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Natural gas to debut in the ALMS

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.

us scene  Natural gas to debut in the ALMS

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.

us scene  Natural gas to debut in the ALMS

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.”

Add your comments

4 comments on Natural gas to debut in the ALMS

  1. Paul W., 3 August 2012 15:12

    Congrats to Pat Patrick, Jim McGee and their team…this is well overdue and the ALMS Series is forward thinking as well in supporting this venture. Knowing Pat, Jim and their crew this effort will be very well done, classy, and competitive

  2. aleksi salonen, 3 August 2012 22:30

    Encouraging news, even if this comes a little (OK, very) late in the game for my money. Certainly widening the fuel envelope – modestly as it may be in the grand scheme of things (as in beyond racing) – is welcomed. NG is not completely uncontroversial (contributes to a net increase in atmospheric CO2, the use of hydraulic fracking instead of perhaps more advanced/ less risky systems like exothermic extraction), but more than deserves its shot due to its relative efficiency, geopolitical strengths (if one values that sorta thing) and pure cross-platform development potential.

    NG could be seen as an acceptable and (hopefully) affordable “gateway/companion fuel” towards biogases like pure(r) methane (from anaerobic bacteria and such in organic mass formerly known as “waste”). The same (engine, etc.) technology largely applies to both, after all. Even hydrogen comes into the frame. Beyond that, there are very brisk advances in lowering the costs of fuel cells (nanotech can already do away with the most precious/rare catalysts and metals in the circuitry) wherein initially battery systems could be replaced, moving perhaps onto electric torque augmentation systems coupled with energy recovery – or even ultimately replacing the whole “IC” part of the powertrain.

    Certainly other avenues where prowess can be displayed are safety and displaying a clear, significant and unambiguous net decrease in fossil CO2 emissions/ racing mile to competing fuels. Also, the more hermetic you can make the overall fuel cycle (especially with regards to methane), the better.

  3. Dudley Newiss, 4 August 2012 14:20

    Have there been any worthwhile experimental cars using diesel oil in racing ? Diesels are very popular for road cars so racing could advance their cause.

  4. Ray T, 7 August 2012 15:11

    Dudley, see Lemans since 2006.

    I have a big problem with NG. There is a huge push from Haliburton and Dick Cheney to move the entire US to NG for two reasons: to lessen dependence on foreign oil, and more importantly, to make Haliburton the world’s largest energy company.

    Fracking is ruining the US environment. Millions of gallons of fluids whose chemical composition is secret is being pumped underground into the water table of every state in the US. Despite the “green” label, there is nothing green about this. The human safety of those fluids has never been verified. US well water is quickly being made undrinkable and unusable.

    No mention of the racing safety aspect of having to pressurize fuel tanks to hold the NG.

    Indy was green 40 years ago when they switched to methanol. Frankly, if racing was serious about being green, they would insist on one set of tyres for a race.

    This is just some marketing speak from a series that is dying fast from disinterest at several levels.

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