Fourth Turn … A Fan’s Perspective

Welcome to NASCAR, E15!

Recently, NASCAR announced that in 2011 it would be moving to Sunoco Green E15. The fuel is 15% Ethanol and 85% 260 GTX. Hence it’s name E15. But do we really know what ethanol is? Where does it come from? What are its advantages and disadvantages in a NASCAR stock car? How is it more advantageous to the environment?

Ethanol is an alcohol that is currently used in gasoline as a detergent and has been for many years. It burns hot enough that it keeps the deposits from clogging the fuel injection systems that are used on most domestic vehicles.

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The ethanol product that NASCAR will be utilizing in all three of its touring series will be made of Corn. It can also be made from other biomass products, such as corn cobs and stalks, rice straw, wheat straw, switch grass, vegetable and forest wastes and other organic materials. Twenty percent of the nations corn supply was used for Ethanol in 2007. That translates to approximately 3.0 billion barrels of ethanol. For every barrel of Ethanol that is utilized we offset use of 1.2 barrels of petroleum.

Ethanol adds oxygen to the gasoline causing more complete combustion and thus decreasing the amount of harmful emissions that are released into the atmosphere. It adds 2 – 3 points of octane to the gasoline which causes it to have an increase performance and higher horse power output. It also adds to the life of the fuel injection system by keeping harmful deposits from accumulating in the injectors and the engine itself.

NASCAR choose Sunoco’s Green E15 because it utilized American Farmer’s products according to NASCAR’s CEO Brian France. By doing so Sunoco is assisting farmers by increasing their crops and the change to the fuel will allow for an increase in the size and production of the plant in Marcus Hook, PA, where the fuel will be mixed, and thus will add jobs to the economy.

Ethanol has some distinct drawbacks to go with its obvious environmental pluses. One, Ethanol attracts moisture. Many of the tracks that NASCAR competes on in the summer months have hot and humid climates. This attribute of the fuel will require different storage containers and different measures to protect the cars from getting moisture in the fuel. Thus, Sunoco will be mixing the fuel in tankers and bringing those tankers to the track and dispensing the fuel from there. The new fuel cans that will go into mandate next year as well as the lack of a catch can will also add to the safety of keeping moisture away from the fuel.

Two, the fuel burns blue and it burns 150 times hotter than the fuels teams currently use. No doubt this was a consideration in doing away with the catch can men on the pit crews. The fire protection gear worn by the crews on pit road and by the drivers in the car are sufficient to protect them from the new fuel according to Simpson fire safety group.

Third, it can have issues with some polymers that we currently see used in the fuel systems on SC cars. Rubber and plastic literally melt. Although, it has been being tested for several months on the down low by teams and they have pretty much overcome these issues, it has not been tested in competition. The odds of having a piece fail due to fuel damage by the time the series begins using it in Daytona is slim. It is not out of the question but most teams have already been tweaking those parts and pieces to insure their longevity.

Lastly, on a competition basis, the teams have discovered that the mileage factor with the E15 fuel drops noticeably.

“The fuel mileage is going to change for a little bit, but it’s going to change for everybody across the board,” stated Joe Gibbs Racing Vice President Jimmy Makar. “The biggest thing is the chemical properties and making sure we have the compatibility with different components in the engine or the fuel system itself.”

Danny Lawerence of Richard Childress racing tested E15 at Richmond earlier this year. “There were no issues with it at all. It makes a little more power, but we did use a little bit more.”

There is little doubt that the change to Ethanol fuel was made at this time to prepare for the announced change to fuel injection slotted to occur in July of 2011. Ethanol increases the life of fuel injection systems and helps to prevent failures. By making the change at this time, NASCAR is assuring the prevention from a sudden increase in the cost of competing

The introduction of Ethanol fuel to a racing series is not a new one. Indy Car made the switch in 2007 to E85. The fuel that is utilized in that series is a product of Brazil and it’s source is sugar cane. The ethanol is mixed 85% ethanol and 15% Methanol.

Many have confused Ethanol with its closest relative, Methanol. Methanol is not a biomass fuel. Methanol is a petroleum product and although it burns hotter it is more flammable and not as suitable for the combustion type engines utilized in NASCAR.

The other fuel that it is often mistaken for is Nitro-methane which is used in top fuel cars in NHRA. Nitro-methane is a combination of Propane and Nitric Acid. It’s highly unstable and combustible nature are what make the bright blue signature flames of Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars. It’s fast burning nature would make it unsuitable for sustained competition like NASCAR.

This ethanol is however a lower percentage of the Ethanol fuel used in World of Outlaws in the 90’s when Doug Wolfgang was nearly killed because the fire fighters didn’t realize quickly they were dealing with an alcohol fire. The lower percentage will allow the fire to be seen as a blue tinted much more vivid red flame. Please note that fire safety systems have advanced far above the ones that Wolfgang was utilizing at the time of that crash in Kansas City Kansas in 1992.

The presence of ethanol will require fire safety crews to change how they fight a fire on the track. Different extinguishers and Different procedures will need to be utilized in and out of the car. Ethanol’s alcohol make up will make it necessary to change to fire fighting foam.Fire fighting foam is a foam used for fire suppression. Its role is to cool the fire and to coat the fuel, preventing its contact with oxygen, resulting in suppression of the combustion. The P.A.S.S. method is not used for a known alcohol fire. Instead the object is to avoid spreading the fire while at the same time neutralizing as much of it as possible.

Bob Dylan said, “The times they are changing.” More truth has never been spoken about our sport. From the fuel to the COT and soon the fueling systems they use to create the power and speed that we sit on the edge of our seats for. But the educated fan is a well armed one. Knowing what when and how with the fuel won’t make you an engineer. But it will make you more aware of the subtleties that your team and driver are dealing with next year. Frankly, new fuel mileage, more speed, and doing a good thing for the environment is a good thing for the sport and the earth. This time NASCAR gets a big thumbs up.

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Congratulations to Jamie McMurray on a well deserved and hard fought Sprint Cup win. You proved once again that you don’t have to make the chase to be a true competitor or a winner. Congratulations to Brad Keselowski for his Nationwide Series win. Smooth and aggressive in true Keselowski style. I would like to take this opportunity to offer our sincere and deepest condolences to Jeff Byrd’s family, friends and co workers. He left a mark on our community that will never be forgotten. He will be missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with you in this very difficult time.

And finally to all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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