Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Jerry Forsythe is a big advocate of Champ Car switching to ethanol E85 in 2008

by Gordon Kirby
The first person to respond to my first two columns about alternative or green fuels in racing was Gerald Forsythe. The longtime Champ Car team owner and co-owner of the Champ Car organization is a champion of ethanol. Forsythe wants Champ Car to switch next year to ethanol E85 rather than the 100 percent ethanol which the IRL has adopted this year.

The Illinois industrialist and entrepreneur is convinced E85 ethanol will play an increasingly important role in the American fuel market over the next ten years and Forsythe strongly disagrees with Honda's Robert Clarke about hydrogen fuel cell technology. He doesn't see much of a future for hydrogen fuel for many years to come.

"I'm glad you picked up on the subject because it's right in front of us," Forsythe commented. "I disagree with the Honda guy completely. I don't believe hydrogen fuel will be a factor in powering automobiles here in the United States in my lifetime. It may be in Japan, but I understand that Japan recently contracted to purchase a large chunk of ethanol production from Brazil. Somebody over there thinks ethanol has a future."

Forsythe says there's no debate that E85 (85 percent ethanol) is the blend that will dominate the market. "I don't know why people are talking about E10 or E55, or even E100," he remarked. "None of that is on the market. E85 is what's going to be on the market. That's what's going to be promoted and I think that's what Champ Car should be going to. It smells good and it's more pleasant than gasoline or methanol and it's going to be the most heavily marketed alternative fuel for quite a few years to come."

The United States and Brazil are the world's leading ethanol producers. In 2006, the USA surpassed Brazil to become the globe's largest ethanol producer, manufacturing 4.8 million gallons compared to Brazil's 4.5 million. Forsythe has an economic interest in ethanol's success because he owns an interest in fourteen of the nation's 116 biofuel processing plants.

"We have an interest in fourteen plants," Forsythe commented. "We don't own any of the plants outright. We have anywhere from ten to close to fifty percent interest in those plants. We don't want to be the only owner because there's an issue on the supply of corn. If you don't have the farmers invested in it, there's no obligation on their part to bring the corn to you.

"Most of the plants are structured as co-operatives," he explained. "For example, we own about forty-eight percent of a plant in Palatine, Illinois, but there are four hundred investors in addition to us in that plant, and each of them has to commit X number of bushels for every share they buy. That way, you're assured a supply of corn. The big guys like Cargill can go out and build plants on their own because they've got grain elevators all around the United States so they've got a supply of corn.

"But we will continue to invest as long as the plants are structured properly with the right contractor and the right technology. I see for the forseeable future that we're going to continue to invest in these plants because this is going to be good business for a long time. We've also invested in our first bio-diesel plant in Freeport, Illinois this year. We've established a relationship with a firm out of Iowa that is building bio-diesel plants. Again, if it's structured well and in the right location we'll invest in those as well.

"There are very few dollars looking at any other fuel at this point," Forsythe added. "I think over the next five to ten years ethanol will be the big player. It's going to be huge. For the forseeable future, ethanol is where you want to be. There is considerably more money being spent on ethanol plant construction and expanding the infrastructure to deliver the product than any other alternative fuel. Actually, there isn't anything else even close."

The sharp increase in domestic ethanol production has resulted in more corn being planted. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 90 million acres of corn will be planted in 2007, a fifteen percent increase over last year. Forsythe strongly disagrees with those who claim the ethanol boom will drive the price of corn through the roof.

"There are the doomsayers out there saying there's no way we can make a dent in the problem and we won't have any food or any corn and we're going to run out of acres," Forsythe said. "Well, there are millions and millions of acres that are in the government's set-aside program that the grovernment pays the farmers not to farm. All they need to do is release that acreage and there will be a whole bunch more to grow corn.

"Even the cotton farmers in the south are looking at corn for ethanol instead of cotton," he added. "There are a lot of other crops that probably will go by the wayside for people who want to grow corn."

