IndyCar's E85 fuels competition, if not acceptance
The IndyCars racing in the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle this weekend will carry the logos of Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and others. With 100,000 in attendance on the island and nearly 2 million more watching on TV and the Internet, these brands benefit from their association with high-performance motor racing.
One product that hasn’t benefited is E85 ethanol fuel.
Politically popular in Washington and in Midwest presidential primary states like Iowa, the corn-based kindling has been the fuel of choice in IndyCar racing since 2012. But it has failed to catch on with consumers given its higher cost and decreased fuel efficiency.
E85 – a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that's also known as flex-fuel – is one of a number of fuel-centered public relations moves that major racing series have made.
Despite its lack of traction with the public, E85 has helped shield IndyCar from the wrath of green groups, proved a workable fuel for racing teams and delivered competitive racing. By being politically pro-active, American racing has managed to stay a step ahead of regulators even as production vehicles have become one of the most heavily regulated industries in the U.S.
“There have always been politicians and environmental groups that decry auto racing as a waste of fuel,” says Stephen Cole Smith, a veteran racing writer with Autoweek. “E85 fuel has been great PR for IndyCar and with which to answer their critics.”
The same can’t be said for other series like Formula One and the World Endurance Championship for sports cars. They have tried to currying favor with global governments by using trendy diesel and electrified racers, only to be burned by high costs and shifting political winds.
Under domestic political pressure to make the U.S. more oil-independent during the Iraq war, the Bush Administration embraced ethanol fuel in 2005 by mandating that gasoline be mixed with 10 percent ethanol. That's what you filled your gas tank with this week.
With its biggest race, the Indy 500, in the Midwest farm belt and manufacturers in the Iraq war limelight, IndyCar quickly shifted from natural gas-based methanol to pure corn ethanol in 2007.
Chevrolet, an IndyCar sponsor, has lobbied for more ethanol alternatives, and its large pickups, SUVs and Impala sedan are all E85 capable (so-called flex-fuel vehicles). By 2012, IndyCar followed suit, embracing E85 for its new, twin-turbo V-6 engines which it continues to run today.
“Partners like Chevrolet and Honda have been very supportive,” says IndyCar spokesman Curt Cavin. “Both are comfortable with the program, and certainly everything that happens around our event at the Iowa Motor Speedway is good for ethanol. It’s the best way for us to contribute to green initiatives and be good public citizens.”
IndyCar’s embrace of ethanol a decade ago buoyed hopes that it would become the fuel of choice for consumers.
"This shows average Americans what they can do to help meet the energy challenge our country faces, and it makes the point in a way a politician never could," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, told The Washington Post at a celebratory, handshake ceremony with Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George. "If a race car going 220 miles an hour can be powered by 100 percent ethanol, the family car can be, too."
Yet, ethanol fuel has failed to catch on with the public.
Today, E85 is available in around 300 gas stations in Michigan, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, while just 3 percent of stations nationwide are equipped with the fuel. Studies have shown that few Americans choose E85 fuel at the pump. Sunoco, the official E85 fuel supplier to IndyCar offers, sells E85 at some of its Michigan stations.
IndyCar’s international brother, Formula One, meanwhile, has adopted hybrid-electric powertrains as it tries to stay in step with European governments' promotion of battery-powered vehicles. The move, however, has been expensive and has led to a stratification of the sport as only a few teams can afford to develop expensive hybrid technology.
Attendance is down and drivers lament that the sport has lost its luster. While IndyCar celebrated another gripping Indy 500 finish over Memorial Day, Formula One star Fernando Alonso lamented “the most boring race ever” at Formula One’s iconic Monaco Grand Prix the same weekend.
“(Formula One) is facing an existential crisis,” wrote Wheels.ca, one of a wave of media examining the sport's troubles. “The dismal performance of turbo hybrids – and the tepid reception from fans – should be more than enough impetus to make the changes necessary to restore the exhilarating noise and performance motorsport fans crave.”
Formula One's struggles come on the back of difficulties in Europe's major sports car series, the World Endurance Championship, and its signature race, the 24 Hours of LeMans. Europe's green demands have wreaked havoc on that sport as well as the cost of fielding a hybrid-powered team climbed into the nine figures.
Manufacturers like Audi had used the series to showcase turbo-diesel engines (which combined with batteries made for exceptionally powerful, efficient endurance engines) favored by Euro tax policy since the 1990s. But with Dieselgate and global warming concerns, the fickle political winds turned against diesel and gas engines. Audi and Porsche have dropped out of the WEC to pursue the all-electric Formula E Series.
IndyCar has benefited from this turmoil as its ethanol strategy has kept costs stable. Despite the fact that E85 is 25 percent less efficient than gas, it can still be used (with some technical tweaks) in familiar V-6 racing engines.
"Though E85 fuel can only do about 30 laps at Indy, that's about the life of the tires as well," says IndyCar's Cavin. "So it works out pretty well."
While Formula One and WEC have struggled, IndyCar is on the upswing thanks to cost-friendly engine specs and close racing. Ticket sales at the Detroit Grand Prix, for example, are up 12 percent this year.
IndyCar's engine/fuel rules are set to run through 2021. With states like California mandating electric car sales and E85 a sliver of U.S. fuel sales, is IndyCar thinking of changing its fuel formula to whisper-quiet hybrids for 2021?
"We've heard no encouragement from manufacturers," says Cavin. "Our fans like their racing fast and loud."
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.