Supermodified Tech Knowledge-Why Race Cars Use Fuel Cells

A Visit to Fuel Safe to Learn More About Fuel Cell Technology

By Group R Motorsports owner Bob Bogwicz

Beyond safety, the top 2 characteristics of a fuel cell are capacity and the ability to draw every last drop of fuel out of the bladder.

Group R Motorsports logo

I lied to you. All of you. I said in last months installment of Supermodified Tech Knowledge that we would discuss stagger this month. Well, we’re not. I lied. We’re going to talk about fuel cells instead!

The reason for the change in topic was quite serendipitous. For those of you who race dirt, that means “a pleasant surprise”, ha ha!.

As I write this, I’m in the beautiful state of Oregon, installing a machine for one of my customers. Even though these trips keep me away from building our new supermodified, I’m always working on the project one way or another.

So, while searching on my computer for a needed document, I happened across information about fuel cells. It piqued my interest because I am in the process of defining the configuration of the fuel cell for the new car. The document was from a company called Fuel Safe. Not only had I heard of them before, but they were recommended to me by none other than Joe Hawksby of Hawk Jr. fame.

Just for the heck of it, I typed in the web site for Fuel Safe and lo and behold, they are in Redmond, Oregon! So, I naturally shirked the current responsibilities of my customer and headed to Redmond.

Not for nothing, the drive to Redmond is spectacular! I had Mt. Hood over my right shoulder the entire way down and was introduced to Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters. In a town called Maupin, the roads were so twisty that I decided to have some fun and pretend I was Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen. Hey, that’s what rent-a-cars are for, aren’t they?

The Fuel Safe facility is gorgeous and spacious; all 100,000 square feet of it.

photo of fuel safe facility
This photo shows just part of the vast Fuel Safe manufacturing facility in Redmond, OR

So, on to fuel cell tech!

I think the majority of race fans have a general idea of what a fuel cell is. When one thinks of a fuel cell, the first thing that comes to mind is safety and they would be correct.

But a fuel cell is much more than just a “gas tank”. Fuel cells are constructed in such a way as to survive a crash and still contain its flammable contents. We don’t want our heroes to become extra crispy. But in addition to that, one has to consider the conditions a fuel cell must be designed for beyond safety.

OK, the safety part first. The actual “fuel cell” contains a “bladder” that holds the fuel and is composed of an extremely tough yet flexible material. I’m guessing that the real material is a closely guarded trade secret but let’s just called it “rubber”. Rubber connotates a tough, flexible material. This material is reinforced and layered to prevent punctures and tears. Probably a good thing when it comes to methanol!

fuel cell crunched
Here’s what a crushed fuel cell looks like.

For further protection, the flexible bladder is contained by a steel or aluminum enclosure. In addition to protecting the bladder, it also helps the bladder keep its shape because since it is flexible, it will not keep its shape and collapse onto itself, reducing the amount of methanol it can hold. Together, the bladder and the enclosure that contains it make up the unit we call a “fuel cell”.

The “rubber” used is easily formed into whatever shape is required.

IndyCar fuel cell
An IndyCar fuel cell from Fuel Safe

That’s a good thing because some of the configurations that racers need (Supermodifieds, Indy Car, F1, Trophy Trucks, etc.)  can get pretty crazy.

Beyond safety, the top 2 characteristics of a fuel cell are capacity and the ability to draw every last drop of fuel out of the bladder. You don’t really want to start the International Classic 200 without enough fuel and you don’t want to have enough fuel but sputter under the white flag.

Capacity is based on the available volume that is on the racecar. This is where the shape of a fuel cell can get complex and crazy because race teams will use every available cubic inch of space to carry fuel. After all, you will need about 50 gallons of methanol to make it to the checkers of The International Classic without stopping for fuel. 50 gallons is a lot!

Now, fuel pick-up is a little more complicated. One doesn’t just drop a hose in the top of the tank and hope for the best.

Fuel Safe fuel pickup
This photo shows an example of a fuel pickup from Fuel Safe.

The internal structure of a fuel cell will contain weirs, dams and check valves to direct the fuel towards the pick up . The pick up itself is usually contained in a box that has one-way trap doors on it so the pick up is constantly submerged in methanol. This box is usually placed in the right rear corner of the cell because the forces of acceleration and corning will drive the fuel to that corner of the cell. The internal system that directs the fuel to the pick can also be quite complex and is a major reason towards the cost of the fuel cell. A well designed fuel cell will get you to lap 200. Who cares if you sputter into victory lane!

I want to thank Drew Barney of Fuel Safe for showing me around his facility and I can’t wait to see the fuel cell design they have come up with for my super. I am confident in their ability because not only do they supply Hawk Jr., they also supply fuel cells to Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske racing, to name a few. You can check them out for yourself when you visit their website.

jaime and drew of fuel safe
Jaime and Drew took time to give the grand tour of Fuel Safe.

Thank you for your questions about supermodified technology. If you have something you’d like to see covered in a future Supermodified Tech Knowledge column, you can contact me at Follow me @groupRmtrsports and submit questions via Twitter as well.

While The Bogwan fuels his curiosity about the Pacific Northwest, you can drop him a line if you need more supermodified tech knowledge, leave a comment below or Hit the Wailbag. Bob will have your answers as soon as he gets his pick-up put in the right corner.

venom elite chassis
This Supermodified Tech article is brought to you by Venom Elite Chassis and Motorsports. “The Future of Superior Chassis Design.

4 thoughts on “Supermodified Tech Knowledge-Why Race Cars Use Fuel Cells

  1. bogwan09

    I think what you may be referring to is foam that goes inside the cell. Foam inside a fuel cell serve several purposes.

    First, it prevents fuel from sloshing around inside the cell. Methanol weighs approximately 8 pounds per gallon. Ten gallons of fuel weighs 80 pounds and having that kind of weight sloshing inside a contained cell will cause handling problems.

    Second, by minimizing the sloshing effect, this insures that the fuel pick-up will always be submerged in fuel so the it only sucks up methanol and not air.

    Finally, foam in a fuel cell will prevent it from “misting” in the event of a catastrophic fuel cell failure. If a fuel cell ruptures with a severe impact, we don’t want the fuel to “spray” into the air. Raw fuel is harder to ignite than fuel that has been atomized and mixed with air. If ignited by a spark or a heat source, this would create a HUGE fireball and nothing good happens when that occurs.

    I hope this answers your question!



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