Forsythe wanted Champ Car to change to E85 this year but the arrival of the new Panoz spec-car, and other issues, delayed the move. "I was really pushing our guys to do it for this year, but I couldn't get my partners to make the investment," Forsythe commented. "But I figure if I can't convince them, maybe the public debate and all the talk that's going on for E85, will change their minds. There's a cost to Champ Car to get our engines converted and that's what I couldn't get our guys to agree on last year. As you know, we had a lot of other things going on."

But Forsythe laid the groundwork by commissioning Cosworth to conduct a technical review of what's required to switch to ethanol. "I made the investment on my own in research and testing to show them what the facts are," he commented. "It cost me $350,000 with Cosworth and they did the due diligence on running the engine on ethanol. They did some dyno testing to see if their theories worked."

Cosworth's chief engineer Bruce Wood designed the XD turbo V-8 and oversees the XF series Champ Car engines. Wood documented the work Cosworth did in researching a switch to ethanol. "The biggest thing we felt might be an issue were the cooling circuits because ethanol doesn't have the same latent heat vaporization as methanol so it doesn't cool things down as much when you evaporate ethanol," Wood explained. "So we spent some time looking at the cooling circuits to establish that they were going to be big enough. Somewhat to our surprise, that turned out not really to be a big problem, although our testing was finally cut short by an overheated exhaust valve seat.

"We put a different piston in to be more comfortable with the characterstics of ethanol and the increased the boost was needed to recover the power loss with E85. That was really the bulk of the changes, as well as re-mapping the fuel system and introducing a different injector spray pattern. But essentially, it was not a huge amount of work."

Cosworth ran an ethanol-fueled XFE engine on the dyno for 980 miles before the valve seat problem. "We were aiming to run 1,400 miles," Wood commented. "Although we fell short of this, we were fairly comfortable we could fix the seat issue and make the engine completely robust at 1,400 miles.

"We put it on our transient dyno because we were worried a little about the transient response, but it was pretty good. It worked perfectly happily for a spec-engine. If you were in competition there's no doubt you would want to go all the way through the development process again. But we got to the point where if someone said they wanted to do this, the engine would run perfectly respectably. It would make the same amount of power and be driveable and durable.

"If Champ Car come back and say we want to do this, then we would have quite a lot of work to do in updating all ninety-plus engines," Wood added. "And we didn't do any track-testing. It would have to run on a track to be completely comfortable. But it seemed quite good on the transient dyno. It wasn't a vast amount of work but once you translate that across ninety-odd engines, even if it's only $15,000 each it becomes quite a large number."

Jerry Forsythe is adamant about convincing his Champ Car partners, Kevin Kalkhoven, Dan Pettit and Paul Gentilozzi, to make the move to ethanol for 2008. "I'm going to use my time this year to convince them that we've definitely got to do this," Forsythe said. "We've got the big auto manufacturers in the United States promoting E85. Ford, Chrysler and GM have all committed to flex/fuel engines and will build hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks this year to burn E85. We see their ads here in the midwest all the time. They're really putting a lot of money behind it and I think we should be promoting it as well.

"It's an alternative fuel that burns cleaner," Forsythe added. "I mean, who else burns methanol? It's not a friendly smell and today you've got to burn something that has a green look. The diesel Audi is cool. That's great to see, and even the ALMS is making the move to ethanol. As far as I'm concerned, the time has come for E85 on the road and in racing."

It probably would be a good thing for the sport if both of America's dueling open-wheel series used essentially the same if not identical fuel. Any note of commonality has got to be healthy. The other point is that it's clear that ethanol is the first step in racing providing help in developing newer, greener fuels for the future.

But the big questions remain. Where to go beyond ethanol and how to write the rules to make it happen and provide a longterm boost for the sport? On Thursday, Cosworth's chief engineer Bruce Wood will offer his views on these questions and you will continue to read discussion on these subjects on a regular basis in this space.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page