I’m somewhat of a NASCAR fan—maybe not as much as in years past, but a fan nonetheless. The influx of younger drivers, many with as much (if not more) attitude as skill, seems to be leaving a bad taste in my mouth, and while the Jerry Springer antics do indeed help increase ratings—not to mention social media accounts—it all gets pretty old after a while.
Along with trying to tolerate the immature asininity, there’s something else in the NASCAR “routine” that also doesn’t sit quite well, that being the continual promoting of American Ethanol and not only the benefits they gain by using it, but the benefits the environment gets. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great they’re able to use an alternative fuel and ultimately produce fewer emissions, but we’re talking 43 cars here. There are at least that many “regular” cars belonging to the members of each individual race team alone, so the actual impact ethanol-fueled Cup cars have on the ozone is, well, immeasurable at best. Furthermore, NASCAR currently runs E15 (15 percent ethanol), while other forms of racing use an even higher content E85 (85 percent alcohol); the common public consumption grade is an entry-level E10 with a 10 percent ethanol content.
Regardless what percentage of NASCAR fans drive brand-new vehicles, how many regularly own/drive older cars (’80s and earlier) on a routine basis? More importantly, how many own/drive collector cars (anything from classics to street rods, muscle cars to exotics, even kit cars and vintage motorcycles)? While I may not have any hard numbers, I’m willing to wager it’s substantially greater than the field of cars proudly wearing that big green circle around the fuel inlets on their left rear quarter-panels … those same cars no longer running four-barrels under their templated hoods.
Not only do the fans’ older cars in question produce a measurable footprint, for the most part they don’t benefit from the use of ethanol-based fuel. Quite the contrary, actually—that is, unless steps are taken to enable them to run on and maintain this type of fuel. And that’s where my problem with NASCAR’s paid promotional efforts stems—it’s not with the fuel itself, rather, the fact that it’s not as simple as a soda drinker switching to a diet version.
There’s a reason why efforts are constantly being made to ensure any ethanol used in consumer fuel is labeled accordingly. For the most part, it’s “buyer beware”. Many in higher places aren’t too concerned with the well-being of older cars, so why would they worry about informing their owners how much ethanol they’re filling their tanks with? (I’m sure those higher-ups revel the thought of flat out eliminating the gas-guzzling polluters altogether.) Think about our recent issue with reformulated motor oils and how we learned the negative aspects—the hard way. We can avoid the “flat tappet” syndrome, but we can’t rely on professional racing for real word facts.
Bottom line is, ethanol can be used in our older cars but not without addressing certain issues. It goes beyond performance issues, like the pinging you may experience from running a lower-octane fuel. Since alcohol is a by-product, any rubber components are prone to damage, and that includes older fuel lines and internal carburetor/fuel pump parts. And over time, water dispersion occurs, causing corrosion in metal fuel lines and inside fuel tanks (sitting gasoline also causes corrosion). Preventive maintenance in the form of fuel stabilizers helps counter the latter, but in regards to the alcohol content, actual fuel system component compatibility is required. I don’t recall ever hearing any of the announcers mention that during their on-air promos. More so, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them say anything about the higher costs of producing ethanol, let alone anything not scripted by their “endorsing bodies”.
In a nutshell (or should I say “corn kernel”?!), ethanol has less energy, thus burns slower than gasoline and is less efficient (lower miles per gallon). Typically, our engines are lower compression, so the slower burn time is more of a factor than with a high-compression engine. Without modification, carbureted engines will run leaner, which in turn raises operating temps, and we all know what that can ultimately lead to. But, when conditions are properly met—carburetor re-jetting, ignition timing, and component compatibility—that same low-compression motor will actually run cooler. And despite the above-mentioned driveability and economy losses, there is potential for a noticeable increase in power, hence one of the non-bureaucratic reasons for its use in motorsports.
Like I said, it’s great that NASCAR, IndyCar, and so on, and their multimillion-dollar teams, are able to race earth- and ozone-friendly cars. I just wish that like they do when either of the Busch brothers do what they often do—comment with honest opinion—the flavorful commentators do more than just read the teleprompter when it comes to mentioning that blue and yellow—and green—fuel that’s going into the cars on the track. Go ahead and say it’s great for the cars and the positive impact it has on the environment, but for the sake of the fans still running four-barrels under their factory hoods, stray from the script once in awhile and let ’em know what you think of it “off track”. Yeah, I know, that’s about as likely as a cigarette company sponsoring the series ever again.
Fortunately, hot rodders have plenty of resources to form their own, non-endorsed opinion, even if it is through trial and error. I used the above based on my personal feelings as an example that mainstream media may not always be the best resource for hard facts as they apply to us … with the exception of Rod & Custom, of course!