Ethanol Less Volatile

IndyCar crash would have been more fiery with gasoline
By Holly Jessen | November 15, 2011

The death of IndyCar driver Dan Weldon was a tragedy that rocked the racing world. Weldon was killed Oct. 16 in a 15-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

While there’s nothing good about what happened, Dan Schwartzkopf, a former drag racer who started using ethanol in the early 1990s, points out that things could have been much worse if IndyCar races weren’t fueled by E100. Vehicles fueled by gasoline would have been more susceptible to fire as it is more volatile than ethanol and ignites more easily. According to information published by Argonne National Laboratory from a study done for the U.S. DOE, gasoline ignites at 495 degrees, methanol at 800 degrees and ethanol at 850 degrees. 

The IndyCar Series has been running on E100 since 2007 and will switch to E85 in 2012. Depending on price and availability, some races may use ethanol produced in Brazil from sugarcane. The Iowa Corn Indy 250, however, is sponsored by the Iowa Corn Growers Association and fuels up strictly with corn-based ethanol. In 2010 the IndyCar Series used about 70,000 gallons of ethanol—the equivalent of about 142 acres of corn planted in Iowa.

Schwartzkopf, today an account manager for ICM Inc., has a rich history in encouraging ethanol use on the racetrack. He’s the former owner of Renova Racing’s six-car team and was involved in helping the Indy Racing League switch from methanol to ethanol—among other things. The drawback to using ethanol in race cars is the same is with using methanol, he tells EPM. Ethanol and methanol burn invisibly unless a 2 percent denaturant is added.

IndyCar is working on a two-phase investigation of the crash. "We must continue to move forward with a thorough investigation," says Randy Bernard, CEO, IndyCar. "Fortunately, that has already begun, and we have the protocols in place to get this done. This was a tragic accident, and IndyCar needs to understand everything possible about it." 

—Holly Jessen