Originally created 05/26/06

Drivers are giving a test run to corn-based fuel



INDIANAPOLIS - 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 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.

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.

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.