Why Test Fuels?

 Precision AutoResearch

Why do we test race fuels? 

With all the ongoing discussion, controversy and confusion regarding the testing and legality of race fuels, one might simply ask “Why test at all?”


The issue of testing race fuels seems to boil down to two areas:

- to create a level playing field for competitors,

- to address the issues of health and safety.


The purpose and intention of every legitimate race fuel manufacturer is to produce a fuel which will provide improved engine performance, commensurate with reason­able cost and manufacturing limitations. Not all fuels are the same, since each refin­ery has a different technical approach to solving the problem. Fuel blending strategies must take into consideration blending stock variables (such as properties and availability), component cost, toxicity, safety, fuel system compatibility, distillation curves, fuel density, ignitability and detonation control. In addition, the fuel trans­port and storage process may affect the composition, properties and performance of fuels. Lastly, fuels sold in this country are required to meet certain industry, regu­latory, geographical and seasonal requirements.


In short, the reality of all fuels is that great variances exist and will persist even when specific brands or types of fuel are specified. Even series produced engines, which are supposed to be identical, do not produce the same performance, due to differences in manufacturing and assembly tolerances. Fuels also have assembly tolerances.


When engine variations are combined with fuel variations, the result can produce variations in on-track performance in spite of substantial efforts to ensure uniform performance. Added to this are differences in ignition, calibration, wear, lubrication, cooling, deposits, operating temperature and one conclusion becomes evident: There is no such thing as a level playing field in racing!!!


Level playing fields have never existed in racing and probably never will. One needs only look to IROC to see vast sums expended in the futile pursuit of equality. The very best a sanctioning body can hope for is to provide each competitor an equal opportunity to be reasonable competitive, but it cannot guarantee an equal result.


Fuel selection must therefore be based on appropriateness for the specific engine, ease of availability, product consistency, reasonable cost to the competitor, and rea­sonable cost to the sanctioning body regarding testing and enforcement.


The second, and much more important, issue regarding fuels for competition use revolves around issues of health and safety. No legitimate refinery will knowingly manufacture and distribute fuels with excessive health or safety risks. The legal liability exposure alone is far too great for the meager margin return. Some competitors and some fuel marketers can and do use fuel components which are known to be toxic, carcinogenic and harmful, even when carefully used, in total disregard of the health of fellow competitors, crews and families, track workers, and themselves.


Certain components, not normally found in gasoline, are known to exist which may provide performance increases but are quite unstable, explosive (in your trailer), potentially dangerous and provide an unacceptable safety risk. In addition, some substances when used by untrained, unskilled racers, often produce engine damage and destruction, again increasing risk and certainly increasing cost.


Racing is inherently risky; a fact acknowledged and accepted by those who compete; but as a sport, it does not need an increase in unnecessary and foolish risks.


But amateur racers (and many professionals) are overwhelmingly under-informed. They often rely on the expertise of race sanctioning bodies, which they trust will do what is right and proper. Yet, we have all seen vested interests that serve to violate this trust. Compensation and exploitation should have little standing when health and safety are concerned. Any sanctioning body that does not choose to be part of the solution automatically becomes a big part of the problem. Sanctioning bodies who permit the continued use of fuels containing components which are health and safety hazards are at best, negligent, and at worst, immoral. Feeble invocations of expected legal liability have no standing where the safety of our kids and young adults is concerned and will in the end, be self destructive.


Every legitimate refinery in this country is very interested in producing fuels that are as safe as possible when used properly. Only those players (companies or racers) who do not have the expertise to compete, or to produce proper products, will resort to the use of harmful and dangerous substances. Their blatant disregard for the health and welfare of fellow competitors should certainly not be rewarded with the cloak of respectability nor protected by the shroud of anonymity.


Included in Appendix I is a list of harmful substances, based on the ACGIH handbook, which should never be found in fuels.


Fuel testing procedures should be aimed at identifying and eliminating suppliers and users of those substances. At present, the only practical and foolproof method of identification is through the use of laboratory testing and analysis. The only effective method for elimination of those substances is through peer pressure disapproval, and if necessary, sanctioning body enforcement.


In support of those sanctioning bodies who are actively interested in the proper understanding of fuels and fuel testing, certain refineries (Chevron-Phillips, among others) provide technical support to provide correct answers to testing, tuning, health, safety and other technical questions.


Following are some frequently asked questions regarding fuel testing.


Should we test for specific gravity?

The Specific Gravity (SpG) of racing gasolines will range from 0.69 to 0.79, with pump gasoline anywhere in-between. Since gasoline is constructed of many components, each with its own SpG, the overall SpG of fuel will vary due to age, evaporation of light fractions, temperature and general condition. There is no competitive advantage to a fuel with a higher or lower SpG. Therefore SpG testing of gasoline serves no useful purpose.


SpG testing can, however, be a useful test for monolithic fuels such as Methanol. Methanol has a SpG of .792-.797 and would not normally be expected to vary except for water absorption which will raise the SpG level. A SpG value for methanol less than .790 should be suspect and cause for further testing.


