NASCAR, ethanol industry join forces

The ethanol industry has enlisted NASCAR to help publicize the virtues of ethanol as a motor fuel.

It's a step by the ethanol industry, which has a strong presence in Wichita, to build widespread public demand for ethanol in the hope that it will lead to competition on an equal footing with gasoline.

In the next racing season, NASCAR's Green Flag will be branded to feature American Ethanol and NASCAR Green.

On Thursday, a roomful of local ethanol advocates — mostly employees of ICM, Poet Ethanol Products and the Kansas Corn Commission — gathered at River City Brewery in Old Town to watch the announcement of the deal in Las Vegas.

"We know a lot about corn and ethanol," said Robert Casper, president of Poet Ethanol Products of Wichita. "But it's natural that there not be a level of understanding out there. With this, I think we have an opportunity to reach millions and millions of people."

It comes at a time when the industry is celebrating a victory in getting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to raise the maximum level of ethanol in fuel from 10 to 15 percent, called E15, for vehicles built in 2007 and after.

Dave Vander Griend, president of Colwich-based ICM, said he expects the EPA soon to extend E15 to all vehicles built after 2001. That would cover 60 percent of all vehicles, he said.

When that happens, he said, money will start flowing into plant upgrades and expansions, although it probably won't mean many new plants. But, then, he said, the industry will hit a new wall once that capacity is reached.

The ethanol industry maintains that its product can compete head-to-head with gasoline on price, without the present federal subsidy that goes to oil companies to include ethanol in their retail gasoline.

Vander Griend and others say that if vehicles get the inexpensive alteration needed to run on ethanol and gas stations install ethanol pumps, vehicles would be able to run largely on ethanol. At that point, he said, consumers will then be able to buy whichever fuel is cheaper.

There are political and economic barriers to giving ethanol equal access to retail customers, he said. But if the public demands it, it will happen.

That's why the ethanol industry is trying to reach the public through the partnership with NASCAR, Vander Griend said.

"That's what this is all about," he said.