But NASCAR finally bowed to pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency and Detroit automakers, who for decades have justified their investment in stock-car racing with the adage that “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday.”
Nudged by carmakers, NASCAR has continued innovating to reflect the inner workings of the Fords, Chevys, Dodges and Toyotas on showroom floors. In 2011, the sport’s top three divisions switched to a renewable fuel blended with 15 percent ethanol. And this season NASCAR made the long overdue conversion to fuel-injected engines, another efficiency-minded measure.
Meantime, NASCAR’s major business partners have taken steps to lessen the environmental impact of races, which draw upward of 100,000 fans and all the litter they generate.
Goodyear, which supplies the sport’s tires, now hauls away used tires to be shredded and repurposed. Safety-Kleen Systems rounds up and refines spent motor oil and lubricants, roughly 180,000 gallons worth each year.
In the grandstands, infield and track grounds, NASCAR boasts what it claims is the largest recycling program in sports, with more than 1,000 tons of cardboard, plastic bottles and cans put to other use.
And in honor of Earth Day last Sunday, Miss Sprint Cup, the sport’s official beauty queen, wore a green fire suit at Kansas Speedway to show her concern for the environment.
Cause for ridicule?
No doubt, “environmentally conscious auto racing” strikes many as the biggest oxymoron in sports.
But NASCAR’s efforts draw praise from Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has advised Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, among others, on green initiatives.
“One could take a cynical attitude toward this, and many do, saying, ‘How can you green NASCAR? They burn fossil fuel as their activity!’ ” Hershkowitz says. “But outside the family, the most influential role models are athlete and entertainers. And the embrace by NASCAR of environmentalism has an important cultural impact.
“The environmental problems we face are not all being caused by NASCAR; they’re being caused by millions of businesses every day. NASCAR is saying, ‘We’re going to make our contribution.’ We have to celebrate what NASCAR is doing: using its cultural visibility to message environmentalism.”
Would fans still watch?
Blanketing the infield with recycling bins on race weekends is one way NASCAR is doing that. Using its racetracks to showcase the performance capability of all-electric cars like the Ford Focus is another.
But it’s an entirely different proposition to stage a NASCAR race in which gas-sipping hybrids or all-electric vehicles compete.
If that’s the future, could NASCAR actually sell racing that makes no noise and burns no fuel? Would its legion of fans leap to their feet and pump their fists with the same passion if Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a Chevy Volt snatched the lead from Denny Hamlin in a Toyota Prius or Carl Edwards in a battery-powered Ford?
Before that experiment can be held, Detroit’s top engineers must figure out how to wring more speed from electric cars, reduce the battery’s size and weight and extend its life.
The Electric Focus that will pace Saturday’s race has a top speed of 84 mph (plenty fast for the pace car’s job but well shy of the 130 mph NASCAR’s top drivers will run). And to complete the 300-mile race, the Focus would have to stop for three battery changes, given its current range of 76 miles.
But Petty maintains that such a race could be worth paying to see — “as long,” he adds, “as those cars are out there running three-wide, nose-to-tail down the straightaway.”
Edwards, for one, is on board for whatever NASCAR’s future holds.
“Race car drivers will race anything,” said Edwards, 32, edged by Tony Stewart for last year’s NASCAR championship in a thrilling season finale. “If there are electric cars, we’ll race electric cars. If there are no electric cars, we’ll race bicycles. If there aren’t any bicycles, we’ll have a foot race.
“You never know what we’ll be racing in 20 years. But I guarantee you, we’ll be racing.”