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Burning ethanol in Honda V8 engines

Traditionally, green was a color avoided by racers. But that superstition has largely vanished, and now “green” racing takes on a new connotation as the IndyCar Series mandates use of 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol in its Honda V8 engines.

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is a colorless, highly flammable chemical compound found in alcoholic beverages. It can be manufactured from a variety of grains, is biodegradable, renewable and ecologically friendly. Currently, corn is the predominant grain used in the U.S. for the production of ethanol; one bushel produces approximately 2.8 gallons.

The most common use is as motor fuel or fuel additive. Increasingly, racing series are incorporating ethanol, but this type of fuel isn’t new to racing. Fuel-grade ethanol powered a car in the 1927 Indianapolis 500.

This year, all 33 starters will be fueled by what has been compared to moonshine. (In fact, the non-drinkable grain alcohol used in the cars has been tainted with gasoline, either to avoid alcohol taxes and interstate transport issues or to discourage people from drinking it by making it poisonous, depending on which version you prefer.) The decision is the result of a sponsorship and marketing plan launched by the late Paul Dana, who died in a racing accident in 2006.

The pros

According to some, ethanol-enriched fuel is the obvious choice to green up racing. It’s a clean-burning, non-toxic, renewable fuel that is biodegradable (meaning it won’t harm groundwater). It reduces both carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions. It generally reduces toxic exhaust emissions and also can reduce CO2 emissions, which are cited as the predominant contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming. It is the highest-performance high-octane fuel on the market.

The cons

It takes nearly as much energy to create ethanol as the ethanol itself produces, so there is little, if any, energy savings. U.S. farms cannot produce enough grain to make all the ethanol needed in this country, even if fields currently used for food are converted into cornfields. Thus, at this time, ethanol is not a viable replacement for oil. Further, although theoretically ethanol is held to be carbon-neutral (meaning the plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere to offset the CO2 released during combustion of the fuel), it does still contribute to greenhouse gases.

Figuring it out

Improved emissions numbers typically involve a comparison between ethanol and gasoline, but for decades American open-wheel racing has run on methanol. Environmental Protection Agency data indicate methanol reduces emissions — especially oxides of nitrogen (NOx) — even more than ethanol.

The EPA suggests that ethanol has the potential to reduce vehicle-related greenhouse gases by up to 70 percent in coming years. But other series, such as the American Le Mans Series, are turning to diesel power as the environmental wave of the future. New low-sulfur diesel fuels produce less harmful emissions than gasoline engines and most diesel engines are suited to CO2-neutral biofuels.

Understanding Qualifications

Qualification rules for the Indianapolis 500 were always different than for other races — and were often a little confusing. The rules have changed since the “old days.” However, they still differ from other events and they’re still a little confusing, so Brian Barnhart, president of competition and operations for the Indy Racing League, provided a quick review to help spectators understand the ins and outs of qualifications at Indy.

As always, drivers who have passed rookie orientation (or a refresher) or who are regular competitors are allowed an unrestricted number of qualifying attempts in any car. But now, cars have additional opportunities to make the field. They’re allowed three qualifying attempts per qualifying day, for a total of 12 attempts — even if the car has completed and accepted a qualifying run or has been bumped from its spot. Previously, if a car was withdrawn or bumped from the field, it was barred from further attempts. “It was silly to put a perfectly good car on the trailer and have it sit unused,” Barnhart says of the rules change. “It’s not cost-effective.”

With cars now allowed so many chances to get into the field, a different strategy was developed to introduce drama. Drivers will be competing for one of only 11 available spots on each of the first three days of qualifying. Positions 1-11 are up for grabs on Pole Day. After the first 11 drivers have accepted qualifying times, bumping for those positions begins. The second day of qualifications offers an opportunity to vie for positions 12-22 only: the first 11 spots are safe … for now. Day three of qualifications is open for positions 23-33.

Only on the fourth day — “Bump Day” — are all positions potentially in jeopardy. Once the 33-car field is filled, the car with the slowest qualification time can be bumped, no matter where in the field it qualified. All cars essentially move up one spot, with the newly qualified driver taking the final position.

Developed three years ago, the new plan has never been implemented, due to weather. “I’m looking forward to good weather so we can try it this year to see if it increases drama like we planned,” Barnhart laughs.

Pit lane safety rules

• 60 mph speed limit

• Pit lane is closed at the commencement of a caution. A car can pit without penalty only if it is within the boundaries of pit lane when the yellow comes out. Once the field is bunched up, officials will open pit lane to all drivers at the same time.

• Crews can’t set up their pit box more than one lap before their driver is due in pit lane. Pit equipment must be attended at all times.

Flag book

• Green: go

• Yellow: caution — slow down, no passing

• Black: go immediately to the pits for consultation with officials

• Blue with orange stripe: notification that a faster car is behind; often incorrectly referred to as the “move-over” flag. It does not require action; it is informational only.

• White: final lap

• Checkered: end of the race


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About The Author

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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