NASCAR Waves the Green Flag on Environmental Issues

A fully operational moonshine still displayed at the 2008 Moonshine Rod Run. Photo by Allan Douglas

Stock car racing has been a part of the heritage of the Great Smoky Mountains since the moonshine runners used to transport illegal whiskey from their hidden stills in mountain hollers to nearby cities.  They used cars that were specially modified to carry their product and to out-run and out-maneuver the ‘revenuers’ along the winding mountain roads.  Occasionally they competed against one another on a make-shift track to see who had the best car.  The sanctioning body known as NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) was born from such friendly competitions and has grown into the most popular spectator sport in the USA based on the number of people who attend the races and watch at home.[1]  NASCAR racing boasts seventeen of the twenty highest attended sports events in America.[2]

In the early 1960’s a Pennsylvania dentist John (Doc) Mattioli, turned a former asparagus farm in Long Pond PA into the Pocono Raceway.  He remained CEO of the corporation until he passed away in 2012[3], although day-to-day operations had been handled by his 34-year-old grandson, Brandon Igdalsky, the track president since 2007.  It was Igdalsky’s idea to add solar power to the facility, although he was thinking of a much more modest installation.  But when he and George Ewald, the track superintendent, approached Doc Mattioli about the project, Mattioli offered them a 25 acre plot adjacent to the 2.5-mile race track that had at one time been used as parking lots and suggested they think bigger. 

Pocono Raceway Becomes the World’s Largest Solar Powered Sports Facility

Pocono solar array, green innitiative

Photo courtesy NASCAR Green

At 11:00 AM on July 30th, 2010 The Pocono Raceway Solar Project developed by enXco, which The Associated Press reported cost $16 million to build, was officially dedicated.  It powers the entire racetrack; office buildings, concession area, garages, everything, and produces enough surplus energy to power up to 1,000 nearby homes.  This solar project is a 3 megawatt ground-mount photovoltaic solar energy system.  With 40,000 photovoltaic modules drawing energy from the sun the solar field is so large it is visible from outer space.

You would not think that a sport like NASCAR Sprint Cup racing; which uses the largest, heaviest cars in motorsports averaging only 4 to 5 miles per gallon of fossil fuel burned would have any interest in green initiatives or ecology.  But you would be wrong.

“NASCAR is committed to becoming a leader in environmental responsibility by reducing our impact and serving as a testing ground for innovative new approaches for sustainability,” said Brian France, Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, in a statement.  “This meaningful green project reflects the NASCAR industry’s collaborative approach to preserving the environment and highlights Pocono Raceway’s significant contribution as the first major U.S. sports venue to go green with 100% renewable energy.  We encourage other tracks and sponsors to follow this lead in making sustainable programs and renewable energy a continued priority for the sport.”

With a 30% tax credit and state alternative-energy incentives, this system is expected to pay for itself in six to eight years and has a life expectancy of around 40 years.  Brandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway said.  He does admit that their motivation for installing the Pocono Raceway Solar Project was not entirely altruistic.  He states that the track had been informed by their utility company, PPL, that due to the removal of state government regulated price caps the track’s electricity bill would be increasing by 40%. This was, in part, motivation to “cut the cord” with the utility and take a step into a bold new era.

Yes, But…

Detractors of automobile racing consistently point out that racing fossil fueled vehicles adds to the consumption of non-renewable fossil fuel and hydrocarbon into the atmosphere. This is an accusation not without merit, but how does it stack up in the real world?

On a typical NASCAR race weekend, with 43 cars traveling at speeds up to 200 mph for up to 500 miles — plus another 7 to 10 cars making practice laps and qualifying runs — at an average of 5 mpg of gas, you’re looking at about 6,000 gallons of fuel. Yes, that is a lot; the energy expended in one race could run seven cars for a whole year. But is it a lot in the grand scheme of things?

That depends on how you look at it. That 6,000 gallons of gas over two days looks more reasonable when you consider that the United States eats up about 400 million gallons of gasoline per day.[6]

Are NASCAR Fans Environmentally Conscious?

NASCAR fans have strong feelings about caring for the environment and have become more engaged in environmentally-minded activities, such as recycling and using energy efficient light bulbs, according to the most recent independent research (Experian Simmons National Consumer Survey):

  • Green is important to NASCAR fans: 3 of 4 NASCAR fans (77%) believe each of us has a personal obligation to do what we can to be environmentally responsible compared to 75% of the overall U.S. population.
  • Green companies are recognized by NASCAR fans: 2 of 3 NASCAR fans (65%) indicate companies should help consumers become more environmentally responsible compared to 64% of the overall U.S. population.
  • NASCAR fans exhibit “green behavior” in their everyday lives: More than 80% of NASCAR fan households actively recycle household waste; up 12% over the past 5 years.
  • Green products are increasingly used by NASCAR fans: Approximately 40% of NASCAR fan households use energy efficient light bulbs; more than double the amount just 5 years ago.

Other Ways NASCAR Is Helping

tree planting, green innitiative, NASCAR

MIS officials assist in planting trees around the speedway in June of 2009.

Many tracks used by NASCAR are planting trees around the tracks to help absorb the hydrocarbon emissions produced by a weekend of auto racing.It is well known that automotive manufacturers, tire manufacturers and fuel & oil refineries use motor sports as a research and development tool to improve their products. Just part of that is finding ways to make them more efficient and more durable. Fuel efficiency, tire wear and lubrication are major concerns in automobile racing as well as on the highway or the daily city commute.

NASCAR has, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, promoted SmartWay fuel-efficient vehicles. Additionally it worked with the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association to develop the “Car Care Aware” program, which demonstrates ways consumers can improve mileage and reduce emissions by properly maintaining their vehicles.

