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Indy 500 Switching To Ethanol Blend For 2006 Season

by:    4 May 2006

WASHINGTON -- Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis 500 will soon become Ethanol Alley: The Indy Racing League is switching from methanol to a new mixture relying on corn-derived ethanol.

The league's IndyCar Series will start using an ethanol blend for the 2006 season, the league said Wednesday.

It's a small market for ethanol, involving 160,000 gallons out of 3.5 billion produced each year. But it's a big symbolic gesture meant to counter perceptions that ethanol doesn't perform as well as gasoline or other fuels.

"It's a performance fuel that's going to go around the track at 220 miles an hour,'' said Dave Vander Griend, president of ICM Inc., a Kansas company that builds ethanol plants.

The corn and ethanol industries have influential supporters who pushed to get the grain alcohol into race cars.

"This sport is so popular, and so many people follow it,'' said Missouri GOP Sen. Jim Talent, one of several Midwesterners who lobbied for ethanol's use. "This makes a statement to the whole world that ethanol is a high-performance fuel, so people who claim you're going to lose something are not correct.''

Racing officials say they're promoting the importance of the environment and of homegrown fuel.

"In the last 10 years, motorsports has really broken into the mainstream in helping promote and publicize sponsors' products -- it's not just motor oil anymore,'' said Ken Ungar, senior vice president of public affairs for the league.

"It's about a broad range of consumer products. The ethanol industry, as many other industries have, recognizes that motorsports is a powerful promotion tool,'' he said.

The IndyCar Series is announcing the switch Thursday in Washington with talent and other lawmakers on hand.

Used as a cleaner-burning fuel additive, ethanol is an alcohol created by distilling grain mash, usually from corn. Top ethanol-producing states are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Tennessee. The industry is growing, with 83 ethanol plants operating now and 14 more under construction.

In the IndyCar series, ethanol will replace methanol, a natural gas-made fuel that replaced gasoline on the circuit in the 1970s because it was less likely to ignite. IRL cars are built differently from NASCAR vehicles, with no fenders and an open cockpit.

Ethanol, too, is less combustible than gasoline, but engines will need fine-tuning to start burning it.

The switch will be gradual, according to the league, with a target for '06 specifying a maximum blend of 90-percent methanol and 10-percent ethanol for the IndyCar Series. This percentage of ethanol corresponds with ethanol blend commonly available to consumers at gas stations.

Beginning in 2007, the fuel will be 100-percent fuel-grade ethanol in IndyCar Series cars, the same fuel that is touted as having the potential to replace at least 10-percent of the nation's gasoline supply.

The changes will be slight, said race car driver Paul Dana. Engines will need alterations because ethanol burns hotter, Dana said, and horsepower will drop slightly while fuel economy rises slightly.

"All of those are extremely subtle,'' Dana said. "It's more of a software problem in this day and age of computer-controlled engines.''

Dana will be driving a car sponsored by the ethanol industry in the IndyCar Series, which opens this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Cars in the Indy series will use a blend with 10 percent ethanol next year, then switch to 100 percent ethanol in 2007.

Methanol producers are disappointed in the switch, said Gregory Dolan, vice president of communications and policy for the Methanol Institute. Methanol still will be used in other racing series except for NASCAR, where gasoline is used.

"I think they'll find, switching to ethanol, their fuel costs will be rising, and they may find some period of adjustment as they try to transition their high-performance vehicles from one alcohol fuel to the other,'' Dolan said.

"This probably has more to do with the politics of corn than it does with the actual need for high-performance racing fuel,'' he said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.