Iowa Energy 500 Fuel Efficiency Challenge

At the 1980 Iowa State Fair, a number of inventive Midwestern mechanics and tinkerers entered their modified vehicles in a fuel efficiency contest.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
November/December 1980
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Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray kicked off the first annual Energy 500 fuel efficiency challenge by dropping the green flag for the competitors in the initial heat.

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Most auto racing fans consider the Indianapolis 500 to be the high-speed motor sport event of the year, but not many car enthusiasts have even heard of the Iowa Energy 500 fuel efficiency challenge. Well, you're about to get to know the latter event. MOTHER EARTH NEWS recently sent one of her editors to the capital of the Hawkeye State to cover the "race," which was held as part of the Iowa State Fair.

As the name implies, this 500 was oriented toward energy — and its conservation — rather than toward blinding speed. The event was organized by the Iowa Energy Policy Council and the Des Moines Area Community College to demonstrate practical engine modifications used by motorists to increase vehicle efficiency.

The event's promoters divided all entrants into six divisions, based on vehicle weight and the type of fuel used (gasoline or gasohol, and gasoline with additives selected by the contestant).  A seventh division was open to unusually modified vehicles burning any fuel. (There was a demonstration category as well for those who couldn't qualify or didn't care to officially enter the run, but nonetheless had worthwhile hardware to display.)

Needless to say, mechanically minded tinkerers, from quite a few different states, were out in full force on the morning of the competition. All types of "stock" machines — from a 1920 Ford to a Dodge motor home — were entered, along with several more radical vehicles ... including an AMC Gremlin retrofitted with a Waukesha diesel engine that burned a fifty-fifty waste-oil/fuel-oil blend.

Perhaps most mind-boggling, however, were the many "trick" fuel-pinching devices designed by the entrants. Some people opted to use assorted types of fuel heaters to improve their MPG figures, while others went a step further and tried vaporizing the liquid energy. Of course, there were a number of water injectors in use — plus several different friction-reducing fuel additives — and a few shade-tree mechanics chose to merely lean out their vehicles' carburetors and advance the ignition timing slightly.

On the other hand, several of the entries were outright radical by Detroit standards: One Ford pickup burned a mixture of water and hydrogen vapor (produced by electrolysis right under the hood), a Buick sported a V-8 to V-4 conversion built directly from MOTHER EARTH NEWS' plans, and a Dodge truck seemed perfectly satisfied to function on wood smoke in lieu of traditional gasoline fuel.

The participants were each allotted 1/10 of a gallon of fuel and sent off to circle the fairgrounds race track with a judge, who monitored fuel consumption and marked the point reached when the supply was depleted. Final results varied widely, of course, but in nearly every case the drivers noted substantial improvement over the mileage their vehicles would have delivered in "stock trim" ... even on the track's packed-dirt surface, which would generally have stolen about 15% from normal economy figures.

In all, we'd say that the Iowa Energy 500 was a real success. Not just because it proved what a little Yankee ingenuity could do to save fuel, but because it may — we hope — have encouraged more people to do likewise!

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