THE QUESTION OF FUEL                                                     Printer-friendly format
PART 8 -
What's the Solution?

By John Copeland

It's been about a year since we started looking into the whys and wherefores of gasoline as a manageable kart fuel. And by manageable, I mean: 1) readily available, 2) reasonably priced, 3) delivers acceptable performance in today's engines, and 4) can be easily and reliably checked for compliance with current tech regulations. Together we've looked into what factors affect how a fuel liberates its energy during the combustion process. We've also come face-to-face with the rather untidy and unpredictable formulation of today's crop of available pump gasolines. The continued tampering with the formulation of mass consumption gasoline, whether by government mandate, or market pressures, makes any efforts to develop standardized testing procedures a very risky business indeed. We already know that gasoline from a source that passed the Digatron test last season (or even last week) may not pass today. We should expect this situation to get worse rather than better. While the Digatron test was a significant milestone in fuel tech, the introduction of ether-based products into gasoline, today primarily in the form of methyl tertiary-butyl-ether (MTBE), by the oil companies in efforts to boost fuel mileage and reduce tailpipe emissions, has reduced the usefulness of this benchmark. While the Digatron meter will definitely point out the presence of alcohols, ethers and other highly polar compounds, we can no longer be certain how they got there. Did the competitor "juice" his fuel to gain an unfair advantage? Or did he innocently purchase fuel that was already tainted by the manufacturer? No tech man wants to throw out an innocent competitor, but there must be some way to keep the fuel tampering under control. As long as racing gasoline is not governed by the same regulatory and market forces that affect pump gasoline, it will continue to be the most attractive alternative to address this dilemma. And to those who howl at the cost of racing gas, take a look at the real cost difference. Even if race gas is $6 a gallon, subtract the $1.20 a gallon you've been paying for pump gas (that leaves $4.80 difference) and multiply by your actual usage for a day of racing. If you're running sprint or dirt, you'll be hard pressed to burn up more than a couple of gallons a day (or night) so we're talking less than $10 here big deal. And you enduro racers, even with a Friday practice day, you burn what, maybe five or six gallons in three days. That's less than $30. The fact of the matter is, until there is a better alternative, using racing gasoline is the surest way to avoid having all your driving talent go for naught at the tech shed.

Enough about the problem. What's the solution? It should come as no surprise that there are folks all over the country working on this one. During the course of writing this series I have heard from karting organizations from coast to coast, as well as from people involved in snowmobile racing, motorcycles, and the American PowerBoat Association. Everybody's facing the same problem. And these people and their organizations have tried, and are trying, lots of different solutions to deal with it. Let's look at a few of them.

In some areas the approach has been "spec fuel." In fact, some organizations on the East Coast have been doing this for some time. It's just a variation on Klotz KL-200 plus gas comparison test with the Digatron meter that has been outlined in the tech books for years. The organization selects a particular brand and grade of gasoline, and in some cases oil too, and declares that the competitors fuel sample must meter within some range (usually five points) of the standard. The test assumes that the fuel that is selected is untainted with additives or other chemicals that would alter the meter reading. It also assumes that the quality of the specified gasoline will remain constant throughout the season. I have been told by some officials that their local fuel dealer has assured them that this would be the case. That's all well and good, but, unfortunately, the local fuel dealer has no more control over what the refinery is doing with the composition of the fuel they deliver to him than the consumer does! He gets (and we get) whatever comes in the truck. And in many cases, it may vary from delivery to delivery. An evening spent watching tanker trucks load at a nearby refinery revealed a tremendous variety of truck markings being loaded from the same source. While I watched, in the span of only three hours, I saw trucks marked with signage from seven discount gas station chains, and two major oil companies, load up from the same filler-tube. The fact of the matter is, neither you nor the dealer has any real idea where the gasoline you buy came from, or more importantly, what's in it. So setting a numerical reference on the Digatron meter based on a "spec fuel" is a very risky business, both for the organization, and for the racer. The exception to this, of course, is if the "spec fuel" is a specially formulated racing gasoline. As I've said before, these products are carefully controlled by their manufacturers to ensure consistent quality and freedom from contamination. In areas where this sort of "spec fuel" program is in use, it can only be expected to work if the baseline fuel is a racing gasoline.

Secondly, we understand that the Digatron meter measures the dielectric constant of the sample. But its readings are not linear. That is, if adding five percent of something to the sample moves the meter reading 10 points, that does not necessarily mean that adding 10 percent will move it 20 points. In fact, depending on the additive, doubling the quantity might not move the meter reading at all, or it might jump dramatically! From this we can say that applying some arbitrary allowance of variation from the meter reading of the "spec fuel" cannot provide an accurate look at the sample, or any determination as to whether or not it has been tampered with by the competitor. Finally, this comparative method of using the Digatron meter as the sole determinant in tech ignores the fact that, with a little experimentation, a dedicated fuel cheater can use some additives to "mask" the presence of other additives in the fuel. That is, by adding materials that have a very high dielectric constant, it is possible to effectively hide additives with a somewhat lower dielectric constant. As long as the finished fuel generates a reading within the required range, the fuel passes tech. No, there has to be a better way.

