Something In the Air at Indy Tracks

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If you go to an IndyCar racing track this season, you might notice there's something different in the air: Instead of fuel, it smells a little like popcorn.

"It's a bit sweet, I think -- more of an organic smell," explains race car driver Jeff Simmons, the driver of Rahal Letterman Racing's Team Ethanol Honda/Dallara in the IndyCar series.

That's because the fuel in these race cars is made from corn, grown here in the United States.

"We should be getting our fuel from the Midwest, not the Middle East," says Simmons.

In what could be the start of a new era for motor sports, Saturday night's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the first ever to run entirely on ethanol. In fact, all 17 races in this year's Indy season will use ethanol.

The IndyCar series features one of the premier sporting events in the world, the Indianapolis 500. The league is using a new fuel grade after 40 years of using methanol, which is made from natural gas, a non-renewable fossil fuel.

"It's going to reduce harmful tail pipe emissions, its going to reduce CO2, and those are great benefits," says Reece Nanfito, a spokesperson for the Ethanol Promotion Information Council.

The council says ethanol-enriched fuel reduces harmful tail pipe emissions in passenger cars by nearly 30 percent.

Danica Patrick, one of the only female race car drivers, says her car performs better and goes even faster this year.

"We really all need to do something about this Earth and about the world and take better care of it," she says, "and so I'm glad were going with ethanol."

Drivers like Simmons and Patrick are also out to prove a point: If ethanol can power their cars at more than 200 miles an hour, it can certainly get the average American to and from work each day.

"To show that we can do it in the fastest race cars in the United States that run the Indy 500, I think it shows that it's a viable fuel for the country," says Ray Leto, the chief racing engineer for the Rahal Letterman Racing team.

President Bush has called for the country to cut its gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next decade and says ethanol will play a big part in that.

"I like the idea that farmers are growing energy that powers our cars," the president said in a speech while touring a Ford Motor plant in Claycomo, Mo. "I'd rather be paying American farmers than people overseas for the energy that fuels this economy."

But there are some major challenges: To meet the president's goals, the country would need an estimated 35 billion gallons of ethanol each year. Right now, the United States produces just 5 billion gallons, and that takes a fifth of the entire corn crop.

Some analysts say the United States simply can't grow enough corn to make a serious dent in our gasoline use, and if the new demand drives up the price, that could hurt farmers who use corn for feed.

But proponents say the problems can be fixed. And in the meantime, these drivers are doing what they can to add horsepower to the environmental movement.

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