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Get the Lead Out!

A 2007 NASCAR race at the Talladega Speedway.

A 2007 NASCAR race at the Talladega Speedway. Image courtesy flicker user Roger Smith.

“Chase for the Sprint Cup,” NASCAR’s equivalent of postseason play, began last week. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., one of the most popular figures in the league today, is racing for the NASCAR title in a Chevrolet Impala race car making more than 800 horsepower—with unleaded fuel. This is significant to anyone who remembers a moment at the beginning of the 2007 NASCAR season, when Earnhardt and his teammate dropped out of a race and finished at the back of a 43-car field. Their reason: the team’s engine builders had trouble with a new rule mandating that high-octane fuel for NASCAR’s premiere series be lead-free.

You may be thinking, “Wait, wasn’t lead-free fuel mandatory for passenger cars in the 70s?” It was for cars driven on public roads, but the NASCAR formula, until recently, preserved automotive technology in its 1950s form. So why was lead, specifically tetraethyl lead, in NASCAR engines until this year? Performance!

Tetraethyl lead was the brainchild of two legendarily innovative geniuses of the early twentieth century, Charles F. Kettering and Thomas Midgley, Jr. Many chemists claim their process was the reason (or more modestly, one of the reasons) America won World War II. Kettering and Midgley have a good claim to this honor; tetraethyl lead allows for higher compression engines, which produce more horsepower per cubic inch. Using the fuel, Americans were able to built engines that out-performed German and Japanese aircraft in air-to-air combat.

Higher compression engines also led to the high performance cars of the 50s and 60s – Road Runners, Cobra Jet Mustangs, Z28 Camaros and Firebird Trans Ams – before lead pollution put the brakes on production. Throughout the 70s and 80s muscle cars disappeared, but with the introduction of computerized fuel injection in the 1990s, slick low compression engines are now able to outperform their 60s predecessors – even at the races.

Neil Gussman is Strategic Communications and Media Relations Manager at CHF.

Related:
Cracking Down on Crude Oil [Chemical Heritage]
An Uncool Discovery [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: History | Technology

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