A word of warning. The Specific Gravity of hydrocarbons is highly dependent on its temperature. While there are correction charts available for most hydrocarbons, accurate testing would require a separate correction chart for each fuel component. Not likely to be available. Therefore, Specific Gravity testing should only be done in a laboratory under controlled conditions.


Should we regulate octane levels?

Each engine has its own specific octane requirement determined by design, assembly, carbon deposit buildup, operating load and temperature. While adequate octane is necessary for engine survival, excessive octane provides no improvement in performance. Octane will vary widely in pump fuels due to seasonal and regional requirements as well as condition. The posted pump octane index is an average (RON+MON/2) of Research and Motor octanes and is not an adequate predictor of fuel octane for a racing engine. Regulation and testing of octane are difficult and unnecessary.


Should we prohibit additives?

That would depend on what type of additive. Most all gasolines start out virtually the same. They are a commodity sold on the NY Mercantile Exchange. All gasolines contain additives as required to enhance performance, facilitate storage and transport and keep engines clean. These are EPA legal additives. The real concern regarding additives involves illegal additives which are harmful or dangerous. When we test fuel, what we’re really looking for are illegal additives.


How about Toluene, Xylene and Benzene?

Toluol or Toluene and Xylene are normal components found in virtually all fuels. Benzene is another matter. EPA regulations severely limit the permissible amount of Benzene (less than 2%) due to its extreme carcinogenic properties.  Benzene is possibly the most harmful fuel additive available and should be minimized. Presently only laboratory analysis can be used to detect benzene.


How does Benzene compare to Dioxane?

Benzene is a very bad character. Benzene is highly carcinogenic, while Dioxane is not. But Dioxane in high concentrations is toxic, absorbed through the skin and lungs, and causes tumors in the liver, kidneys and nasal mucous linings. The Ger­mane Test (also called the acid drop test) has been used to detect Dioxane. The test can only be used on unmixed gasoline which does not contain oil since the test will often react to oil additives. The test often reacts with other components for which it was not designed. The test can be used at the track, but is slow and cumbersome. The performance benefit of Dioxane is not exceptional; other methods of perform­ance improvement are far more effective.


There are many more components which do not belong in race fuels due to their negative impact on health and safety. It makes no sense to test for performance enhancing additives while ignoring components that are harmful to competitors and corner workers.


The key to elimination of Benzene and other bad actors is correct information, peer pressure and severe penalties, not merely an event disqualification.


What’s the story on leaded race fuel?

Lead compounds are unhealthy when ingested. Inhaled lead vapors are exhaled without effect. Skin exposure does allow some absorption. TEL and TML com­pounds are not carcinogenic, but can be irritants. Leaded fuels (like all fuels) should always be handled with care and kept away from children. Leaded fuels were used by the general public for over seventy years with little adverse effect. The principal problem with leaded fuels is that they will foul oxygen sensors and catalytic convert­ers which are used to control exhaust pollutants which are harmful to the atmosphere.


The current trend in race fuels is similar to that of pump fuel and Avgas; away from lead and toward unleaded fuel. But lead is still the most effective octane improve­ment agent known, and for very high performance engines, no other substitute is presently available. Prudence dictates the use of leaded fuel only when necessary.


Why not simply use pump gas?

Pump gas should be used for what it was intended; passenger cars driven on the street. It is not intended for race engines nor stock engines that will be used on the track in competition. Pump gas is designed for low cost and fuel economy, not performance. Excessive carbon deposits from pump gas can build up on piston crowns and cause pre-ignition when the engine is run hard.


The stronger argument against pump gas is that it will vary considerably from state to state, month to month, per EPA mandate. That means you may seldom buy the same fuel  twice, even if you purchase from the same gas station. The markings on the pump do not reflect the changes in octane, vapor pressure, distillation, and other properties. Put pump gas in your tow vehicle; put a good race gas in your racing vehicle.


Our sanctioning body requires a spec fuel. Is testing necessary?

Testing may be even more necessary with a spec fuel; not to limit performance but to protect yourself from bad fuel furnished by the fuel supplier. Bad gas has eaten quite a few race engines. There have been numerous cases where an entire fuel tank truck was declared illegal.


The more important reason to avoid spec fuels is that not every engine can nor should run on the same fuel. Every engine is slightly different and should be furnished a fuel that optimizes performance and ensures longevity for that specific engine. To keep racing costs in line, avoid unnecessary engine rebuilds.


Isn’t laboratory analysis expensive?

It can be. Private labs often charge $175 or more for fuel analysis. Some refineries provide the same services for a highly subsidized nominal fee. Sanctioning Bodies who do not take advantage of subsidized lab testing are missing a valuable tool.


Not every competitor needs to be tested. Top Five, Random or Spot Checks are equally effective. Even Fake Checks (collecting fuel samples without analysis) can be quite effective. Some tech inspectors have experimented with “top five finishers-one fail, all fail” methods which has produced increased awareness and extreme peer pressure.


The real key is peer pressure; competitor support of official fuel testing. It’s important to let competitors know that fuel testing is for their benefit and not to their detriment.