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Race-car drivers join the green crusade

When NASCAR drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and IndyCar racers like Danica Patrick put pedal to the metal this season, they'll be making the transition to cleaner racing fuels.

When NASCAR drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and IndyCar racers like Danica Patrick put pedal to the metal this season, they’ll be making the transition to cleaner racing fuels.

At last week’s NASCAR Nextel Cup race in Fontana, Calif., the tanks of all 43 competitors were, for the first time, filled with gasoline that does not contain poisonous lead compounds.

When the Indy Racing League gets under way this month in Florida, the open-wheel cars will be topped off with ethanol, which is corn-based, instead of methanol, a fossil fuel derived from natural gas.

In each series, the deafening roar and the radar-gun-busting speeds will remain intact, but the engines will burn fuels much closer to what the fans use in their own cars.

The notion that the fuel consumed on the racetrack should be more closely related to that from service-station pumps is not far-fetched. After all, auto makers have long tried to convince customers that racing improves the breed.

“At one point, motorsports could take the lead in regards to a lot of technology that would trickle down to the everyday street car,” said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion.

“Today, the technology of everyday cars is more sophisticated,” said Rahal, who is a partner with David Letterman in teams that race in the IndyCar and the American Le Mans Series.

“This is an opportunity for motorsports to provide value to the automotive industry.”

The trend is not limited to the headline-makers. The American Le Mans Series for sports cars and prototypes is switching to E10, a blend that is 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent gasoline.

Even fuels not yet available are getting into the act. In January, a newly formed racing body announced it would organize a Hydrogen 500 race in 2009.

For the image-conscious groups that sanction racing series, the fuel changes offer an opportunity to promote themselves as being in step with the times and sensitive to concern about fossil fuels.

“As long as we keep developing cleaner fuels to help the environment, I’m all for it,” Jimmie Johnson, the defending Nextel Cup champion, said.

It is also smart marketing, creating an attraction for new sponsors and partners. Both the IRL and the American Le Mans Series have formed alliances with the ethanol industry.

NASCAR’s transition to unleaded gasoline has been slow and, for teams, somewhat costly. A program to develop unleaded racing fuel was begun with Unocal, NASCAR’s former fuel supplier, but the changeover was postponed when Unocal left the series in 2003, according to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice-president for competition.

Sunoco took over the program, developing a blend it calls 260GTX that has a 98 octane rating, down from the lusty 112 rating of its leaded racing gas. Unleaded was tested last year in the Busch and the Craftsman Truck series, the two tiers beneath the Nextel Cup.

Despite the drop in octane, NASCAR teams say they have developed engines that can generate roughly the same amount of horsepower as they had on leaded gasoline.

Pemberton said that unleaded gas was not used at the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s season opener, because the engines at the Daytona race are required to use restrictor plates. The restrictors limit airflow into the engine through the carburetor to reduce horsepower and speed.

Pemberton played down speculation that NASCAR did not want to gamble on using unleaded gas in an event that the organization considers to be its Super Bowl. Because unleaded fuel does not provide as much lubrication to the engine’s valves as leaded gas, several team owners said NASCAR did not want to run the risk of engine failure in a race as important as the Daytona 500.

“Even though we’ll be racing 100 per cent on unleaded from here on out, there’s still going to be a learning curve,” he said.

Doug Yates, the co-owner of Robert Yates Racing, a prominent Nextel Cup team, said the transition to unleaded had cost his team $1 million (U.S.) overall. The team is spending 40 per cent more on engine valves, which now need a special coating to prevent wear caused by the reduced lubricity of unleaded fuel, he said.

“It changes how you build the engines, how you tune the engines. It changes the parts you use.”

Though it has not been an easy transition, Yates said he thought the change needed to be made. He said he would like to see the series race with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines that are more like today’s production cars than a 1950s sedan.

Cars in the IRL, whose main event is the Indianapolis 500, will be powered by fuel containing 98 per cent ethanol, which the league promotes as homegrown and renewable. But they are still not going to be at the top of the U.S. government’s fuel economy charts.

Les Mactaggart, senior technical director of the IRL, said the ethanol-burning engines were expected to get 67.2 L/100 km, down from about 115 L/100 km on the 90-10 methanol-ethanol mixture used in 2006.

According to Mactaggart, the engines developed by Honda for the IRL are capable of generating about the same power – estimated at 650 horsepower – and speed as the methanol-ethanol engines.

The IRL season will not begin until March 24, but the ethanol engines appear to be reliable. Seventeen IRL drivers turned 1,700 laps around a road course at Daytona International Speedway in the ethanol-powered cars in testing on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. There were no breakdowns or blowups, Mactaggart said.

“The cars are going to go just as fast, and they’ll be just as reliable,” said John Lewis, senior director of operations for the IRL.

Apparently, there were side benefits. The old fuel blend had a bitter smell and stung the eyes, said Michael Andretti, an IndyCar champion who now owns an IRL team (and will drive in this year’s Indianapolis 500).

The exhaust from cars powered by ethanol smelled like buttered popcorn, Mactaggart said.

Andretti politely countered that he thought it smelled more like garbage.

“But we’re not going to know the difference racing,” Andretti said. “It’s a great effort to help the environment. The league has shown it can adapt to it, and Honda has done a tremendous job adapting the engines to it.”

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