Racing Fuels 101

If you love the roar of high-performance vehicles as they careen around the racetrack and the adrenaline-fueled excitement that comes with high speeds and the nervous energy of the anxiety-ridden possibility of a crash, you may be curious to know what kind of racing fuels are used. Here is a basic primer on the different fuels typically employed.


Methanol is sometimes referred to as "wood alcohol" as it was originally produced by burning wood and collecting the byproducts from the process known as destructive distillation. Methanol, also sometimes called methyl alcohol, is quite similar to ethanol, the alcohol people consume, but it is extremely toxic and cannot be consumed. It is also highly volatile and flammable. Methanol nowadays is produced as a byproduct from natural gas. While it used to be used by Indy, it now only used by the other American open-wheel motorsport, the Champ car. Methanol is less flammable than gasoline, and flames can be safely put out with just water.


As mentioned above, ethanol is the alcohol that people drink. However, it isn't top-shelf alcohol by any means. It is raw, fermented and distilled grain spirits, produced from wheat, corn, sweet sorghum, and sugarcane. This is the fuel that Indy cars use rather than the similar but synthetically produced methanol. Methanol is cheaper to produce than ethanol, but ethanol is less toxic, hence the Indy Racing League's decision to switch to ethanol. Many scientists believe that ethanol will be the wave of the future for racing fuels.


Nitromethane is an extremely powerful fuel. In fact, it is so powerful, it used to be used as rocket fuel. This fuel is basically propane that has been treated with the additive nitric acid. This fuel is most commonly used by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and their races, such as the NHRA Drag Racing tour. Drag racing is basically two cars racing side by side on a straight track that is either one-eighth or one-quarter of a mile in length. These races are essentially races to see who can accelerate and reach the finish line the fastest, which makes nitromethane the ideal racing fuel to use.

Nitromethane is also sometimes used in the world of small remote control vehicle racing for the same reason—it's all about the short-term acceleration powers rather than going long distance. Nitromethane is extremely potentially explosive, another reason it is not suited for races like Indy or National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR); here the chances of a collision happening are much greater.

Other specialty synthetic fuels are also used as well as gasoline. For example, NASCAR uses a special proprietary blend known as Sunoco Green E15, which contains 15 percent ethanol as well as other fuels. To learn more about racing fuel, contact a company like Yearwood Performance Center.