Green Flag

NASCAR has reached a deal with the ethanol industry group, Growth Energy, to use blended E15 in all Sprint Cup races, starting next year. Though full terms of the agreement haven’t been disclosed, the six-year deal with America’s most popular motor sport constitutes one of the biggest investments the industry has ever made in selling mainstream consumers on the benefits of ethanol.

Groups like Growth Energy and the Renewable Fuels Association have long spent tens of millions of dollars each year promoting the fuel, but past efforts have been focused mostly on policy makers and opinion leaders. After years of lobbying fees, campaign contributions, and Sunday morning talk show ad buys, ethanol has secured one of the most beneficial relationships with Washington of any industry—receiving billions each year in subsidies and benefiting from a federal mandate that could push the amount of ethanol in standard gasoline to nearly 30 percent by 2022.

But in order for the industry to ensure lasting success, consumers will have to be convinced that ethanol blends are, if not preferable to pure gasoline, at least no worse. While most gas stations currently sell E10, many drivers remain skeptical about the fuel and some flat out avoid it because of its potential to damage older cars and other vehicles and machines that run on gasoline.

The market for E85 (an 85 percent blend that can only be used by flex-fuel vehicles,) has also been slow to develop, with relatively few flex-fuel cars on the road and a scarcity in most regions of filling stations that carry the fuel. But American automakers have pledged to make half of the vehicles they sell flex-fuel capable by 2013, and if that happens, demand for the fuel could grow—if the price is right and consumers are confident in its viability.

The ethanol industry hopes that tying its product to NASCAR will prove the fuel is tough enough to meet the rigorous demands of a 500-mile race—after all, if E15 is good enough for Tony Stewart, shouldn’t it be good enough to get you to and from work?

But a couple of seemingly minor pitfalls could threaten the strategy if NASCAR’s most devoted fans decide that they don’t like the change:

  • It’s unclear exactly how the new blend will affect fuel economy or what kinds of adjustments NASCAR might make to offset this. Typically, E15 is about 4.5 percent less efficient than pure gasoline. Will this mean there will be more pit stops next year, and if so, will racing fans decry E15 as a “watered down” gas?
  • According to Jayski.com, NASCAR will be forced to switch to a special new kind of gas can capable of sealing moisture out of the fuel (a demand brought on by the ethanol blend.) The new cans could increase the average pit time by as much as a second—something that may or may not prove to be important to racing fans.

Any fuel-related issue that causes a driver to lose a race—whether or not it’s actually the fault of ethanol—could create a major public relations nightmare for the industry. But if things go smoothly, Growth Energy hopes that it will help to put consumers at ease about increasing levels of ethanol in their gasoline—and maybe even help to steer them towards flex-fuel vehicles and E85.