filling a motorcycle with pump gas vs race fuel

For the average American driver, gasoline is just a means to an end. Driving to and from work, and on the occasional road trip, all we want is cheap gas and more mileage. That’s what determines how run-of-the-mill gasolines are made. 

Power is not something the average customer demands, and subsequently, while there are companies that offer clean-burning, efficient fuels based on proprietary formulas and additives, these products are not designed to make your vehicle go faster. 

So the gasoline available at the pump station is just the tip of the iceberg. What else is out there for those who have a need for speed?

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One misinterpretation of octane level is that it indicates a fuel’s potential power. A higher octane number equals higher engine performance right? Well, kind of. Octane is directly correlated with a fuel’s resistance to detonate early under high pressure and heat—this early detonation, associated with engine knocking or pinging, occurs when the fuel/air mix explodes under the pressure of the up-stroking piston instead of spark-plug ignition. 

To optimize ignition timing and compression ratio, vehicle manufacturers provide recommendations for octane number in their fuel requirements. Pump gas is designed to accommodate most vehicles and their octane requirements. 

Generally a higher-priced vehicle requires higher octane; cars and motorcycles with higher compression motors managed by advanced electronics require high-octane fuel to maximize economy and performance. Vehicles can obviously be tuned to fit a specific fuel or vice versa, but if a manufacturer suggests 87 octane fuel, putting a 93 premium in the tank is just a waste of money. 


Race fuels provide a consistent performance in comparison to pump gas, primarily because the intended use for the two fuel types are dramatically different. The mass-produced fuel offered at gas stations changes throughout the year and by season, unlike race gas, which is designed to give the same output regardless of when it was boiled. 

If you are looking for this type of consistency and high performance, then you will have to pay extra for it. But the returns of paying the higher cost of race gas are power at the rear wheel and smoother throttle response. Pump gas may run just fine in a track-day motorcycle, but adds little to get excited about. 

VP Racing Fuels makes a 100 octane race fuel that is street legal (even in California) and is safe to run in stock motorcycle engines. It’s sweet smelling, oxygenated, lead-free and costs around $14 per gallon. If losing tenths of seconds count on the race track, then paying four times the amount of 93 octane pump gas is to some a necessary evil.


Pump gas with 100 octane is hard to find in the U.S. If one were to cycle pump gas though a motor that had sky-high compression ratios, that lower-octane fuel will under-perform and detonate, unlike a higher-octane race fuel. 

There is unleaded pump gas with added oxygen out there and ethanol is a common additive. However, it’s best to check your owner’s manual to confirm what your bike can and cannot burn in stock form. 

With race fuel, there are several categories: leaded and unleaded, oxygenated and non-oxygenated. These elements are combined to make various products, depending on vehicle and intended use. For example, a leaded race gas with added oxygen has two distinct advantages. Lead raises octane levels and oxygen enables more fuel combustion in the cylinder, creating more power. The octane boost means higher compression is possible, and if a race-modified motorcycle has high-compression pistons in its lump, then this fuel would be very advantageous. 

One important note: A leaded, oxygenated race fuel is highly corrosive, super poisonous and should be handled with respect. However, riding a motorbike to the edge of sanity and at the same time worrying about the dangers of gas seems trivial. 

Leaded fuel is not street legal (due to the lead) and cannot be run through bikes with O2 sensors and catalytic converters. 


More bang makes more power, so re-mapping to the bike’s air/fuel mixture and ignition timing is required to get the most out of any fuel (even pump gas). 

An alternative to purchasing gallons of race fuel at the track or at distributors is sampling race gas mixes and additives that are offered in smaller quantities. These products are designed to be mixed with pump gas and claim to offer performance gains as well. 

There is always something else to throw money at when you’re a motorcyclist. Parts, tires, accessories, you name it, they make it and we buy it. Gas is no different. Do the research and talk to the professionals about which fuel is best for the desired result. 

Justin Mendenhall (@DesmoHolic) is a fanatic of two-wheel transportation. Over the past few years, he has traveled, ridden and raced around Europe, taking photos along the way. He currently writes for Fast Bikes magazine in the U.K. and in the past has written for Road Racing World, Super Street Bike Magazine and RideApart.

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