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Indy 500 Race Cars Dash to Biofuel
Racing group, ethanol industry hope to move people to use renewable fuels
By Andrzej Zwaniecki


May 24, 2007

You may not see the difference. You may not smell it. But for the first time in the race's history, all cars competing May 27 in the Indianapolis 500-Mile Car Race -- better known as the Indy 500 -- will run on a renewable fuel.

Legendary car-racing champion Bobby Rahal announced the change May 4, calling it "a tribute to the spirit of American ingenuity and innovation."

"The use of 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol makes the Indy Car Series the first in motor sports anywhere in the world to embrace a renewable and environmentally friendly fuel source," he said at the National Press Club in Washington.

The Indy series, which comprises more a dozen races, is one of the prime automobile racing events in the United States.

It entered into a partnership with the ethanol industry in 2006 when Indy cars ran for the first time on a blend of ethanol and methanol. That blend replaced pure methanol, which had been the preferred fuel in Indy racing for 40 years.

The Indy series, with the Indy 500 as its centerpiece, has been a proving ground for automobile technologies throughout its more than 90-year history. Innovations such as the rear view mirror and turbo charger were introduced in Indy racing cars before they made their way to regular automobiles.

Today, the Indy series continues to set standards of technology leadership in auto racing, Rahal said. For example, the cars are equipped with a device that measures and communicates the impact of a crash to rescue and safety workers on the scene. The tracks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in Indiana also have special safety barriers designed to minimize physical risk to drivers.

Rahal, who has won the Indy 500 and other major races, said that watching high-tech vehicles racing inches apart at 355 kilometers per hour excites him no matter what fuel cars burn. But the switch to maize-based ethanol is not only about entertainment, he said.

"Motor racing has to provide value based on responsibility," Rahal said.

Rahal, who was hosted at the White House in 2004 when the team he co-owns won the Indy 500, seems to share President Bush's enthusiasm for biofuels as a key element in a drive to increase U.S. energy security and address global warming. Rahal is co-owner of an Indy racing team sponsored by an ethanol business group.

He, the Indy series and the ethanol industry want to persuade consumers they can get as much performance from cars burning ethanol as from those running on gasoline and improve the environment in the process, Rahal said.

Ethanol burns more cleanly than gasoline or methanol, reducing emissions of harmful particles and carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming. Scientists hope to enhance its energy and environmental benefits by deriving it from materials other than maize.

If a 675-horsepower Indy car can run safely and effectively on ethanol, Rahal said, then imagine what ethanol fuel mixes can do for a minivan or sport utility vehicle.

But even with car engines roaring mightily at full speed, firing consumers' imagination will not be easy.

John Griffin, vice-president of public relations for the Indy Car Series, says the performance qualities of the fuel caused "trepidation" even among Indy drivers, engineers and mechanics.

"When you get comfortable with something for so long as they did with methanol, it is not easy to move away from it," Griffin said.

But with five races under their belts in 2007 and no signs of inferior engine performance, drivers have embraced ethanol.

"At the end of the day, they see that we are doing something good for the environment without losing anything," Griffin said.


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