Another approach is to actually provide legal fuel to the karters at the track; to contract a vendor for legal fuel to be at the track on race days and suggest that anyone not confident in their fuel's ability to pass tech purchase fuel from him. This puts the burden on finding a reliable vendor on the club or track management and also offers the opportunity for the embarrassing discovery in tech that the "track gas" isn't legal after all. I have seen this happen more than once, where competitors discovered in post-race tech that the fuel they had purchased at the track was contaminated. At one national event, the top six finishers in the first race of the day were disqualified and dismissed from the tech area before the problem was discovered. Once they had left the tech area, officials correctly ruled that, despite the error, they could not return and be reinstated. It was an awkward and extremely difficult situation that could have been avoided if only the officials had teched the "track gas" first. In a sport (and a nation) that many think already has too much regulation, telling people they must run the "track gas" is not a very popular position. But providing a reliable source at the track at least assures that everyone has access to legal fuel, if they choose to purchase it. I should point out that the selection of a vendor is critically important to the success of this approach. Of course, the consistent quality of the fuel must be assured. But also, while you should expect to pay some premium for the service of having someone bring his truck to the track, the selling price of the fuel must not be abusively high. In some cases it may be appropriate for the club or track to pay the vendor a "service fee" above and beyond the price of the fuel to insure that those additional costs are not passed on to the karter in the form of unreasonably high fuel prices.

An extension of this approach that is finding some success on the West Coast is to not only provide legal gas at the track, but to actually require that everyone use it. It's a lot like the "pump around" so common in 4cycle racing these days. The track or club actually purchases the gasoline, mixes it with oil at some recommended ratio, and dispenses it directly into the competitor's fuel tank. Here's how it works. At the pre-grid, the karters are required to present their karts with fuel tanks empty and the fuel line disconnected from the carb. The tech man watches the karter connect the fuel line to the carb and safety wire it. The tech man then dispenses the desired amount of fuel into the tank and the tank is sealed. Before the karter may return to the pre-grid for the next qualifying, heat race, or whatever, he must drain any remaining fuel from the tank. Regardless if he spun out and killed it on the pace lap of the first heat, before he goes to the grid for the second heat the tank must be empty and the fuel line off the carb again. I presume this
makes for some pretty expensive gas going into the tow vehicle, not to mention the oil. And on the subject of oil, the folks I spoke to said their clubs simply selected a different oil each year from those in most common use, and announced that it would be the oil, and in what ratio, for the season. On the surface this is a pretty good system. It assures that the officials have pretty much complete control over the fuel being used. However, the removal of any opportunity to choose your fuel, or your oil, rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Particularly the oil. If your engine builder has told you he wants you to run four ounces of Castor and two ounces of Yamalube R per gallon in the engine he built for you, that's what you ought to run. Maybe the engine builder has some specific reason for that recommendation, or maybe it's just the result of his years of experience. In either case, finding out that the supplied fuel will be mixed with three ounces of Red-Line (for example) is not going to inspire much comfort in you or your engine builder. But this is a minor issue compared to the question of time! Remember, you can always make more friends. You can sometimes make for horsepower (that may cost you friends). And you can try to make more money (that will bring you false friends, but may help pay for the horsepower). But you can never make more time. The controlled dispensing of fuel on the pre-grid consumes manpower and no small amount of time from the program. Even if everyone arrives at the pre-grid early (that would be a first), it's simply a matter of having to go through all the steps, one kart at a time. I've been told by some people that, in order to implement this type of program, they had to cut the number of classes the track ran in half! While you might agree that reducing classes is sorely needed, this is not the way you'd like to do it. Delays and downtime between races aggravate karters and bore what few spectators we might have. And the more thorough the tech man's inspection to assure that no additive is already in the otherwise empty tank, the longer this thing takes. Racers come to the track to race, not to stand around. The more waiting time increases, the more disgruntled the racers will be, and the less likely that they'll come back next week. We need to be looking for ways to get race programs finished sooner, not ways to stretch them out longer.

