NASCAR moves to alternative fuels

Is is fitting that at the start of every NASCAR race they wave a green flag? As I have previously posted, NASCAR is finally beginning to make their move to alternative, green fuels. Like other racing leagues, companies and organizations, NASCAR is beginning to make their move to become more environmentally friendly.

Currently, NASCAR is only in discussions with their partners. They recently have held conferences on their environment issues with its partners Sunoco Inc and General Motors.

NASCAR does not impact the environment too much with their races but they do impact it symbolically. If people see that NASCAR is willing to make the move to alternative fuels, perhaps NASCAR will be able to persuade them to move on other fuels.

NASCAR administration says that they have they are receiving many car makers willing to help them out. They have Toyota, GM, Ford and Chrysler all offering their support. NASCAR simply needs to take the time out to research and develop their sport to use alternative fuels.

To NASCAR’s credit, they have already answered calls for better safety by introducing new automobiles dubbed the “Cars of Tomorrow” into many of the races this year. Over the course of the 2008 race season, they will use the cars that have been designed to be safer and much more cost effective.

Pushing NASCAR towards e85 ethanol

Brent Dewar, GM’s vice president of field sales, service and parts, worked for General Motors in Brazil in the 1990s. He received a firsthand look at the country’s successful switch from a petroleum-based economy to ethanol.

Dewar would like to see the same thing happen in the United States of America, and he says NASCAR can help out. He is lobbying NASCAR officials to switch from gasoline to ethanol in their racecars.

“We would embrace it… We think it would be great on a lot of fronts, because obviously it would send a signal to the public. A lot of people don’t understand the benefits of ethanol,” said Dewar. “Other racing series are already embracing renewable fuel.”

At the start of this season, the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series will race on 100 percent pure ethanol. Later, the American LeMans Series will race on a 10 percent ethanol blend.

Dewar and others in the garage said NASCAR should explore alternative fuels — and no, not the same kind that Michael Waltrip was caught with in Daytona.

“Without a doubt, I think we should look into it,” says driver Jeff Burton. “Although our impact on environmental issues is probably very, very small from an actual use standpoint, from a marketing standpoint, we could have a major impact.”

Kyle Petty says NASCAR’s marketing horsepower might drive alternative fuels to the mainstream, helping consumers get over the negative image of hippies playing with their 1980s Mercedes to make them run on vegetable oil blends.

“I think once you start seeing alternative fuels show up in places like racing and places where you least expect them, then you don’t think about that guy with the Volkswagen van that runs off of whatever,” Petty stated.

NASCAR is taking a step in the direction of environmental responsibility by getting the lead out, catching up with a change consumers made in the 1980s by switching from leaded to unleaded fuel.

Spokesman for NASCAR, Ramsey Poston, said officials are willing to consider using renewable fuels, too.

“In terms of looking at the next step, obviously we’re open to options,” Poston stated.

Petty figures the whole country will switch to renewable fuels eventually, so why would not NASCAR and its official fuel supplier, Sunoco.

“You would like to think that they would take a leading role in it, especially through Sunoco’s involvement,” Petty said. “Because I know Sunoco’s taken a huge step in that direction.”

NASCAR teams also would have to modify their cars to run on ethanol, but Dewar said the switch wouldn’t be a “major investment.” And he said it ultimately would be worth the hassle.

Still, even proponents do not portray ethanol as a magic wand. Despite its renewable benefits, it can provide slight performance advantages. It is not imported from politically volatile countries and it burns much cleaner. The only drawback, ethanol is not as efficient as gasoline.

Today’s cars can run on 90 percent gasoline/10 percent ethanol blends, E10, cars have to be specially equipped or modified to run on purer blends of ethanol.

General Motors and other companies sell “flex fuel” vehicles that run on gasoline or E85, an 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline blend. Unfortunately, E85 is not widely distributed in America.

Gas stations in Brazil carry both regular gas and 100% ethanol. Most of the Brazil’s automobiles run on either of the two fuels. Given changes in fuel prices, Brazilian consumers can make an informed choice every time they fill their tank. Gasoline is about 20 percent more efficient than ethanol. If ethanol is 20 percent cheaper than gasoline, ethanol makes both econimic and environmental sense. Dewar was in Brazil in December and explained how ethanol was half the price of gasoline.

Innovations can also drive the price of ethanol down, he said. Most ethanol producted in the U.S. is made from corn. Ethanol is made from sugar cane in Brazil. Some researchers indicate certain kinds of grass and wood chips could be better to make ethanol. Ethanol Research is also working to develop enzymes, that break down waste into ethanol. In five years, Dewar expects cars to run on recycled trash.

With all that in mind, Petty says now it is time for NASCAR to go green. “The global warming thing, and all the things that are written about that, a lot more people are aware of the fact that we do need to do something,” Petty declared.