Renewable Racing - Part 2
By Bill Moore
In Part One of EVWorld's interview with 26-year-old Paul Dana, he talked about his background as a rookie Indy car driver working his way up through the "minor leagues" of the sport starting with the 180 HP Formula Ford 2000 car.
Both the F2000 and Pro Infinity cars closely resemble high-power Indy cars, except in weight, horsepower and the fuel they burn. While the former cars both use gasoline, the cars that scream around the two-mile oval at the Indianapolis 500 every Memorial Day in America use methanol and have since the mid-1960s.
Dana explained that the change came about "primarily as a fire safety issue," he stated. Unlike gasoline, methanol dilutes in water, which makes it easier to put out in the event of a pit-lane fire, reducing the risk the fire would spread to other cars nearby.
"The downside is a methanol fire is odorless and colorless. When there's a pit fire, believe me, it's extremely serious." He noted that because of this, teams and fans can't see the flames, seeing instead crew members flailing at an invisible, but deadly force.
"The rationale has been that people who are on fire, know they are on fire. Let's do a fuel that is easy to put out, gasoline not being the case."
Run Cool, Run Fast
Apart from the fire safety issue, the introduction of methanol, which typically is reformed into a liquid from natural gas, actually lead to an improvement in the sport. Dana said that because methanol burns cooler in the engine, the motors could be designed to run and higher rpms.
"Any time you can cool your intake charge, you're gaining horsepower."
If the shift from gasoline to methanol actually led to an improvement in the sport, what would the shift to a renewable fuel like ethanol do?
In Dana's view such a shift would be nearly transparent to the race fan.
"Race sanctioning bodies are constantly working with their rules and formulas to knock speeds back down. If you were to put the car from methanol to ethanol, you'd see a horsepower drop," he admitted. But this would have virtually no impact on the speed of the car.
"Say you give up 50 horsepower, if you just lay the wing down another half degree you're going get the speed right back and the car's still going 200 mph ," he noted.
Dana observed that while it's possible for Indy cars to go over 240 mph, as some did not long ago during qualifying heats at Fontana Motor Speedway in California, race organizers and sanctioning bodies have created an artificial performance "box" designed to keep the speeds down, for obvious safety reasons.
He pointed out that Nascar racing, currently one of the most popular motor sports in North America, has built its rules around obsolete carburetor technology that isn't even available anymore on production vehicles. This makes little difference to the fans of the sport.
His point is, that Indy car racing could shift from methanol to renewable ethanol with virtually little impact on the performance of the cars and the thrill and excitement race fans feel.
"It's not going to change the on-track product," he said. "That's the opportunity. That's why it's attainable. That's why it's easy. It will give the industry a real strong platform to start saying, 'domestic, renewable, still high performance.'"
Dana also pointed out that , "Throughout the history of motorsports, all sorts of technologies have come and gone and come back depending on how the rule regulators chose to allow them."
He cited the example of traction control, which was developed 10 years or more ago, but has been kept out of the sport for fear it would reduce driver involvement slightly. However, it's now been sanctioned in Europe's Formula One racing.
So, the rules could fairly easily be rewritten to shift from non-renewable methanol to domestically-produced ethanol. There are no large technical or marketing reasons why the change couldn't happen anytime, other than getting the fledgling ethanol industry, which is currently dominated by one major player, ADM, to throw its financial support behind the move.
Dancing a Little Dance
Dana is quick to point out that though he is actively encouraging Indy Racing League or IRL to adapt ethanol as the fuel standard, he does not speak for the League.
"As a driver racing in the league, I don't represent the league. If anything, I represent my sponsors which is the industry and there's going to be a little dance that happens there.
" But basically the IRL, the league themselves have expressed interest in working closely with ethanol. They have dyno-tested the fuel. They've already had it in their R & D cycle a little bit. They have basically indicated to us that because we're putting this program on track, they will put ethanol in their R&D cycle and start to evaluate it from a safety standpoint, horsepower standpoint, technical standpoint... What that means is the door is open with the IRL for ethanol to become involved.
"If it happens, if we're able to get that done, it will only be in a blended sense. It will be a five percent blend, ten percent blend per year, phased in over a number of years."
Dana said that the reason for the phase in is the fact that Indy 500 is the most televised sporting event in the world. "The produce ain't broke. They're not in a hurry to fix it. And when you're dealing with an institution as powerful as the Indy 500, change comes slowly. You have to play their game. You have to demonstrate you're committed from a marketing standpoint and you're committed from a long-term investment standpoint to working with them. They're not going to take a decision like that lightly."
He noted that its been thirty years since the last fuel change from gasoline to methanol.
"This stuff won't happen, it can't happen over night, but it will happen. We've already had conversations with other racing leagues in other categories of motorsport about this very same issue. This might be a bottom-up sort of thing where we do it other places first and we market ourselves through Indy-series racing and use that as leverage to keep the dialog in terms of ethanol open. But it's certainly attainable and the interest from the IRL on down, so far, has been extremely positive."
CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK...
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