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Fans approve of alternative fuels at Petit Le Mans
Racing fans pour onto the Road Atlanta track Saturday morning to get a glimpse of their favorite driver or car prior to the Petit Le Mans in Braselton.

BRASELTON - When the flag flew Saturday morning for the start of the 11th Annual Petit Le Mans, Road Atlanta's signature race went green in more ways than one.

With the entire field of race cars running on environmentally friendly alternative fuels, the debut of the American Le Mans Series' "Green Challenge" brought praise from the fans who flocked to Braselton in the tens of thousands.

"I think it's good for the sport," said Willie Phee of Alpharetta as he readied a grill outside his RV parked along the front stretch. "People are concerned about the price of fuel. When they see this, they probably have a better view of the sanctioning body, knowing it's not taking up any fuel that they use."

With the exception of the perennial front-running Audis and the Peugeot prototypes, which both ran on sulfur-free diesel, every car in Saturday's race operated on some blend of ethanol and gasoline, including the E85 cellulosic fuel that is 85 percent ethanol made from switchgrass and wood.

Atop homemade scaffolding overlooking turn nine on the sprawling 2.5 mile road course, sports car racing enthusiast Grant Croy of Woodstock liked what he saw of the new-powered racers.

"It really shows that if you take a race car and make it this fast with alternative fuels, think of what you can do on the street," Croy said.

The American Le Mans Series, or ALMS, boasts that all of the fuel sources it uses are "street legal" and currently available to the general public. Whether that availability improves - few E85 pumps can be found in this part of the country - remains to be seen.

"You've got to have the infrastructure in place," Phee said.

At the Ethanol Promotional Council booth inside Road Atlanta's infield vendor village, workers collected 8,000 signatures from race fans seeking wider use and availability of the grain alcohol fuel, said Joe Rucker of Marietta.

"The interest has been incredible," Rucker said. "I think everyone is interested in bringing energy back home."

Mark Register of Jacksonville stopped off at the booth to pick up a few ethanol stickers and a T-shirt.

Register, who was just learning about the ALMS Green Challenge, called it "a good idea."

"If they can transfer that technology to the general public, it's something we can all benefit from," Register said.

A few booths down, curious fans paused to look at Jim Kemp's "Zap cars," ultra-compact, electric-powered cars that looked out of place among the sleek Porsches and Corvettes.

"When we came here, we wondered if we'd get laughed at some," Kemp said. "But we haven't. We've had great response."

Kemp said the ALMS promotion of green racing should help speed other racing series into using alternative fuels.

"NASCAR will be the last," he said.

Kemp believes the racing world's endorsement of alternative fuels and electric hybrid systems should spur development for all motorists.

"They'll start concentrating on technology to run them harder and faster, and that will speed up development," he said. "It will all happen faster now."

Said race fan Robin Bowser of Daytona Beach, "(ALMS) has always been a leader."

Bowser doesn't buy global warming theories and has doubts about the feasibility of electric cars. But he still likes the idea of fuel that comes from the heartland, not the Middle East.

"Anything we can do to take money away from foreign oil is a good thing," he said