Image: Race cars
Streeter Lecka  /  Getty Images
Drivers practice Thursday for the Petit Le Mans race Saturday in Braselton, Ga.
updated 10/3/2008 3:38:39 PM ET 2008-10-03T19:38:39

The drive to develop fuels to replace gasoline and technologies that will lead to a cleaner environment has been long on talk and short on action.

But the American Le Mans Series, with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and SAE International, is doing something to change that, beginning with the 11th annual Petit Le Mans sports car race at Road Atlanta on Saturday.

Besides racing for victories in four classes, everyone in the field will also be competing in the first Green Challenge, a competition to highlight the fuel efficiency, carbon footprint and petroleum offset impact of each of the eight manufacturers that race in the ALMS.

"The competition will define which platform, which car, which drive train combination, has the best overall fuel-efficiency rating, the least harmful emissions being emitted and the least petroleum offset score," said Scott Atherton, president of the ALMS.

Cars in the ALMS use one of three street-legal alternative fuels:

  • E10 gasoline, sometimes called gasohol, is a mixture of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
  • E85 cellulosic ethanol typically contains up to 85 percent denatured ethanol — in this case made entirely from wood waste.
  • Zero-sulfur diesel.

"We believe those three fuels represent the choices that consumers will soon have at the fuel station, so it's not just about featuring alternative fuels, but it's about featuring practical alternative fuels," Atherton said. "We've got an infrastructure in place that can handle the distribution of such fuels.

From racetrack to fuel station
"That's part and parcel to everything this series represents. It's not just nanotechnology or breakthrough engineering, it's the practical application of it, a link from the racetrack to the road car. And, in this case, it's the link from the racetrack to the fuel station."

The EPA and the DOE first approached the SAE, which establishes U.S. mechanical and engineering standards, three years ago, Atherton said. They believed that auto racing — green racing — could help educate consumers about alternative fuels, new drive train systems, and developments in energy efficiency and emission control.

The Green Challenge was born after the government agencies, auto racing sanctioning organizations — including the ALMS and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), which oversees timing and scoring — and automotive equipment manufacturers met to establish criteria for green racing.

"Motorsports has always enjoyed the distinction of being at the forefront of advanced automotive engineering and has been a primary catalyst for moving new technologies to the showroom floor," said Andy Karsner, assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy for the DOE. "The leadership role the American Le Mans Series has taken by embracing open and diverse alternative fuel technology platforms has not only set the bar for automotive racing, but has helped redefine the future of the transportation sector."

Not only does auto racing provide the new technologies, but it also has the built-in testing, said Margo T. Oge, director of the office of transportation and air qualify for the EPA.

"Racing is the ultimate test track," she said. "If clean efficient technologies can survive the extreme driving of the American Le Mans Series, then they can certainly work for the morning commute.

"The American Le Mans Series' Green Challenge is a pioneering effort to help move green technology from the track to the street."

New level of competition
The initiative also adds another arena in which manufacturers can distinguish themselves through competition.

"The Green Challenge adds an entirely new dimension to racing," said Doug Fehan, program manager for Corvette, which competes in the ALMS. "It's not simply a race to the checkered flag — the Green Challenge takes science, technology and engineering to an entirely new level in motorsports."

The EPA, DOE, the Argon National Laboratory and other experts on technology and ecology have developed an equation for calculating each car's fuel efficiency, carbon footprint and petroleum offset during the race.

"The cars are being fitted with telemetry in the pit lane which will enable IMSA to calculate exactly which car is performing against the green challenge criteria on a real-time basis," Atherton said. "So, just like a team can monitor a car's progress around a racetrack by following its progress on a GPS, or can monitor by telemetry tire pressures or oil pressure and any number of elements of how the car's performing, IMSA has that same capacity and capability of monitoring each car's performance as it relates to the Green Challenge criteria.

"So, you have a clean diesel Audi competing against an E10 Porsche, competing against an cellulosic E85 Corvette and, when the checkered flag falls at Petit Le Mans, there will be a winner of the race by traditional means and there will also be a winner of the Green Challenge — and it could very likely be two different cars."

Atherton said there will be ratings, from first to last, but that the statistics will be confidential.

"The goal here is not to make one (manufacturer) look extremely good while doing that at the expense of another," he said. "The other issue here is we're talking about complete uncharted, unprecedented waters ... we are establishing the benchmark."

The Green Challenge will continue through the 2009 ALMS season, with the winner of each race acknowledged and an overall championship awarded.

"At a time when manufacturers' racing budgets are being scrutinized and questioned for relevance ... well we've got an answer for that," Atherton said. "Here's the direct link that you've been looking for."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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