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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen ...start your engines!

I grew up in Indianapolis where the Indy 500 was a spring ritual. Tomorrow will be the first time in three-quarters of a century that the race won't be listened to on the radio by my mother, who passed away just before Christmas.

I have three memories that stand out. The most recent was the time I worked as a high-school student in a hot dog stand to earn money for a service club. It was the only time I attended the race and I could only catch a glimpse of the cars during breaks because the stand was located in the back of the stadium. The next memory was the time one of the cars used a jet turbine. It was tearing up the track until the transmission blew up. My earliest memory goes all the way back to the day when two drivers were burned alive.

Some changes were made after that. For safety reasons it was decided that the cars would use smaller gas tanks and they would be filled with methanol instead of gasoline. Methanol was chosen because it's easy to put out with small amounts of water. According to the Methanol Institue:

"…If an engine fire develops in a methanol-fueled Indy race car, the pit crew simply pours water on the fire to put it out. Normally, the car is able to get back in the race in a matter of seconds…."

Here is a video of a fire started at the Gold Coast Indy race using methanol where a driver pulled out of the pit with the fuel hose still attached. The pit crew just dosed each other with buckets of water. There were no injuries.

The fuel was switched from methanol to ethanol in 2007 and it wasn't for safety reasons. Tom Slunecka, at the time executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council representing corn ethanol interests put it this way:

"…We could have put our name on the side of a car to promote ethanol, but instead we did it the hard way, so we arranged this fuel switch…."

In comparison, a pit crew member was seriously burned last year when a car using ethanol pulled out of the pit with the fuel hose still attached during an American Le Mans series race:

"…Safety workers quickly put out the fire, but not before Jones, wearing a helmet and fire-retardant clothing, was briefly caught up in the flames.
The hospital confirmed his condition and that he is in the intensive care unit, but would not disclose the nature or severity of his injuries…."

Update 2/5/2011 Look at this Indy car ethanol fire!

The following video demonstrates how hard it is to put out an ethanol fire (885 gallons is the equivalent of two hot tubs):

According to The Bulletin:

"…Ethanol presents firefighters with several unique challenges. For instance, ethanol fires cannot be put out with water; instead, they must be smothered with the careful application of alcohol-resistant foams…"

This stuff really burns as witnessed by this video documenting a tanker that turned over.

Let's hope it is a safe race this year. I'll be listening on the radio one last time in memory of my mom.

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(photo credit BSquared AKA Family Paparazzi via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

1 comment:

  1. I just received an email with a link to a WSJ article from last year's race, which apparently was fueled by Brazilian ethanol, which really torqued off the Renewable Fuels Association. You can bet your first born that somebody received a huge bribe for that move. It is only a matter of time before we start stuffing Amazon rain forests into our gas tanks along with food.


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