One bold initiative and almost four million miles later, NASCAR's switch to American Ethanol-infused fuel for its race cars has gone so smoothly it's difficult to imagine a time when the sport wasn't using it.
Not only has the move to Sunoco Green E15 gasoline proven to be an environmentally beneficial decision, it's actually boosted the performance of the race cars in all three of NASCAR's marquee series -- lowering emissions and increasing horsepower.
The ultimate endorsement came when the sport's favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., declared "a seamless transition" to Green E15 fuel upon winning the 2011 Daytona 500 pole position -- the first time out with the American Ethanol blend. And just like that, any doubts or fears that fans or competitors had about such a radical change in fuel were quickly dispelled.
"Without fuel, we're not able to race so there was a lot of pressure on making sure we got it right,'' said NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton. "We were proud to be able to do that. It wasn't that long ago we were using leaded fuel, then moved on to unleaded and that was a big change, and then the move to ethanol came just a couple short years after that.
"Because it goes under the radar when things are successful, they probably don't receive the hype they deserve.''
In terms of significance, this ranks right up there. When NASCAR went green five years ago, it went big.
It now boasts the largest recycling program in sports, the largest solar-powered sports facility (Pocono Raceway) and a massive tree-planting program to off-set carbon emissions from its Sprint Cup Series races.
But fuel is fundamental in racing, and making the decision to switch to a drastically different formula was not only a matter of science but of overall vision.
"There was a significant degree of caution from the start and we had to be absolutely certain,'' said Dr. Mike Lynch, managing director of NASCAR Green Innovation. "We had to take all the risk out through hard work, time and careful analysis. We needed performance without compromise and we've ended up with all the good things and no negative trade-offs.''
The 15-percent ethanol blend has transitioned from carburetors to fuel injection engines and from the Car of Tomorrow to the 2013 debut of the Generation-6 cars, thanks to a concerted and diverse effort from NASCAR, its teams, manufacturers and a nearly three-year old partnership with the American Ethanol industry.
Hundreds of man-hours and even more manpower went into developing this project through track tests, engineering trials and engine dynos. That effort resulted in an E15 blend that produces 20 percent less emissions from the race cars, and just as importantly, a 9 to 12 horsepower increase.
"We've come a long way and I really give NASCAR credit for their green initiative,'' said Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an American Ethanol advocacy group. "This wasn't something the government made them do or they were forced to do.
"I think you have to give NASCAR a lot of credit for being bold enough to undertake the initiative. Not only has (NASCAR Chairman) Brian France talked the talk, but he's walked the walk. They've put over 3 million miles on these cars in practice, qualifying and race conditions without any problems and for us, that's a real validator of our product.
"You couldn't ask for a tougher testing ground.''
In May, NASCAR will have accumulated four million miles fueled by E15 among NASCAR's three series without so much as a hiccup or disparaging word. And NASCAR fans, long known for their extreme loyalty, have taken note.
According to a study conducted in 2012, NASCAR fans are now 50 percent more likely than non-fans to support the use of ethanol blended gasoline in their own cars. The study also found they are now 100 percent more likely than non-fans to indicate their households are "very green" -- all encouraging statistics that show NASCAR it is proceeding in the right direction.
"The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, says, 'Look, if it's good enough for Jimmie Johnson, it's good enough for my car,'" Buis said. "And that's exactly the connection I think we're making with this partnership."
"I think what's really impressive about NASCAR is the fans are very well educated,'' Buis continued. "They follow the sport closely, they listen to people and that was one of the reasons we were attracted to work with NASCAR. We know we have a good product, but it doesn't matter if you have a good product if you don't get the message out there.
"I like to tell people, there's no sport more American than NASCAR and no fuel more American than ethanol. It's a natural fit.''
For more information on NASCAR Green initiatives, visit the official NASCAR Green website here.
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