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Strange things happen when two worlds collide
By Gary Truitt
Brownfield
Fast cars, big money, and celebrity status are all a part of the world of open wheel racing. This world is far removed from the world of agriculture and rural life, until now. In a strange twist of events, the worlds of auto racing and agriculture have come together.

Agriculture is big news at the track, and auto racing is now a farm issue.

Three years ago, a driver in the Indy Pro Series named Paul Dana was looking for a sponsor and for a ticket to move up to the big league, the IRL. He started working with some people in the then struggling ethanol industry.

Dana had a vision of not only an ethanol sponsored car but using the Indy Racing League (IRL) as a platform to promote the renewable fuel. His vision became reality when three competitors in the ethanol industry partnered to sponsor an IRL car, and the IRL decided to make the switch from methanol to ethanol.

Tragically, Dana was three weeks ago as he practiced for his first IRL race using ethanol. His dream lives on, however, and the ethanol car and the fuel switch will continue.

Just last week, cars began testing at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway using a 10 percent ethanol fuel. The IRL will move to 100 percent ethanol next season. During the official media preview day at the yard of bricks, everyone was talking about ethanol.

At the opening press conference, I was the only farm reporter in the room. It was the first time the IRL had issued press credentials to the ag media. The international, auto racing, media fraternity packed the room and fired questions for 45 minutes about ethanol. It was a strange sight to see seasoned auto racing journalists asking about corn yields, hybrid characteristics, land prices, ethanol tax credit legislation, and renewable fuel standards.

Some of them were there to learn, while a few were trying to find a weakness or problem with the renewable fuel. This group came away disappointed. All of the engine testing on ethanol had revealed no problems.

The first two IRL races using the new fuel saw track speed records set, and ethanol was credited for it. The crowd was convinced; one television cameraman I spoke with said he was going to run out and find some E85 to try.

Tom Slunecka, with the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC), hopes the public will have the same reaction. “Having ethanol at the IRL pronounced to mechanics and consumers across the country that this is a performance fuel. This is a fuel they can trust and put in their everyday vehicle,” he said.

Another advantage is that some of the biggest media celebrities in the nation are pushing the corn-based fuel. The most well attended event at media day was the press conference featuring Danica Patrick. The event was supposed to be to announce the new driver of the ethanol car. Yet Jeff Simmons, the new driver, was overshadowed by Danica and her smile. But interview after interview she plugged the true American fuel and praised the farmers who grew it.

Ethanol’s involvement in the IRL may have another side effect. Honda is the engine maker for the IRL series, and their research with ethanol has convinced them to consider making ethanol engines for their passenger line of cars. Most Asian automakers have gone the hybrid path to address fuel economy, but reports are that Honda is considering an ethanol option in the near future. The future may also include an ethanol fuel in other racing venues. I was told that several other racing organizations have contacted EPIC with interest in switching to ethanol.

The sound bite of the day came from Tom Blattler of EPIC who said, “Ethanol burns cleaner and burns rubber.”

As we move closer to the month of May, the Indianapolis 500 will again live up to its billing as the greatest spectacle in racing. This year, however, ethanol and American agriculture will be in the middle of it.

This farm news was published in the April 12, 2006 issue of Farm World.

4/12/2006