Is NASCAR a Waste of Fossil Fuels?
Watching gas-guzzling vehicles drive around in circles for hours on end has become a cause from concern according to some environmentalists. For decades, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) has been a staple American pastime. NASCAR is a privately owned corporation that was founded in 1948 by Bill France. Since then, this American pastime has grown to over 1,500 races annually across upwards of 100 racetracks located throughout 48 U.S. states. While American culture is rather challenging to define, NASCAR has precipitously grown into one of the most popular pastimes in the country, particularly in the southern states. NASCAR even grew to be the most-watched sport in America at one time. Today, only NFL football games consistently attract a larger television audience (Caldwell, 2018). However, as concerns related to energy consumption and the environment have become more prevalent in recent years, some policy makers and environmentalists are calling for the sport to be banned.
High Entertainment Value
Nearly 75 million viewers tune in to watch NASCAR racing each weekend (Layton, 2020). Ridiculously powerful supercars zooming around a track at speeds of nearly 190 miles per hour have captivated American audiences for decades. While NASCAR’s entertainment value remains high across much of the United States, it has long been known as one of the country’s least environmentally friendly sports. As global policy makers continue to deliberate on opportunities to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the impacts from climate change, the notion of racing gas-powered vehicles around in a circle for entertainment purposes may seem counterintuitive to other efforts being made to lower greenhouse gas emissions. For some NASCAR spectators, the thought of adding to global carbon emissions through race events may just add to the dangerous thrill offered by the sport. Much of the excitement comes from the fact that vehicles are racing at alarmingly high speeds. Does the danger of increasing greenhouse gas emissions make the sport more thrilling to watch?
Lack of Regulations
NASCAR has long been criticized by some policy makers that have expressed concerns about how the vehicle engines are allowed to operate without being regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For traditional vehicles that are able to be purchased by American consumers, they are required to pass emissions inspections conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the revisions made to the Clean Air Act in 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency added more rigorous vehicle inspection and maintenance program requirements to ensure that National Ambient Air Quality Standards were being protected. Enhancements made to emissions reduction targets were made to support more robust air quality standards and reduce ground-level ozone. Since then, the Trump administration has moved forward with efforts to gut vehicle fuel efficiency standards.
Even though the Trump administration has sought to weaken government regulations around vehicle emissions, there are still stringent regulations that must be followed. Automobile manufacturers aiming to sell vehicles in the U.S. must be in compliance with the Code of Federal Regulations when it comes to emissions standards. On the other hand, NASCAR vehicles are exempt from the same level of testing and regulations, allowing them to potentially emit more carbon emissions per mile than a traditional vehicle. NASCAR vehicles have also been exempted from other regulations that were first established by the original Clean Air Act in 1970. For example, while the passing of the 1970 Clean Air Act required all American automobiles to switch away from leaded fuels, NASCAR was able to continue to use leaded fuels up until 2008.
The Issue of Leaded Fuel
For decades, NASCAR used high-octane leaded fuel in racecars to increase performance. Even though the health impacts of leaded fuel have been known for many years, NASCAR continued to use the fuel because of a lack of viable alternatives that would sustain the same level of engine performance. Environmental Protection Agency studies found that using leaded fuel for NASCAR “may pose a serious health risk to some subpopulations such as residents living in the vicinity of racetracks, fuel attendants, racing crew and staff, and spectators” (Bernstein, 2006). Furthermore, a series of more intensive studies conducted by researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine found that NASCAR crew members and mechanics often had higher than normal levels of lead in their bloodstreams. After the results of this study were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, NASCAR agreed to move away from using leaded fuel.
While U.S. government officials have remained relatively silent on the issue of NASCAR and the environment in recent years, the government did label the sport as a waste of value fuel during the height of the Arab Oil Embargo. As a result of this criticism, NASCAR temporarily shortened its race events from 500 miles to 450 miles in an effort to show solidarity for the millions of Americans that could no longer access fuel. While NASCAR officials genuinely thought that a reduction in the race mileage would convey that they were doing their part to conserve fuel while still maintaining a business, policy makers and many American citizens found their gesture of goodwill to be a dishearteningly inadequate move.
According to data from the Environmental protection Agency, the American vehicle fleet hit a record high level of fuel efficiency in 2018, with average fuel economy coming in at just over 25 miles per gallon. On the other hand, five miles per gallon is the standard overall fuel efficiency for NASCAR vehicles. The massive power under the hood comes at an immense sacrifice in fuel economy. In a single race that encompasses a distance of 500 miles, each NASCAR vehicle would conservatively burn 100 gallons of fuel. This doesn’t even take practice laps into consideration. With 40 NASCAR vehicles in a typical race, 4,000 gallons of fuel could be consumed in a single day. When multiplied by 35 races per year, the overall fuel consumption and carbon emissions add up dramatically. NASCAR estimates that its annual carbon footprint may be in excess of four million pounds of carbon dioxide emitted. When put into perspective, the total energy required for a single race could fuel seven average American cars for an entire year (Layton, 2020).
