and it might be auto racing that keeps the idea alive between gasoline crunches.

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