Here are some other sustainable initiatives from NASCAR Green:

  • NASCAR  has a few LEED-Certified green buildings under its belt, including the 20-story NASCAR Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina and the “Daytona Speedplex.”  According to Lauth Group, the architecture firm that worked on the project, the NASCAR Plaza “is now considered one of the most environmentally-responsible office towers in the Southeast.”  One-third of the building is made up of recycled materials, it’s powered by 35% renewable energy and consumes 30 percent less water than a similarly sized conventional building.
  • NASCAR has partnered with Sunoco to develop alternative fuel options and in 2011, NASCAR began using the new E15 ethanol racing fuel.  In 2012 all NASCAR Cup cars replaced carburetors with fuel injection systems.
  • Safety-Keen collects and manages the refinement or proper disposal of oil, brake fluid, coolant and cleaning solvents after NASCAR races.
  • In addition to Pocono Raceway’s new solar project, Michigan International’s new solar-powered 31-suite building and track media center is outfitted with approximately 8,000-square feet of solar panels across the rooftop that generates about 70,000 kw per hour – enough energy to  power 439 fluorescent light bulbs, 79 incandescent light bulbs, 175 laptop computers, 19 desktop computers and 26 refrigerators.
  • The Native American owned solar energy company Sacred Power sponsors Latitude 43 Motorsports and that relationship has led to national exposure and increased business opportunities for Sacred Power.
  • A NASCAR mandated hauler emission reduction program, which will curtail the idling of the transporters at the track.
  • NASCAR Green’s at track recycling program is the largest of all sports. The sanctioning body anticipates approximately 100 tons of food and drink packaging material from NASCAR racetracks will be diverted from landfills and recycled next year. Fan feedback at all tracks indicate high interest in placing recycling bins in concession areas for recyclables disposal. In addition, the green initiative enforces the recycling of batteries, tires, oil, and other engine fluids and parts.
  • Goodyear recycles used race tires. The recycled material is sold to various industries for next-generation usage such as power generation and asphalt mixtures.

 Recent Recognition

(DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Sept. 11, 2013 /PRNewswire/[4]) During the 2013 NASCAR Green Summit seven International Speedway Corporation (“ISC”) motorsports facilities were presented with the NASCAR Green track operator award.  The award recognizes those motorsports facilities for their ongoing contributions to developing effective and sustainable green policies and practices.

Auto Club Speedway of Southern California

NASCAR Green recognized the partnership Auto Club of Speedway of Southern California (“ACS”) has with the local rail authority, Metrolink.  The partnership received grant funding from the South Coast Air Quality District specifically for major event venues within their district that are not served by regular public transit services and experience high levels of traffic congestion during events.  In addition, NASCAR Green highlighted the millions of gallons of sewer and waste water generated by ACS that is diverted to California Steel Industries, which uses the water for the cooling process of steel manufacturing.

Darlington Raceway

NASCAR Green recognized Darlington Raceway and Clemson University partnership to grow switchgrass on speedway grounds, which will later be used in production of bio-fuels.

Daytona International Speedway

NASCAR Green recognized Daytona International Speedway (“DIS”) for the significant recycling and waste diversion efforts at its major motorsports events. In 2012, DIS, in partnership with Coca-Cola Recycling, recycled over 150 tons of cardboard, commingled mix material, steel and aluminum.   Also, DIS participates in the NASCAR Green Clean Air program where 10 trees are planted for each Green Flag that drops during races, capturing 100 percent of the carbon produced by the on track racing at its events.

Kansas Speedway

NASCAR Green recognized Kansas Speedway’s significant support of its efforts during Earth Day.  Kansas Speedway hosted the 2013 Green Energy Challenge — a program teaching local students about green efforts through environmental education.

Michigan International Speedway

Michigan International Speedway (“MIS”) was recognized by NASCAR Green for its wetland conservation efforts at its facility, maintaining approximately 200 acres of protected wetland in and around its facility.  In addition,  MIS featured a 2013 Ford Fusion Energi plug-in vehicle as its official pace car at both of its NASCAR weekend events.

Richmond International Raceway

Richmond International Raceway (“RIR”) was honored for its significant support of Race to Green and the Virginia Department of Forestry Initiatives.  In addition, NASCAR Green recognized RIR for featuring in 2012, the first electric pace car, a Ford Focus Electric.

Watkins Glen International

NASCAR Green recognized Watkins Glen International and NextEra Energy joining forces to launch a windmill project that will create a lasting renewable energy resource for the area. Approximately 50 turbines will be installed over the next two years, with each tower capable of powering 2,900 homes annually.

The Future of Auto Racing

NASCAR, green, future

The Mazda KAAN courtesy of Design Challenge Motorsports 2025

It will probably be many years before we see electric or solar powered race cars competing at the popularity levels of NASCAR, but the sport is doing more and more to reduce its negative impact on the planet.  Other than reducing the dependence on coal fired power plants for electricity, engaging in aggressive recycling programs and mitigating as much CO2 as possible through the planting of trees, NASCAR is looking at new fuels, materials and design options.  NASCAR always bases its cars on popularly available street vehicles from major manufacturers, so as those designs change, so will the race cars of NASCAR.

Some of the emerging technologies are more feasible for racing than others. For example, hydrogen-powered cars are on the road and technology for electric cars is continually improving, making future propulsion systems using these technologies distinctly possible.  New materials for cars and tracks will come into play and designs will change.  Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, so it’s a pretty safe bet that in 2025, race cars will look and work a lot different than they do today.

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