Written by Marjorie Suddard
From the May 2004 issue
I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” said Robert Duvall’s character in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” “The smell, you know that gasoline smell…. Smells like… victory.”
A lot of racers can relate, since the mere whiff of race gas is usually able to light up their senses as well as their smiles. It’s an unmistakable odor, and one that, like all smells, follows prehistoric pathways straight to our memory banks.
The odor wafting from Al Taylor’s BMW race car is equally recognizable, although it’s probably more familiar to children than adults. It’s the smell of the county fair: equal parts popcorn and french fries, with maybe a touch of marshmallows thrown in for effect.
This is no passing amusement, however. Taylor, who is the reigning national champion for BMW CCA Club Racing’s B Modified class, is dead serious about his racing. He’s also a committed advocate for the alternative fuel known as biodiesel.
He Runs His Car on What?
Biodiesel, which is a renewable fuel made from fryer grease, is the reason Taylor’s BMW smells more like a popcorn popper than a race car. This “green” fuel is biodegradable, nontoxic, free of sulfur, and significantly reduces emissions of particulate matter, unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxides and sulfates compared to traditional petrodiesel.
It’s also produced domestically, which means it has the potential to free us from our dependency on foreign oil sources and all the political ugliness that entails. Heck, you can even make it at home.
While the benefits of a clean-burning, renewable fuel that can be produced here in the U.S. of A. are obvious, its use in a track car campaigned by a grassroots-style club racer is more of a stretch. After all, alternative fuels are usually far removed from our daily life, existing only as impractical or prohibitively expensive options offered by manufacturers desperate to showcase their token progress toward a government-mandated goal. No one but the green-party activists and the press agents takes much note, and the rest of us get on with our fossil-fueled lifestyles. Sure, we wish things were different, but how can we change them?
Actually, it’s quite easy: Just open the fuel tank door and pour in the biodiesel—assuming, of course, that the tank in question is fueling a diesel engine. (The diesel engine was, in fact, originally designed to run on vegetable oil, and Mr. Diesel himself ran his new creation on peanut oil at its first exhibition.) No other changes are necessary, and no hippies will come to call. Talk about your quiet revolution.
Al Taylor’s involvement in the biodiesel movement is a recent development, although he comes equipped with the right background. “I had been somewhat aware of the environmental benefits of burning vegetable-based fuel in a diesel,” he explains. “I worked for an environmental lobby group when I was first out of college.”
Combine that early experience with a profound (some might say crazed) interest in sports cars, especially BMWs, and you begin to get the recipe for a racer with a different angle. Al’s yard in rural Whitakers, N.C., is literally covered in cars—including, according to him, “Every BMW known to man.” The situation has given rise to a business, Al Taylor Sports Cars Inc., that supplies cars and parts to enthusiasts all over. His 2003 championship-winning car, a 1972 BMW Bavaria, was already a step off the beaten path. This season’s 3 Series BDR (BioDiesel Racer) jumps right off into the woods.
“I know that there are neat diesel-powered cars in Europe that we do not get over here, and I had always had in the back of my mind a project to put a BMW 524td motor into a 3 Series with a five-speed and run it on fryer grease,” Al says. “What put the plan into motion was an announcement that a group was planning to build a soybean fuel oil processing plant in eastern North Carolina. Why? Our local farmers were hurting; tobacco was on its way out. Soybeans would be a great alternative crop.”
There were at least three other reasons for his decision, Al explains. “One, we need to show that racers can be environmentally friendly; two, racing is a great place to develop technology and expose people to alternative fuels; and three, if diesels are to be successful in the U.S., they need to be marketed as a performance vehicle.”
Al's Gone Racing
So Al Taylor set about building a race car that would help the local farmers, the economy and the environment.
The first step was to find a suitable chassis. “I wanted to use an E30 [3 Series BMW] due to lightness and the number of off-the-shelf suspension and brake parts available,” Al says. “I remembered a car I had sold a few years ago that was a BMW CCA race car, then retired. I bought it back as a roller, with a bolt-in cage.”
Next came the engine. Al found a wrecked 1985 BMW 524td in nearby Greensboro, and scavenged the 150,000-mile turbo diesel for his project. “I stripped it, mounted the motor with a five-speed 325e tranny on a subframe, and dropped the body on top of it all with my loader,” he says. “I was surprised to find that the 5 Series exhaust downpipe worked, and a slightly modified 325i oil pan was used.”
Al completed the installation by modifying the diesel engine’s fuel pump and pickup to work in the 3 Series chassis’ fuel tank, plumbing an oil cooler, and rigging up the necessary hoses to match a radiator from a BMW 325i.
Since this is a race car, the suspension has received a good bit of attention. “The front brakes were some calipers I had used on the Bavaria with VW Corrado rotors; I custom made the mounts,” Al reports. The suspension uses Ground Control coil-overs with camber plates, paired with Koni shock absorbers that were originally purchased for the Bavaria race car.
The car made its debut at last spring’s BMW CCA weekend at VIR, where it finished all three races with no problems. It’s been running B50 fuel, meaning a 50/50 mix of biodiesel and petrodiesel, with no ill effects. “The biodiesel actually runs cleaner in an engine, because the sulfur is reduced,” he says.
The reduction in sulfur is also the biggest reason that biodiesel smells better than petrodiesel when it burns. There are other benefits, Taylor reports. “Even a 5- to 10-percent bio blend allows you to move back oil change intervals, because the soy adds lubricity.”
He does mention one caveat: Since the biodiesel has a detergent effect, engines that have been running on straight petrodiesel may experience clogged fuel injectors and filters as sludge and debris is cleaned from the fuel system after a switch to biodiesel.
Is Biodiesel the Future?
There is one big question that remains, and for racers, it’s probably the biggest: Does running biodiesel fuel have any negative impact on performance? In a word, no. Biodiesel’s physical and chemical properties are similar to petroleum diesel, and biodiesel contains a similar number of BTUs—which translates to similar engine performance in torque and horsepower. Al hasn’t had his car on the dyno yet, but says he can tell no ill effects from the biodiesel, both in terms of performance and reliability.
Although diesel engines have long been dismissed domestically as dirty, smelly and inefficient, the advent of biodiesel could help transform the compression-ignition engine into the brightest new star in energy since the solar panel. It’s a well-earned respect that has been a long time coming: Diesel engines remain the most fuel-efficient energy-conversion devices in production today, and the newest generation, direct-injection engines take that efficiency to the next level.
Al Taylor says he’d like to move up to the more modern BMW M51 engine, and is currently researching the possibility of getting a couple of used ones shipped over from Germany. In the meantime, he plans to run a full schedule of events with the car again this season. There is one biodiesel-related problem he’d like to solve, though: “If I walk around the back of my car and get a whiff of it, I immediately get hungry.”
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