Fast times with alternative fuels

If you think alternative fuel cars are slow and boring, think again. ALMS prototypes and GT cars, and IRL open-wheel racers run don't run on gasoline. And they are among the quickest things on wheels.

Carey Russ
2 min read

Want to see a bunch of alternative-fuel vehicles? Going really fast? Head to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, near Monterey, Calif., this weekend, October 17 to 19, for the final races of the 2008 American LeMans Series (ALMS) calendar.

Don't look for "Gasoline Alley" at the track. The cars run on E10, 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline; E85, 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline; or clean diesel. The ethanol part of the E85 of choice is celluosic, made from waste wood, not corn, and the diesels are among the quickest cars in the world.

ALMS classes include both prototype and GT categories, with prototypes being purpose-built racing cars and GT (Grand Touring) cars based on production sports cars.

LeMans Prototypes are in two classes, LMP1 and LMP2. LMP1 cars are larger, heavier, more powerful, and faster, at least in a straight line. The turbo-diesel Audi R10 TDIs usually dominate but get competition from cars built by specialty manufacturers Lola, Zytek, Creation, and others. If LMP2 cars are smaller and less powerful, they are also lighter and better-handling. The Porsche RS Spyders have a few overall wins to their credit, and prototypes from Acura, Lola, Radical, and others are competitive.

Corvette C6R Carey Russ

GT cars may look like production Corvettes, Aston Martins, Ferraris, Ford GTs, Porsches, and Panozes, but they are seriously modified; GT1 more than GT2.

ALMS is virtually unique in American professional motorsports because of the diversity of engines, chassis, and even fuels in all classes. There is competition not just between drivers, but between manufacturers of cars, engines, and even fuels.

The purpose of the ALMS ethanol and diesel fuel regulations is to encourage development of eco-friendly alternative fuel systems, and competitive racing is one of the quickest ways possible for development of anything automotive. ALMS is not alone among motorsports series in use of alternative fuels, as the Indy Racing League (IRL), whose best-known event is the Indianapolis 500, switched to E10 in 2006, followed in 2007 by fuel-grade ethanol.

American motorsports has a long history with alcohol fuels, but until the IRL went to ethanol, that alcohol was exclusively methanol. Even when gasoline was allowed at Indy, methanol was the more common choice as it has a higher octane rating than gasoline, and allows higher compression for increased power. More importantly, from a safety standpoint, methanol fires are easier to put out--water works very well for that. On the negative side, methanol is highly toxic, and, although it can be made from biomass--it's also called "wood alcohol" as it was originally made from wood--most methanol today is made from natural gas.

Methanol fuel is still used in sprint cars, dragsters, and other forms of motorsport.