Leafy, invasive, irritating kudzu could be NASCAR's fuel of the future

Beware the kudzu: National Park Service employees battle the fast-growing vine near Middlesboro, Ky. AP Photo/Roger Alford

It's been a long, hot summer thus far for the NASCAR brass. Skyrocketing fuel prices are keeping fans away from the track, and as America steams toward a seemingly inevitable future without internal combustion engines, racing's leaders are privately worried about losing their carburetor-infused identity.

"The coolest thing about these cars is the noise," three-time Cup champ-turned-TV analyst Darrell Waltrip says. "Forty-three electric cars rolling by going 'weeeeeee' just isn't all that cool."

What's more, the gap between the sport's stars and its fans appears to be widening, while league chairman Brian France continues to openly express concern that NASCAR is losing touch with "its roots."

But now news has arrived that could solve both those problems with one sweep of the weed eater. It's a green solution that could wean the sport off its dependency on oil and allow it to reconnect with its southern blue-collar past all at the same time. A fuel source that is cheap, is easy to find and, as we have just learned, can produce ethanol, the same loud, fast gas that currently powers the Indy Racing League.


Or, as it is often referred to in the South: @#$! kudzu!

You could grow kudzu on the moon. It'd take it a month to turn the whole damn thing green.

-- Junior Johnson

It is an irritating, leafy vine that grows at the Talladega-like speed of 60 feet per year. That's 2 inches a day. Ever seen one of those time-lapse nature films in which a flower comes up out of the ground in seconds thanks to high-speed cinematography? With kudzu, you can sit there and watch it do that all on its own.

"The first time I drove to Rockingham, I saw the hills and the building were all covered up with leaves," says former driver Dave Marcis, who grew up north of the kudzu belt, in Wisconsin. "I said, 'What is that?' Now that I have lived in North Carolina all these years, I know all too well what a pain in the butt it is."

The plant originated in Asia, but some genius brought it over from Japan in 1876, promoting it as a potential food crop. Soon the government was planting it all over the place to reduce soil erosion. Yeah, thanks for that, fellas.

It turns out the weather in the southeastern United States is like HGH for kudzu, and the Green Menace has ended up destroying farms, covering houses and even devouring small animals … OK, maybe not that last part, but you get the picture. It's bad. However, the image of kudzu covering hillsides and buildings has become as identifiably southern as Richard Petty and Colonel Sanders.

And now, the Plant That Ate The South might finally have the ability to do more good than harm. Dr. Rowan Sage, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, thinks he has discovered a way to turn that pain-in-the-butt into a way to haul butt.

According to Sage's study, kudzu might be the next great source for the manufacture of ethanol. Corn, currently the primary source of ethanol production, requires constant attention and perfect conditions to grow and harvest.

Kudzu doesn't have that problem.

"Kudzu ethanol would be just as good as corn ethanol," Sage said via e-mail while attending a biofuel conference in Mexico City. "Kudzu won't replace corn but supplement stocks. The greatest significance would be in the South, where kudzu could diversify the bioethanol feedstock for a regional bioethanol refinery. I imagine we would at best be talking a 10 to 20 percent supplement, but this is still significant, especially if the kudzu can be had for minimal input costs."

In other words, it works just as well as corn and growing it takes a lot less work.

"You could grow kudzu on the moon," says living legend Junior Johnson, a man who knows a little something about converting corn into more potent substances. "It'd take it a month to turn the whole damn thing green. Half of Wilkesboro [N.C.] is covered in it."

In addition to pushing the sport back to its southern roots, France has said he has met with auto manufacturers and current gasoline supplier partner Sunoco to examine the possibility of using alternative fuels in the future, from ethanol to flex fuels to hybrid systems. The plan, as always, is to follow Detroit's lead.

Now, we have some very smart people telling us we might be able to literally pull the most southern roots of them all out of your grandmother's yard and cram them into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s gas tank, producing the same horsepower that motors cars around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 230 mph.

What are we waiting on?

"[The refinement process] will probably be simple, but it has not been worked out," Sage said. "Kudzu roots are like large sweet potatoes. Simply wash, grind it up, and treat with enyzmes to break down the starch and sugars to glucose, and ferment with yeast or bacteria and then distill. The kudzu stems could be burned for distillation."

OK, so there's still some work to be done and kudzu might not be the sole fuel source for the rest of the world, but there's no reason it couldn't be the sole provider of get-up-and-go for the Cup Series. How cool would it be to see Sunoco Kudzu Racing Fuel being pumped into tanks at Daytona and Darlington?

It would be more southern than Dolly Parton drinking sweet tea, not to mention it would keep the sport from becoming a dinosaur as the rest of the world continues to turn away from fossil fuels.

"That idea is pretty cool," Sage said. "The research we did was a side project. For the next phase of the work, we want to scale up to large fields, harvest enough kudzu to get better yield and harvest cost data, and to get enough roots to justify a pilot fermentation study."

When pressed for an official statement on the idea of kudzu-powered cars, a NASCAR spokesman replied just as any true southerner would: "I think I'll stay away from kudzu."

I don't blame him. But don't worry, it'll chase him down and cover him up eventually.

It always does.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.