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that Americans used roughly 142 billion gallons of gasoline in 2019, which averages out to nearly 390 million gallons of gasoline consumed per day. When compared to the 4,000 gallons of fuel burned in a single race, many NASCAR advocates say that the added carbon emissions from NASCAR alone wouldn’t likely have a significant impact on climate change. With this in mind, NASCAR has still been moving forward with a surprising number of initiatives to enhance the sport’s environmental image.
NASCAR Is Going Green
Is the thought of NASCAR going green an oxymoron? As a for-profit corporation, NASCAR is committed to reducing unnecessary costs to enhance profit margins. Therefore, when NASCAR officials determined that efforts to conserve energy and establish other environmentally oriented programs would save the organization money, the corporate leaders jumped on the opportunity to go green. Recycling materials, experimenting with different fuels, and even deploying sheep and goats along the grassy infields to avoid using gas-powered mowing equipment have been just a few of the recent initiatives that NASCAR has been implementing. While NASCAR has long been thought of as one of the least sustainable organizations in the country through its high consumption of gasoline, rubber, and oil, NASCAR has recently become devoted to sustainability efforts.
At its core meaning, sustainability is all about being able to be sustained over the long term. The concept of sustainability has inherently been linked to environmental aspects since the term first became popular when it was public in the United Nations report titled, Our Common Future. Since then, environmental professionals have advocated that private corporations should be mandated to integrate the principles of sustainability within their business practices. While nobody has physically mandated that NASCAR move to incorporate sustainability measures within its business model, the corporation’s leaders hope that moving in this direction will help to attract and retain racing fans. Other corporations like Patagonia, Whole Foods, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters have established entire brands around the notion of sustainability. Can NASCAR take advantage of the sustainability niche?
The Green Innovation Program
Beginning in 2008, NASCAR hired Mike Lynch as the managerial lead for the company’s Green Innovation Program. As essentially the head of sustainability for NASCAR, Lynch says that the Green Innovation Program will, “lay out a comprehensive green strategy across all the activities of the sport” and “to have substantial and meaningful reduction in the environmental impact of the sport, while also being initiatives that our fans would resonate to in the right way” (Bodie, 2011). These objectives essentially outline how NASCAR is now focused on preserving the environment while also keeping fans and sponsors attracted to the sport.
One of the most substantial programs that NASCAR has been investing in has been related to the development of a new fuel known as Sunoco Green E15. This fuel has been blended with ethanol produced in the America. Through a partnership with the National Corn Growers Association, POET, New Holland, Growth Energy, and Novozymes, NASCAR has been able to reduce its reliance on traditional fossil fuels. Moreover, the new Sunoco Green E15 ethanol blend has also been shown to provide a slight boost in vehicular horsepower. Director of marketing and sales at the Growth Energy ethanol company, Ryan Welsh, says that “NASCAR has given our industry a respected and trusted platform to show that ethanol can perform flawlessly under the harshest conditions” (Saunder, 2020). The partnership between NASCAR and American ethanol producers may have the ability to transform the sport’s image from one that lacks sustainability to another that shows how there is value in going green.
Clean Air and Recycling Programs
Following the Green Innovation Program that was launched in 2008, the sport also debuted the NASCAR Green Clean Air initiative in 2009. This program was aimed at raising awareness for conservation efforts, while also reducing the overall environmental footprint of NASCAR. The Green Clean Air initiative is said to have led to over twenty acres of new trees being planted annually, which is the exact amount needed to mitigate 100 percent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions emitted by NASCAR’s races.
Recycling has also been a main area of sustainability for NASCAR. In a partnership with Coca-Cola Recycling, NASCAR has been able to divert over eighty tons of waste from landfills, while recycling nearly 2.5 million cans and bottles annually (Bodie, 2011). Another partnership was also formed with Coors Light, UPS, and Office Depot to expand the recycling program throughout nearly all of NASCAR’s garages, concourses, grandstands, suites, and campgrounds. The recycling program has become so successful, that it is now known as the biggest recycling initiative in professional sports. Furthermore, NASCAR’s Pocono Raceway made history by becoming the first American sports venue to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy (Bodie, 2011). As the corporation continues to enhance its image of sustainability, policy makers expect other professional sports will follow NASCAR’s lead.
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