Slowly but surely, amid the continuing development of the internal combustion engine, we’re witnessing the arrival of new power sources in motor racing. Audi pioneered the successful use of diesel engines at Le Mans and we’ve seen different types of hybrid sports cars in recent years from the likes of Porsche, Toyota and Zytek. And of course, the F1 teams and Audi are playing with KERS these days. Next year we’ll see another step with the first serious attempt to use natural gas in motor racing in the American Le Mans Series’ LMP Challenge class.
A few months ago the ALMS reached an agreement with renowned IndyCar team owner Pat Patrick to oversee and develop the introduction of natural gas to the ALMS. Patrick is a very successful oilman who ran a top team for more than thirty years, winning the Indy 500 with Gordon Johncock in 1973 and ‘82 and Emerson Fittipaldi in ‘89. In recent years Patrick has expanded into the natural gas business, and he approached the ALMS a couple of years ago with the idea of introducing it to motor racing.
Patrick announced this week that Katech Engineering in Michigan has started work on the project. Katech is one of the USA’s top Chevrolet race engine builders in everything from NASCAR to SCCA Pro racing including supplying engines to GM’s extremely successful Corvette ALMS team.
Overseeing the natural gas development programme for Patrick is Jim McGee who ran Patrick Racing for many years. McGee was Mario Andretti’s chief mechanic in the late ‘60s during Mario’s formative days in Indy cars and worked at Newman/Haas in 1993 and ‘94 running Nigel Mansell’s car. He also ran Roger Penske’s Indy car team through the late seventies but spent the bulk of his career with Patrick.
McGee says the initial work to convert Chevrolet’s LS3 LMP Challenge engine to natural gas will be completed at Katech over the next month. Static and dyno testing will then begin followed as soon as possible by track testing of the engine fitted to an Oreca LMPC car.
Katech is run by Stephen Chue who is a big believer in natural gas. “Apart from its domestic abundance, appealing cost and sustainability, natural gas is a strong replacement for gasoline or ethanol,” Chue says. “Natural gas comes out of the ground at approximately 130 octane, making more power feasible when managed properly. Are there challenges? Of course, but together with Patrick Racing, Katech will be viewed among the leaders in proving to the public that natural gas is a possible solution to replacing gasoline for racers and consumers alike.”
Chue said Katech will be assisted in its ALMS natural gas development programme by GM’s Powertrain division. “They know we’re on a very tight schedule and want to help where they can,” Chue added. “They also know that natural gas isn’t a possibility but rather a probability for the future of transportation.”
The ALMS’s technical director Scot Elkins commented on the sanctioning body’s approach to natural gas. “We picked the LMPC car because it’s pretty low cost and very competitive,” Elkins said. “We don’t really have ‘green’ racing in that class. It runs on E10 right now and by adding natural gas it will allow us to increase our vision of being the global leader in ‘green’ racing. It’s an R&D project, a partnership with Patrick Racing and Katech, and there’s no better guys to partner with. They’ve got great histories in racing and they’re the right guys to do it.”