News & Media

Fill 'er up: Teams off and running with E15 fuel

January 22, 2011, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Sprint Cup Series' introduction to E15 Ethanol-blended Sunoco race fuel began in earnest during the past three days of Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway.

And while NASCAR teams, their manufacturers and engine suppliers have had a lot of experience working with the substance, it appears the intricate details of the switchover from unleaded race fuel will be intriguing.

The cans for E15 are unique in comparison to what previously was used. (Autostock)

Andy Graves, Toyota Racing Development's vice president of chassis engineering and Cup Series program manager, who has been involved in several programs at Chip Ganassi Racing -- including CGR's sports-car and IndyCar series programs, thus giving him a great background in a varieties of alcohol-based fuels -- said news of the move to Ethanol didn't give him any pause.

"It's going in the right direction, but it's a pretty minor step, from the competitors' side and what you have to deal with," Graves said of the advent of E15. "I saw comments from John [Darby, NASCAR managing director of competition] that said going to unleaded fuel was a bigger step than going to E15 and that's probably pretty accurate."

Right off the bat is the obvious visual signs. At no point during their test runs do the cars go to the Sunoco fuel center at the East end of the Cup garage. Instead, they go right to their garage stalls, where a cart -- typically holding three of the new-style, self-venting dump cans -- is parked.

The cans themselves are unique in comparison to what previously was used. The filler tube and vent mechanism detaches and three sealed caps that look like they're protecting liquid gold are atop the holes, to prevent the introduction of any moisture into the fuel -- which apparently is the most critical aspect of it.

Adjusting to the new cans is apparently a process. One team's competition director pointed out,"We have to figure out how to stop spilling fuel." On the frontstretch row of garages, multiple, large stains marked the asphalt outside each stall, where all the refueling was done.

At one end of the backside of the garage complex, Kasey Kahne's Red Bull Racing Team was observed fueling his No. 4 Toyota. They didn't spill a drop and the only stain outside their stall was about the size of a quart-sized ice-cream container's cover.

A NASCAR spokesman confirmed that Camping World Truck Series teams, which began using the self-venting cans last season, had experienced the same difficult adjusting to the dry-break mechanism on the new cans and that the process in the Cup garage was similar and of no concern.

Graves cited several factors that illustrate just how miniscule the adjustment process -- including the ability to gain any advantage -- is in Cup racing. And the filler system, including its sealed openings, was near the top of his list.

"From the engine-build side I think any adjustment is pretty minor, in the big scheme of things," Graves said. "I think probably the biggest issue, ultimately, that comes out of it -- and it's not really a big issue -- is not only handling [the fuel] because of the potential of it being contaminated by moisture content, but the fuel burn is going to be a little greater than it was in the past."

What that means is decreased mileage. And Graves said that's compounded by another consequence of the new self-venting fuel systems.

"That equipment, which actually has nothing to do with E15 but is a rule [introduced in conjunction with it], has actually taken away about a half-gallon of fuel capacity," Graves said, explaining that teams calculate the capacity of their fuel systems by including the lines and the filler neck from the fuel cell right to the end of the filler tube.

Graves calculated that, with the current 18-gallon fuel cell, with the previous dry-break system, when the lines and neck were included teams might be able to increase their system's capacity to 19 gallons. The new system is more involved, wider and penetrates farther down toward the fuel cell.

"So between the fuel burn being greater with E15 and less capacity in the fuel system, you're going to see shorter stints during the races," Graves said. "And because of that, that changes strategy a little bit and that's a bigger impact, in my eyes -- and along with the handling of the fuel -- than what the engine shops have to do.

"At the road races, in particular, it'll have a big impact, and that will be something teams will have to recalculate. At Sonoma, for example, you could always calculate that as a two-stop race, but now I'm sure it will be three. But a day of testing at VIR [Virginia International Raceway] and you can figure that out."

Graves pointed out that the E15 provided a slight bump in horsepower, perhaps 3 percent on an "open" engine and a little less with a restrictor-plate engine. David Currier, Toyota Racing Development vice president of engine engineering, concurred.

Mike Messick, trackside services manager for Roush Yates Engines and the supervisor of Ford Racing's group of engine tuners, agreed with his TRD associates on the corrosive properties of Ethanol.

"The first thing that occurred to me was, to make sure that the [fuel] cells and the fuel lines and the carburetor parts would stand up to the Ethanol," Messick said. "We've soaked everything [to test it] and did all kinds of studies on it and everything is fine as long as we don't get too much of an Ethanol percentage."

Graves also had cited the corrosive properties of the fuel, and Messick said there was one critical advantage the Cup rule book already had.

"If we had rubber lines on the fuel system, I'd be very nervous about it," Messick said. "But with NASCAR making us run the braided, stainless-steel fuel lines, they all have a Teflon liner, so it won't affect that. The fuel cell is OK to 50 percent Ethanol.

"Past that, the fuel cells would all have to be redone. But that's somewhere down the road -- probably a couple years before we get that high. After we analyzed [the potential material degradation] we thought about the engine stuff, but it's not that big of a deal because one, it's 15 percent [Ethanol] -- it's not 50 or 80 percent.

"And then, Roush Yates Engines, with the modular engines we do in the road-racing series, we had experience with it and we had an idea of where to go with valves and such. It's not a really big deal to us, though we've got to work on it and keep our eyes on it -- but it's not a huge deal."