Motor Madness: Gas Guzzling is Business as Usual at NASCAR

During the last decade or so, enthusiasm for automobile racing has grown rapidly and is at present the most expensive “sport” in the world. As anyone knows who has turned on local weekend TV, National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) is about to replace football as the Number One entertainment for those time slots when men are at home with nothing else to do.

In addition to TV audiences, hundreds of thousands of fans drive great distances to and from various cities in almost every state to sit in bleachers from May to October, watching floridly stenciled cars roar around tracks at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour (for open-wheeled racers). Heaven only knows how much gas they consume in getting there and back.

Some 15 other countries are regularly competing in auto racing, especially in Formula One open-wheel racing, including Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Spain, Monaco, Canada, France, Britain, Germany and Japan. The list is growing. In fact, Formula One racing is bigger globally than NASCAR and Indy Racing League (IRL) combined. In race-mad Britain, one major track has gotten pretty pricey: a charge of 1,000 pounds is levied on persons desiring to get access to the pit, which the Guardian says is surrounded by “as much wire as Camp Delta.”

Formula One uses “green” (unleaded) gasoline, and since the 1970s, the Indianapolis 500 has used methanol, a natural gas-made fuel that replaced gasoline after a fatal track fire prompted interest in something less flammable. Recently, the IRL has announced a shift to cleaner-burning ethanol (most likely made from corn) for reasons of conscience. “It’s the right thing to do,” says Ron Hemelgarn, an IRL team owner.

But “green” fuel is not part of the picture at NASCAR races. Using “The Official Fuel of NASCAR,” also known as high-octane “110 Leaded Racing Gasoline,” as many as 50 drivers spin around 40 major tracks (and an unknown number of lesser venues). Each track averages 10 250- to 500-mile races per week in the summer, and the average race lasts two hours. These figures do not count practice runs.

According to the radio show Living on Earth, “The Environmental Protection Agency says the form of lead used in gasoline, alkyl lead, can cause neurological damage, mood swings and memory loss at very low levels. Children are especially vulnerable. A report EPA drafted five years ago says lead particles could remain airborne around race tracks and spectators and residents nearby might be at risk.”

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, says that “government is asleep at the switch” when it comes to regulating use of leaded gas by NASCAR. In a letter to NASCAR last January, O’Donnell wrote, “By permitting the continued use of lead, your organization may be putting millions of spectators and nearby residents at unnecessary risk of suffering serious health effects
Even low levels of lead damage the brain and nerves in fetuses and young children, resulting in learning deficits and lowered IQ.”

NASCAR has a supposed verbal agreement with the EPA to search for a suitable unleaded fuel and replace leaded gas in a few years, but it’s uncertain when that replacement will arrive. NASCAR’s Ramsey Poston told Living on Earth, “It’s not as simple a process as you might think, but it is one that we’re working on and it is absolutely a high priority and that is why we are continuing to work with EPA to find the solution.” Neither the EPA, NASCAR nor any environmental group have actually tested for lead content at racetracks.

On the Internet, it’s easy to find lists of cars and drivers with statistics about their achievements, but harder to get straightforward information regarding the excessive use of polluting fossil fuels involved in the races themselves.

At the average consumption of two miles per gallon in a 250-mile race, 125 gallons of fuel would be required per car. Multiply that by 40 cars in one race, and each event consumes the staggering figure of 5,000 gallons of gasoline! If there are 10 races per week, that’s 50,000 gallons. Multiply that by the number of NASCAR official tracks (not counting small ones), and the fuel consumption rises astronomically—to roughly two million gallons for one season!

NASCAR is about to switch companies from a 50-year contract with Phillips 76 to Sunoco, but that won’t change anything much. Since its cars are exempt from pollution controls, NASCAR has little incentive beyond conscience and, possibly, good public relations, to change its ways. So far, it’s all been talk.

NASCAR says a change in fuel would also involve changes in engine design, because the lead in the gasoline has the additional function of lubricating engine valves, which can become highly stressed in race conditions. The average cost of an engine is $300,000, so changes worry car builders. As driver Ryan Newman puts it: “The majority of the people in here are the farthest from environmentalists.”

But that’s only the tip of our melting iceberg! There is no way of counting the amount of gasoline used by fans to get to and from the venues, whether by car, bus or air.

The environment gets left off the NASCAR website in favor of cap offers, but according to the Everett, Washington Herald, developers are claiming that building a NASCAR race track in rural Snohomish County (with $200 million of taxpayers’ money) would actually benefit endangered fish. “Odd as it sounds,” the Herald wrote, “they say a mile-long racetrack, grandstands filled with 75,000 screaming fans and 21,000 parked cars will be good for endangered salmon, especially since there would only be two or three major races each year. The cars would be parked on grass, allowing rainwater to percolate into a shallow aquifer below and keep stream flows high.”

John Healy, communications director for 1,000 Friends of Washington, warns, “Common sense tells you that when a developer comes in and says their project is good for the environment, you need to be very careful.”

There’s no doubt that NASCAR’s popularity means big business. McDonald’s, Home Depot, Coca Cola, Fox Sports Commercials, the Army and UPS are major advertisers for whom NASCAR is paying off big-time. That’s not counting the lucrative spin-offs—caps, shirts, DVDs, games. A Chicago department store put a “man’s fragrance” on sale with bottles autographed by auto racer Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father was a former NASCAR champ killed in a crash in 2001 at Daytona. The sale was a huge success.

Ironically, in spite of the fact that you can scarcely find a single dark-skinned face in the NASCAR crowd, the cologne is called “Dakkar Noir.” When Jesse Jackson pointed out that black men can also drive cars fast, a small furor arose over the contribution NASCAR had made to his Operation Push, $250,000 since 2001. Defending itself, NASCAR President Mike Helton opined, “NASCAR has taken a leadership position in promoting diversity within our organization and throughout the motorsports industry because we believe diversity is part of what makes our country great.”

Reliable attendance f

igures at auto races (excluding the regular prime-time TV audience) are hard to come by, but it is known that attendance has doubled since 1990. New Hampshire toll roads chalked up some 2,570,347 vehicles for one August week of the Winston Cup races in 2003. A staff writer for the local Eagle-Tribune allowed that “NASCAR races are a big boost for business.” But not, unfortunately, for the environment.

Los Osos, California-based Jean Gerard is a retired college teacher, peace activist and backsliding Quaker who formerly wrote editorials for Pasadena Weekly. She lived and taught in Japan for a number of years and is now writing full time.



NASCAR’s Lead Foot (Living on Earth transcript)