The recent announcement by NASCAR that unleaded fuel would finally be introduced into the premier stock car racing series in the world was met with a lot of the following:
When you get right down to it, fuel is just not sexy, not like aerodynamics or horsepower or coefficient of drag. Truth is, however, that none of that matters a heck of a lot unless there's fuel to create combustion.
NASCAR has been working on unleaded fuel for the past several years, for a variety of different reasons. Among those was the desire to move out of the past and to be more environmentally conscious.
Sunoco, entering its third season as the official fuel supplier of NASCAR, came up with the blend that will be used at the beginning of the 2008 season, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency of the U.S. Government.
Now if you're a corporate entity in this day and age, those are three pretty frightening words: Environmental Protection Agency. That's almost as scary as Internal Revenue Service. Usually when those folks come to call, you know it's going to cost and there's likely to be some other unpleasantness to be endured.
But in this case, NASCAR worked hand in hand with the EPA to come up with a cleaner, more economically sound fuel that won't wreck NASCAR engines by the truckload.
That was the problem when NASCAR first began fooling around with unleaded alternatives to the leaded high-octane racing gasoline that had been in use since the early 1950s. The unleaded fuels ate engines from the inside out.
It all had to do with lubrication. Lead is an additive in racing fuel, and its lubricating properties were what made it so much better than unleaded fuels.
"We've been back and forth to the drawing board for several years to find an unleaded fuel that is compatible with NASCAR engines," NASCAR VP of Research and Development Gary Nelson said in making the announcement. "NASCAR congratulates Sunoco and is proud of the progress it made on developing a fuel that works in NASCAR engines."
Given the close relationship Sunoco and NASCAR enjoy since the former replaced Unocal as the fuel supplier, it was a matter of hitting that proper mix that led to the development of the new fuel, which is called Sunoco 260 GTX. While NASCAR has been fairly proactive in its approach to finding a replacement for leaded racing gas, some folks a group called Clean Air Watch, for instance didn't think it was moving fast enough. The group begged the EPA to begin testing air quality at NASCAR events, looking for enough lead to fire bullets at the sanctioning body and the sport in general.
All of this brings to mind that there is more to motorsports than raw horsepower. There's moving ahead, for instance, and doing everything possible to keep the eco-fringe off the news pages.
For Sunoco, the fact that it was able to develop, with the help of NASCAR and the EPA, an unleaded fuel that does the job it needs to do inside one of the powerful NASCAR engines is a selling point the company can use in bringing its products to market.
Unleaded gas burns hotter than the leaded version, and that leads to more stress on the valve train, which is always the weakest link in any engine.
NASCAR experimented with unleaded fuels in the Busch Series late in the last decade, somewhat disappointingly.
Goodyear is an exclusive supplier to NASCAR for tires. Sunoco is exclusive fuel supplier. It makes business sense because now Sunoco does not have to refine its race fuels to include lead, which can be dangerous in large doses.
That means a somewhat costly refining process can be adapted to the regular, everyday preparation of gasoline and other petroleum products. It also gets NASCAR out from under environmental regulations, namely the Clean Air Act of 1970.
One other aspect of this development is the new doors it can open. Part of the reason, it has been written, that NASCAR could not race in Canada was the fact that Canadian law requires unleaded gas for all uses.
The fuel is already in use in the Grand American road racing series, whose engines are somewhat similar to those used in Cup, the Busch Series and Craftsman Trucks, and by 2008, it will be in those three series as well.
Getting the lead out has been a priority for NASCAR since the late 1990s, and this past announcement is proof positive that it finally all fit together.