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Live Green, Go Fast:Tuners And Tree Huggers Together At Last

How Does it Fair? And, Why You Should Care?

E. John Thawley III
Dec 1, 2006 SHARE
0701_turp_01_z+ecotec_lakester+automobile Photo 1/1   |   Live Green, Go Fast:Tuners And Tree Huggers Together At Last

Bonneville is a place of automotive oddities and mechanical misfits. Class rules are divided by combinations of chassis construction and type, engine species and size, spec gasoline or unrestricted fuel, naturally aspirated or blown. Creativity in construction abounds and often produces some very strange bedfellows. Think of a 240SX with a vintage flat-head Ford. A stretched Toyota pick-up with a mid-engine, turbo-charged 4-71 Detroit Diesel. A Ferrari GTO with a big-block Chevy. An aluminum teardrop on wheels with a Honda S2000 drivetrain in it that started life as a WWII surplus aircraft fuel tank. You get the idea. The only thing sacred is the quest for speed and the cult-like pilgrimage to landspeed Mecca each August for Speedweek.

So, it's easy for GM Performance Division's black and yellow Chevy Cobalt to get lost in this mechanical freak show. But pry deeper into its team and the E85 fuel they're using and they seem perhaps as much a group of black sheep as anyone here. What GM Performance Division executive Al Oppenheiser casually calls "the student car" is in fact the "Bonneville Student Project Chevrolet Cobalt SS" based on a naturally aspirated Cobalt SS, converted to run on E85 ethanol here at the salt flats.

We should pause for a distinction between "Big GM" and the small division of car-guys and racers within GM called the Performance Division. Three student interns from the Performance Division are responsible for converting and tuning the Cobalt to run Bonneville on the alternative fuel. They've never done this before. And neither has anyone else.

Point a browser to www.livegreengoyellow.com and you get to the heart of "Big GM's" thinking about E85 fuel. There you find all the propaganda that the GM marketing department would like us to absorb. Online videos show hip, metro-sexual, gen-x types of various ethnicities standing in cornfields. Each is asking how much better the world might be if we all ran cleaner burning, corn-based E85 fuel in our vehicles, shopped at the Gap and ate tofu. It's enough to make you take up yoga and write Haiku. Like most PR and marketing campaigns promoting a "green" technology, "Big GM" plays the good citizen and suggests everyone else do the same. Do your part. Make the world a better place. Be kind to the planet. Etc.

What they don't tell you on the trendy, friendly and fashionable website is what the folks in the Performance Division like best about E85: E85's octane rating is over 100.

Typically 105 to 110 octane, in fact. That is pretty deep into race-fuel territory. Other street-tuner benefits include the fact that E85 is also cooler burning and sells for the same price per gallon as regular unleaded. Suddenly the thought of putting up with granola eating, tree hugger jokes doesn't seem so bad.

E85 is basically 85% ethanol with 15% gasoline added to provide good cold start and warm up performance due to ethanol's low volatility and poor vaporization during cold starts. The U.S. Department of Energy considers E85 an alternative fuel. The ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, is completely renewable, domestic, and is environmentally friendly because it degrades quickly in water - and poses much less risk to the environment than a gasoline or oil spill. Pure ethanol has an octane rating of 113. IndyCar will be using it for all their races in 2007. So, unless you are buying race fuel, E85 is better than anything you are currently getting at the pumps.

The practical downside to E85 is its lack of regional availability. A quick check at www.e85refueling.com shows locations where E85 is sold nationwide. If you live in the corn-belt, life is good. Here at Turbo headquarters, it's somewhat less so. As this goes to press, the only publicly sold E85 in all of California is in San Diego, about 100 miles away. But that's just for now. E85 has a strong political lobby and will likely be a much bigger part of our alternative fuel future.

But the engineers and interns from the Performance Division didn't come to Bonneville to talk about the future. They came to Speedweek to kick some ass, break some records and find out what this stuff is good for right now. The primary record in their sights is a 152.626 mph G/FCC record set in 1987 by a Ford Escort EXP. (Spare yourself the guilt if you cannot conjure a mental image of an EXP. The two-seater variant of the early '80s Ford Escort/Mercury Tracers was among the most useless and forgettable cars of all time. Most have properly been sold by the pound, crushed and melted for scrap.) The class breaks down like this: "G" is the engine displacement, in this case, 2000cc. And F-C-C stands for (unblown) Fuel Competition Coupe.

Performance Division engineer and driver Mark Dickens makes quick work of the 19-year-old record in the first two days of the meet. A qualifying run of 156.695mph sends the car to the impound area on day one of the event. SCTA rules say the crew is only allowed four hours to work on the car before the next morning's record runs. It's early in the week, and there's no hurry to break anything other than records. So they're pacing themselves. Although the Cobalt is running in a fuel-class that allows pure methanol, nitrous oxide and even nitro-methane, the primary goal of the student team is to see what they can do running only E85.

The following morning Dickens makes a record run of 155.452mph, which averages with yesterday's run for a 156.073 record. Once the record is certified and the car has been through tech inspection, the team decides to turn up the flame. A variety of different 'maps' were written for the engine during development. The first record was set with one of the more conservative tunes. With that record now in the book, they can afford to let the car stretch its legs a bit. The following run, and subsequent morning's record run, showed what they had left on the table. A new average of 163.576mph bumps yesterday's record by 7.5mph and gives the students another well-earned bullet-point on the resume. Still, that's with 245hp on E85 with no power adders.

While the interns stay with the E85 car through every line, checklist, impound session and post-run detailing, Mark Dickens is shuttled all over the salt. In addition to the student car, Dickens is driving two other Performance Division racers as well. The Ecotec Lakester and the turbo-charged Chevy So-Cal Cobalt SS are typically in the staging lanes at the same time as the E85 car. Mark is having a good week. Upon setting the first record in the student car, Dickens is whisked back to the starting line and buckled into the turbo Cobalt. Five miles later he sets a record of 218.392 in G/Blown Fuel Altered and earns himself a red hat and lifetime membership to the 200mph Club. Later in the week, Dickens goes on to exploit the potential of the So-Cal Cobalt's turbo. A blistering final pass ups the record average to a healthy 246.849mph and leaves a line in the sand that will be no easy task to cross.

Chris Twarog, GM Performance Division engineer and crew chief on the student car, confers with the team about upping the Fuel record with nitrous. They figure the last record bump to 163.576mph is close to the limit of what they can do on pure E85. Not bad, but they've still got a map written for the engine on nitrous and they want to use it. Dyno results with a breath off the blue bottle rates the output at 285hp.

The final combination of E85 and nitrous oxide takes the car to an ultimate record of 172.680mph in G/FCC. That's a bit over 16mph faster than their first record early in the meet and 20mph faster than the previous record that has stood for 19 years. Dickens and the team have proven their point. E85 is more than green. It's a proper race fuel. And if the corn farmers and environmentalists have their way, we'll be seeing much greater availability of the still-swill in the not-too-distant future. Then the Bonneville racers from the Performance Division may have to find some other way to be GM's black sheep...

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By E. John Thawley III
25 Articles

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