All these are workable approaches to the problem of legal fuel. But we've heard from some karters out there that have questioned whether we need to be teching fuel at all. Now wait a minute!! Before we dismiss this suggestion as permitting an "open season" for fuel cheating, let's hake a closer look. Some of us who have been around karting for awhile (almost 30 years for me!) remember when the last fuel dilemma went around, back when we were racing McCullochs. The question then wasn't what fuel could be run, but rather what could be done to the carb to allow alternative fuels to be run. After years of crying and wringing their hands about what would become of the sport if everyone was allowed to run whatever fuel they wanted, IKF (they were the only sanctioning body then) opened up the restrictions on carb passages to allow everyone to run methanol. Almost overnight methanol became the overwhelming choice of karters, and the use of nitrobenzene, and hydrazine, and other additives virtually disappeared. Given the choice, and the freedom to drill their carb passages to the required sizes, racers found that straight methanol gave them the best performance, improved tuneability, and was easier on the engines. Maybe there is something to be said for learning from history. Certainly today's 2-cycles are a far cry from the Macs. And the Walbro curb used on the Yamaha and other piston ports is a virtual soda-straw, throttle bore wise, compared to the carb on the McCulloch. But if the rules were to allow it, and if the carbs could be drilled to make it easy and reliable to do it, I'll bet it wouldn't take long before everybody was burning methanol. If the Garb passage sizes were controlled so that the extraordinarily high volumes of additives like nitromethane and such required for combustion were not attainable, the question of fuel legality would take care of itself. Tech would be a simple matter of a couple of no-gos in the Garb passages.

I know of several innovative karters who are testing in this area already. They report that they can efficiently burn 100 percent alcohol through an otherwise unmodified Walbro carb, with very little redrilling of passages. They also report not only improved performance, but also less plug fouling, cleaner combustion chamber and piston crown, and no ring sticking from carbon and gum buildup. Incidentally, one racer who is experimenting with methanol fuel points out that even with the higher fuel consumption using methanol, at $2.25 a gallon, he's saving money over the $4.50+ he was spending on race gas. This is definitely something to look into. As is so often the case, local clubs and organizations will have to take the lead on this and try it. If it helps solve the fuel problem, eventually the national sanctioning bodies will follow suit. We'd all like to see the big organizations take the lead on things like this, but it doesn't always work that way. Someone will have to do the legwork first. Will it be your club or track? Ask about it and discuss it. And, please, let me know how it works.

There is absolutely no reason to think that, without some radical re-thinking, the fuel situation is going to get any better. The oil companies are going to continue to meddle with the composition of gasoline, whether dictated by the government, or for competitive market reasons. Faced with an ever-changing product, karting will have to redefine what constitutes legal fuel, either by changing the tech techniques, or by changing the fuel itself. Tom Stinitz, President of Digatron Instruments, tells me that at present they have no plans to introduce any fuel testing instrument other than the DT-15. He is aware of the DDT-15's shortcomings but, unless or until some alternate testing protocol is developed, they don't know what they should design to facilitate it. Perhaps there is someone out there with an idea of how to test fuel in such a way that changes in the manufacturers additive package won't influence the results. I'm no chemist (although I've heard a lot of chemistry in the past year on this project), but maybe one of you is. It's a big challenge, and one that will have a long-lasting impact on the sport. One thing is certain though.

We can't keep doing things the way we have been. It's bad enough to let fuel cheats pervert the spirit and intent of karting. But it's even worse to unfairly disqualify perfectly honest competitors because the tech techniques we are using have not kept pace with the fuel that is available. If the enormous growth of "outlaw" tracks has taught us anything, it should be that rinky-dink rules are unwelcome and unwanted in karting. And fuel tech that is unfair, or outdated, is just that, rinky-dink. So let's hear it out there. What do you think? Spec fuel? Track supplied fuel?

It's an important question and one that all of us should be concerned about. Please write or FAX me your comments and I'll see to it they get presented on these pages. You can write me c/o Fox Valley Kart, 520 N. 9th St., Lafayette, IN 47904, or FAX me at 317-491-3746. Talk with your club or track and let us hear your thoughts.

Well that about wraps it up on the subject of fuel for now. Hopefully we all know more now then when we started. (I know I do!) We've looked at what the fuel does and doesn't do in the engine, and what additives do and don't work, and in what quantities. But, mostly, we've hopefully done away with some of the mystery, the "smoke and mirrors" that surround what we and our fellow competitors are buying. I continue to believe that the vast majority of karters are honest, hard-working racers who want to compete fairly. Oh sure, there are a few who insist on trying to win by beating the tech man instead of winning fair and square. But I really believe they are few and far between. I'm a lot more concerned, fuel-wise, about the honest competitors who are at risk of being tossed out in fuel tech because either their fuel was tainted by the manufacturer, or because our tech procedures are not adequate to deal with today's crop of commercial gasolines. To paraphrase a famous jurist, "It is better for 10 guilty men to go free, than to wrongly punish one innocent man." Let's put the considerable talents and resources of the karting community to work and develop a workable solution to take us into the next century. Thanks to all of you who have provided input on this series, and we'll see you at the track.


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