Cheating with chemistry in NASCAR - What's an oxygenate?

Michael Waltrip's car: Courtesy stevejk.
Michael Waltrip's car: Courtesy stevejk.

Michael Waltrip's NASCAR team was heavily fined this week for cheating. Inspectors found an unspecified substance in the engine which was thought to unfairly boost his car's performance. But what was this mysterious stuff? Most sources say inspectors found oxygenate in the engine's intake manifold. So if that's the case how does this stuff work?

Internal combustion engine: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Internal combustion engine: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
First we need to do a quick run down of how a standard car engine works:

  1. Gasoline and air get mixed together inside a small chamber called a cylinder.
  2. A piston shrinks the size of this valve compressing the gasoline and air.
  3. A spark plug makes a tiny electric spark which ignites the gasoline and air causing the piston to move. The piston's movement is linked to the wheels, causing them to turn.
  4. The piston also comes back around another time to force out the gases left over after the explosion. That's the exhaust that that comes out your tail pipe.

The air that gets sucked into the engine just comes from the outside world. The same air we breath. The explosion works because our air has about 21% oxygen in it and oxygen really likes to burn. But what if we could add more oxygen to this equation? This results in a more complete combustion of the fuel and more power. More power means more speed.

From what I've read on the web it seems that Waltrip's team was using a type of gel that sits in the air intake on the engine. As the gel evaporated it would release oxygen into the engine which would then be used for combustion, increasing power. NASCAR was none to happy about this and fined the crew chief of the team, David Hyder, $100,000 and kicked him out of the garage.

Incidentally you might be using another type of oxygenate in your car right now, ethanol. Ethanol is mixed in with gasoline to reduce emissions because it is an oxygenate. When you get a more complete combustion with added oxygen you also get less exhaust and less harmful emissions. I still think that Ethanol is a poor alternative fuel strategy but that's another story for another time.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Thor's picture
Thor says:

The press account I heard this morning about this situation described the material in the car as "rocket fuel." If that's not cheating, I don't know what is.

posted on Thu, 02/15/2007 - 3:57pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Yeah, another story I saw said it was "something found in rocket fuel."

posted on Thu, 02/15/2007 - 5:35pm
Kirstian's picture
Kirstian says:

We love Jeff Gordon!!!!!!!!

posted on Thu, 03/27/2008 - 9:32am
doney's picture
doney says:

I did this for my chemistry for my sciense praject. i'l get five points if i get it all right.

posted on Tue, 10/14/2008 - 11:20am
intake manifold's picture

this is additional knowledge to all of us that using oxygenate in the engine's intake manifold can boost the car performance..

posted on Wed, 11/04/2009 - 10:19am
lorrie's picture
lorrie says:

The good thing is that Nascar took attitude about this incident and hopefully things like this won't happen again. That won't change my vision about Nascar in any way, I am still a great fan always eager to find cheap Nascar tickets.

posted on Wed, 07/14/2010 - 5:58am

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