Thursday, May 24, 2007

When drivers round the curves on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they will be propelled by fuel produced not in the Middle East, but Middle America.

The Indianapolis 500 will for the first time feature cars running entirely on ethanol, a clean-burning fuel derived from corn and other crops. For Indy Racing League officials, the adoption of ethanol marks a move to be more environmentally responsible at a time of growing concern about climate change. Ethanol is the only biodegradable fuel available commercially, and it is widely produced in Midwestern states including Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.

“We thought this was such a tremendous opportunity,” said IRL Commercial President Terry Angstadt. “It was so well-aligned with our attributes of innovation and technology.”

The IRL last year introduced a new fuel made of a 10 percent ethanol blend. This year’s fuel is pure ethanol. Drivers said that after three IRL events this year, cars run just as smoothly as they did on the methanol fuel used in the past. The switch necessitated a move from a 3-liter to 3.5-liter Honda engine, producing more torque to make up for ethanol’s relative lack of horsepower.

“Honda made that transition to ethanol so seamless that from a driving standpoint, you don’t notice a difference,” said 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

“It’s obviously great for the environment and obviously great for the series. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, and it shows the series is definitely working on things that are good for the future.”

Of course, the drivers at Indy admit they are hardly in a position to impact the environment on their own.

“I don’t know if it will lead to faster adoption of ethanol — market forces will dictate that,” said Bob Dinneen, president and chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Association, which advocates the use of ethanol. “But I think it does send a message that you can switch to ethanol without sacrificing performance.”

It’s not clear whether IRL’s move to ethanol will set a precedent in racing. U.S. car manufacturer General Motors recently urged NASCAR to switch to ethanol, but the league has thus far shown no indication that it will make a change, concentrating instead on this year’s transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline. Because ethanol burns more quickly than the gasoline used by NASCAR, a switch by the racing body would require either a larger fuel tank or more frequent pit stops. Either of those options would present a safety concern, NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola said.

But racing analysts said it may be time for other organizations, particularly NASCAR, to adopt the new fuel.

“I look at it, and I don’t understand why every race car in America doesn’t run on ethanol,” said Rusty Wallace, a former NASCAR champion who will serve as an analyst on ABC’s Indy 500 coverage. “I just don’t get why everybody’s not doing it. I believe [the Indy Racing League] are the leaders in it, and it just makes you feel good because it’s the right thing to do.”

IRL’s move to ethanol came after more than two years of testing. The league worked with Honda to make minor engine modifications to accommodate the slower-burning fuel. In addition to expanding the engine, the two groups worked to reduce the size of the gas tanks from 30 gallons to 22 gallons because ethanol gets better fuel mileage than the methanol used by IRL in the past.

The biggest adjustment, drivers said, is that the smaller fuel tank requires less time to fill during pit stops. While filling up once took longer than changing four tires, the opposite is now true.

“If they had left it at 30 gallons with us getting better fuel mileage, it would have changed the dynamic of the race quite a bit,” said Danica Patrick, who will start in the eighth position. “It will all stay the same on the track, it’s just that pit stops are going to be that much more important. You’re going to have to be really fast, and there’s no room for error.”

Last year’s winner, Sam Hornish Jr., agreed, saying the switch will place additional pressure on the pit crews.

“It’s a team sport to begin with,” he said, “but those guys really have to be spot on, not make mistakes and push hard.”

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