Steve Zadig’s auto racing career had never been higher, but his passion for the sport had never been lower.
The Palo Alto resident had just raced his endurance car to a third-place finish in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the country’s longest road race, in 2006. But as he thought about the smog spewing out of his car, Zadig’s passion began to wear down like old tires. How could a man who perfects his patent on clean wave energy Monday through Friday do so much damage to the environment on the weekend?
“I had had a lot of successes the past couple years, but I didn’t think I could continue,” he said. “My racing was in conflict with what I really believed. It was like I was burning gas on an open flame. As happy as I was, I doubted I could still do it.”
Rather than give up his passion, Zadig looked for alternatives to gasoline. And, like many racers worldwide struggling to make 500-mile races eco-friendly, he found ethanol.
The IndyCar Series switched to 100 percent ethanol last year to offset the enormous carbon footprint of dozens of cars racing in 17 races across the world.
The result? IndyCar uses 20,000 fewer gallons of fuel and emits only trace amounts of carbon monoxide.
Steve Luczo, co-owner of the California-based Luczo Dragon Racing team, said the switch has also shown the world that if ethanol can power 220-mph race cars, it can fuel commuters.
“It’s probably the best opportunity to show we can do these types of things and be environmentally conscious,” Luczo said.
Other series are also looking at alternative energy: the American Le Mans Series is switching to cellulosic ethanol later this year, and Formula One is jumping to hybrids in 2009.
As other motorsports like NASCAR and go-karts resist change, more courses and drivers are making the move themselves.
Infineon Raceway has replaced gas-powered lawnmowers with 3,000 sheep to maintain its 1,600-acre property before it hosts the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350 later this month. The Sonoma, Calif., speedway has also boosted its recycling program, recycling 56 tons of bottles and cans since 2004, said Diana Brennan, senior manager for media and community relations.
Donald Durbin, owner of Cambrian Go-Karts in San Jose, said more indoor tracks are switching to electric karts to reduce pollution. And while some teams are building cleaner, battery-operated karts, most drivers lack the money to follow.
“It’s not that they don’t care, but they just realize that in this particular sport, someone else is dictating the rules,” Durbin said. “When it does go up top, then everyone else will follow.”
Zadig didn’t want to wait on everyone else. But as he looked into new fuels for his new Green Alternative Motorsports team, he couldn’t change his engine to run on biodiesel fuel or experiment with hydrogen cars.
“I wanted to do something relevant to consumers – not something so exotic that it was X years away from reality,” Zadig said.
He finally settled on cellulosic ethanol, a fuel made from organic scraps and non-edible parts of plants. It cuts carbon emissions by 80 percent, boosts the car’s horsepower and even lets its engine run cooler.
There was just one problem.
“Everything worked great until I tried to find it,” he said.
After a long search, he stumbled on Iogen, a Canadian company that makes the fuel from long grasses that cover the Great Plains. Zadig spent a few thousand dollars reworking the fuel line and cell in his LeMans Prototype cars and fine-tuning the engine to run on the new fuel.
Many fellow competitors applauded his move to go green, but others dismissed it as an empty gesture.
“People say, ‘Yeah, but you have to ship it from 3,000 miles away,’” Zadig said. “But the reality is it’s the fuel of the future.”
Since Zadig switched to ethanol, his racing career has continued to accelerate. Although electrical problems kept him out of the front in December’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, he clocked the race’s fastest lap, and his teammates finished second. Zadig will travel to Buttonwillow, Calif., for a six-hour race this weekend.
Although most of his competitors will continue to run on gasoline, Zadig said it’s only a matter of time before they follow his lead.
“We’re approaching that point,” Zadig said. “Whether the environment forces us to do it or our finite resources force us to do it, we’re going to have to do something.”