IRL cars getting corny

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Even race car drivers care about the ozone layer.

Though the idea of cars zooming around the track at full throttle rarely evokes the environmental movement, the Indy Racing League is trying to do its part.

This Sunday will mark the first Indianapolis 500 in which all the cars burn ethanol, the corn-based fuel additive that has been generating more buzz in the wake of the current spike in gasoline prices and the heightening search for American-grown renewable energy.

Where else to make a big splash but the heartland, a stone’s throw away from the cornfields of Indiana?

“To me, it’s very appropriate,” said 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier.

It’s the highest profile attempt in recent years by the IRL to stay on the cutting edge of technology in a sport that is, as part of its core mission, expected to revolutionize its industry, along with entertaining the fans.

This year, the IRL takes a baby step, mixing in 10 percent ethanol into the traditional, carbon-based methanol, which burns much the same as ethanol but is made from a nonrenewable source. Next year, these open-wheel cars will run on 100 percent ethanol.

“Every move like this that’s made in racing has a trickle-down effect,” Lazier said. “They’re trying to make ethanol part of the racing culture.”

Ethanol is essentially alcohol – fermented from the grain of corn, sugar cane or other crops. It can be used by itself as fuel for automobiles or added to gasoline to cut down on the amount of petroleum. One big goal is to get car manufacturers to make more cars that will run on a mix of 85 percent ethanol and only 15 percent fossil fuel.

But that’s still years away.

According to Argonne National Laboratory, the use of only 10 percent of the clean-burning fuel reduces gas emissions by 12 to 19 percent compared to conventional gasoline.

Ethanol has been in use in cars since Henry Ford designed the 1908 Model T to operate on alcohol. Brazil has been in the news a lot recently because of its conversion to an all-ethanol program (Brazil’s ethanol is made from sugar cane) that has helped wean the country off its dependence on foreign energy.

Among the problems ethanol has had in gaining a bigger foothold in the U.S. have been the expense, the difficulty of distribution from the Midwest to the coasts, slow change by the auto industry and largely unfounded bias against the fuel among people who think it decreases performance.

In fact, ethanol, with its octane rating of 113, can actually increase performance of automobiles. And two weeks ago, leaders from the Big Three automakers went to Washington to endorse a plan to have renewable fuels meet one-quarter of the nation’s transportation energy needs by 2025.

The IRL will be a 100-percent ethanol league next year.

“I confess I didn’t know a lot about it,” said Jeff Simmons, who qualified 26th for Sunday’s race. “And most of what I did know about it wasn’t necessarily the truth. But it’s pretty obvious it’s an efficient fuel.”

Simmons became a spokesman for the ethanol movement after taking over the Rahal-Letterman car driven by Paul Dana, killed in a wreck earlier this year in a warmup lap on the day of the race at Homestead.

Dana was the first driver to make a big push toward using a more environmentally friendly fuel in the IRL.

The effort was so well thought of, it drew a visit from Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman on “Ethanol Motor Day” at the track earlier this month.

“It’s great for the country and frankly, I think it’s great for the speedway,” Bodman said.

How big an impact it makes has yet to be seen. What isn’t debatable is that there has long been proof of a link between the racetrack and the real world – most notably the old stories about how Chevy dealers would note a spike in sales in the few days after a Chevy driver, like Dale Earnhardt, won a big NASCAR event.

Some in the industry think NASCAR will start adding ethanol to its gasoline in the next two years. But the most popular racing circuit is a bit slower to change. Only this year did the stock cars commit to moving away from leaded gasoline. The change will come in 2008.

“We’d certainly look at it,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said recently when asked if NASCAR might eventually consider alternative fuels.

The IRL, meanwhile, has already thought about it and acted.

Could the first Indy car sponsored by the Sierra Club be far behind?

“It burns cleaner and it’s more efficient,” Lazier said. “I think next year will be very, very interesting.”

AP-ES-05-25-06 1904EDT

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