Jan. 25, 2013 at 1:17 PM ET
Mazda hopes ride a tankful of chicken guts, beef tallow and pork lard to victory at the grueling Rolex 24 endurance race in Daytona over the coming weekend.
No, the maker isn’t sponsored by the local butcher. It’s powering its new Mazda6 race car with a custom-made fuel blend that starts out with scraps from Tyson Foods. That organic glop has been converted into a special bio-fuel that will stoke the new SkyActiv-D clean diesel engine that will power Mazda’s entry into the new Grand-Am GX Class at the 24-hour race.
“It’s meat packing residue,” explains John Doonan, the director of Mazda’s ambitious motorsports operation. And the ultimate blend is so clean the Mazda6 race car won’t need particulate filters or any of the other devices used on other diesel-powered race cars.
Indeed, Mazda is not the only manufacturer that has switched from gasoline or ethanol to diesel power on the track. Audi has dominated the Le Mans endurance circuit for much of the past decade, in fact, with a series of racers that routinely leave the competition struggling to keep up.
That’s helped put the spotlight on the German manufacturers focus on the diesel technology it’s putting on the street. At the Los Angeles Auto Show last November, the maker announced it would soon add four new diesel models to its U.S. line-up.
European car buyers are well aware of diesel’s advantages – it delivers near hybrid levels of fuel economy and far more power than gas-electric powertrains. Americans, however, are just beginning to catch on. So, it’s Mazda that now needs to get the message across as it prepares to introduce its own new diesel engine to the U.S. market.
In fact, the engine that will be powering the Mazda6 on the Daytona track started out as one of the first production diesels the maker assembled back in Japan last year.
The new Mazda6 SkyActiv-D racecar will have some big tire tracks to fill, replacing the maker’s successful RX-8 model. Mazda will also field two new teams starting with the 2013 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. It will lose its two previous teams, including Dempsey Racing, which was owned by actor and motorsports fanatic Patrick Dempsey.The maker gave its racing team a mandate, explains Doonan, “to use as many production components as possible. The only things we’ve changed are the crankshaft, pistons and connecting rod.” And with good reason considering the track-tuned SkyActiv-D will be churning out 400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque, about double what a street-legal 2014 diesel-powered Mazda6 will be making when it goes on sale later this year.
It’s a risky move to launch a new car with new teams and drivers but Mazda is hoping it will pay off and put the brand in the spotlight this year.
The maker has been going through plenty of changes everywhere you look. It has largely wound down a decades-old relationship with Ford Motor Co. and stopped producing the Mazda6 at a plant the two makers jointly operated in suburban Detroit.
Mazda, meanwhile, has established several new – if more limited – alliances with Toyota and Fiat. The Italian maker’s Alfa Romeo division plans to work with Mazda to develop a new sports car that both companies can sell. Ford Mazda, it will serve as the replacement for its aging Miata 2-seater. Toyota, meanwhile, will base a replacement for its subcompact Yaris off the Mazda3 platform. And Mazda will produce some of the new models for Toyota out of a plant it is currently setting up in Mexico.
More alliances could follow, according to Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi. That could help the small Japanese automaker reduce the hefty expense of developing new products. Not that Mazda is waiting for assistance. It has been rolling out an assortment of new models, such as the well-reviewed CX-5 crossover.
It has also introduced a new concept, dubbed SkyActiv, that it claims can compete with the efficiency of rivals’ hybrid products. At its heart, SkyActiv is a new approach to powertrain technology but it also entails steps Mazda engineers are taking to improve the overall efficiency of the maker’s vehicles, down to finding ways to reduce the weight of the lugnuts on the wheels of the new Mazda6.
The all-new version of the sedan will be offered with both the new SkyActiv gasoline and diesel powertrains.
Unfortunately for those who might opt for the SkyActiv-D, they’ll likely have a hard time finding the synthetic diesel Mazda will use on the race track. The renewable blend was developed by Dynamic Fuels, a 50/50 joint venture of Tyson Foods and Syntroleum, and it is being produced at a $150 million refinery which opened up near Baton Rouge, Louisiana two years ago.
Why Tyson? Because the maker has had to find ways to dispose of 1.5 million pounds of chicken, pork and beef products every single day. Now it can avoid the cost of dumping that offal and potential make some money from it. The refinery is producing about 75 million gallons of synthetic diesel annually and could ramp up to provide even more.
A number of refiners are working to come up with bio-fuels. The most readily available are ethanol blends. They’ve been controversial because, until now, most have used food stocks, such as corn – though newer, so-called cellulosic production methods can create the alcohol fuel from waste.
Many of the new bio-diesel blends use waste products – though a select number of filling stations near San Francisco recently began offering a blend created from algae.
Dynamic Fuels ultimately hopes to begin selling some of its synthetic diesel to the public and is shooting for a $5 a gallon price tag, notes Mazda’s U.S. CEO Jim O’Sullivan.
Some shuttle buses operated by Alamo and National Car Rental are already testing it on the street. And the U.S. Navy is also using the bio-diesel blend on some of its ships.
Those who buy the new Mazda6 with SkyActiv-D will have to settle for conventional, petroleum-based diesel fuel. But the maker is hoping that with a 14.5 gallon tank of distilled guts under its hood, the Mazda6 race car will dominate its field when the flag drops at Daytona on Saturday.
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