Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of an organization. It is the Natural Resources Defense Council, not the National Resources Defense Council. This version has been corrected.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, right, and Eric Kuehn, Ford's chief nameplate engineer for Focus Electric, stand next to an electric pace car that will be used in Saturday’s NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

At its essence, NASCAR is an ear-blasting, exhaust-spewing, gas-guzzling celebration of unbridled horsepower. Its racecars get five miles per gallon under optimum conditions. And over the course of a 36-race season, NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup division burns through more than 135,000 gallons of fuel.

But in a world turned green, NASCAR is waking up to the reality that American attitudes about automobiles are shifting — from consumers’ demands for better gas mileage to heightened concern about global warming. Lest NASCAR be relegated to the scrap heap as a pointless spectacle that squanders precious fossil fuel, the sport in 2008 launched an initiative known as NASCAR Green and, ever since, has been advocating environmental stewardship — with a straight face, no less.

The most striking representation of NASCAR’s new eco-awareness takes center stage Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, where an all-electric Ford Focus pace car will lead the field of 43 thundering stock cars to the green flag.

It will be a proud moment for Ford engineers, who get to showcase their latest breakthrough in energy-efficient vehicles before 90,000 rabid NASCAR fans and a nationwide FOX viewing audience. (The all-electric Focus, which retails for $39,995, goes on sale in 16 targeted markets this year, including Richmond and Washington.)

It will be no less significant for NASCAR, which has made green initiatives a priority in an effort to position itself as environmentally responsible.

“Green is ubiquitous now in the U.S.,” says Mike Lynch, NASCAR’s managing director of Green Innovation. “You can’t talk to a school kid or adult of any age and not have a sense that their green consciousness has shifted. NASCAR is an opportunity demonstration space for green solutions.”

If it weren’t for the singsong chime the Focus Electric makes when the starter is pressed, a driver might not realize that it’s on. That’s how silent Ford’s first carbon-free passenger car is.

It’s friendly, too, displaying images of butterflies on the dash as a reward when a driver accelerates and brakes gently enough to conserve extra power in the 600-pound battery that’s tucked under the rear seat.

But could this five-door hatchback with neither engine nor tailpipe be the future of NASCAR—especially when the sound it makes hurtling down Richmond’s backstretch at top speed could be drowned out by a purring cat?

Not next season. Maybe not for another decade. Maybe never.

Third-generation racer Kyle Petty, now a NASCAR analyst with Speed network, suspects that the car-buying public will decide.

“If you go back to the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, the era of muscle cars, Americans truly, truly had a love affair with the automobile — the styling, the engine, the sound. They loved that throaty V-8,” says Petty, 51, the grandson of NASCAR’s inaugural Daytona 500 winner (Lee Petty), son of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty and father of a 30-year-old (Austin Petty) who drives a Prius hybrid.

“In the end, if the consciousness of the country shifts, the sport itself will have to shift.”

Taking small steps

NASCAR hasn’t necessarily been known for a forward-thinking approach over its 65-year history. Courtesy of an exemption from Congress, its racecars ran leaded gasoline until 2007 — more than a decade after the fuel was banned for use in passenger cars because of harmful health effects.

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.”