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Beware NASCAR’s ethanol endorsement

Dave Juday

Ethanol activists have found an ally in NASCAR. A few years ago, the competitive racing giant adopted a higher ethanol blended fuel for all of its cars. The transition proved reasonably smooth. And now ethanol enthusiasts are trying to convince fans that they should do like their favorite NASCAR drivers and make the switch for their pickups and minivans.

The ethanol NASCAR uses is called E15, and it is a blend of gasoline with 15 percent ethanol. The fuel found at most corner gas stations is a blend of 10 percent ethanol.

The pitch to use the higher blend ethanol fuel for everyday driving rests on busted logic. And if the NASCAR campaign ends up inspiring federal regulators to ramp up the ethanol mandate, the economic effects would be disastrous.

Just because a fuel works well on the racetrack doesn’t mean it’s suitable for everyday drivers.

Think of it this way: Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps famously consumes 12,000 calories per day while training. That’s about five times the recommended daily caloric intake for an adult. But this diet makes sense for Phelps. He works out for several hours a day, six days a week.

Likewise, NASCAR cars are energy-intensive machines. They’re designed to travel upwards of 200 miles per hour for hundreds of miles at a time. The average NASCAR engine has about 750 horsepower.

Compare that to, say, the Ford F-Series pickup, America’s most popular automobile. It has about 400 horsepower. The ubiquitous Toyota Camry comes with horsepower of just 270.

Race cars use a quart of fuel over a mile-long lap. A normal family vehicle does that same distance on three-quarters of a cup.

Just as Phelps needs to fuel up differently than the average person, so does a NASCAR vehicle compared to an average car. Ethanol provides a short speed burst. Putting it into fuel is the dietary equivalent of carb-loading.

Like carbs, ethanol burns faster. Ethanol blends have significantly worse fuel economy than traditional gas. The particular blend used by NASCAR gets about 5 percent less mileage than gas.

There’s historic precedent for this disparity in fuel needs between professional racers and everyday drivers. Leaded fuel was banned for general commercial use back in 1996. But NASCAR continued using leaded fuels for about a decade after that. No one argued that the popularity of leaded fuels on the race track should inspire normal drivers.

NASCAR’s endorsement of ethanol doesn’t change the fact that this fuel is fundamentally incompatible with the transportation needs of everyday Americans.

Dave Juday is an agricultural commodity market analyst and principal of The Juday Group.