Why NASCAR Needs To Think About Energy Use

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"Why NASCAR Needs To Think About Energy Use"

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about possible ways that climate change could affect baseball. This time I want to talk about how a sport can impact the climate.

From constant travel to keeping the stadium lights on, every sport is energy intensive. But NASCAR — in which drivers race vehicles 500 miles at speeds of 200 miles per hour — takes energy intensity to a whole new level.

NASCAR is arguably the second most popular sport in America. Though it lacks some of the broad appeal of other sports, the 75 million people that watch it each weekend put the sport behind only the NFL in popularity. And that popularity has its environmental impact beyond what the casual fan might think about.

For example, NASCAR race cars are not subject to the EPA regulations that govern other vehicles on the road. They do not have catalytic converters mandated for every other car on the road. And until 2007, NASCAR used leaded gas — a toxic fuel that has hasn’t been used in the rest of the U.S. since the 1980′s.

On average, NASCAR cars get between 2 and 5 miles per gallon of gas. How Stuff Works explains:

“In a single typical NASCAR race weekend, with more than 40 cars at high speeds for 500 miles (804 kilometers) — plus practice laps — at 5 mpg of gas, you’re looking at, conservatively, about 6,000 gallons (22,712 liters) of fuel [source: Finney]. Each gallon burned emits about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of carbon dioxide, so that’s about 120,000 pounds (54,431 kilograms) of CO2 for a race weekend [source: FuelEconomy]. Multiply that by roughly 35 races per year, and NASCAR’s annual carbon footprint is in the area of 4 million pounds (1.8 million kilograms).”

Four million pounds certainly isn’t going to tip the climate over the edge, but its still a heck of a lot of CO2 spewed into the atmosphere. And that number doesn’t even include the fleet of diesel powered support vehicles that accompany each racing team at every event around the country.

NASCAR has been mildly cooperative in making its sport more “green.” In 2011, they introduced an ethanol based additive, E15, into the racing fuel. This increased the power generated by the fuel, but it did so by reducing efficiency significantly.

Beyond just the fuel, NASCAR cars go through a lot of tires. In fact, each team uses approximately 8-10 sets of tires per weekend. The tires are made primarily with synthetic rubber and therefore require oil to produce. According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, it takes about 7 gallons of oil to make one tire.

Assuming we have the 40 racers we had when we looked at fuel consumption, and, conservatively, 8 sets of tires per racer, then NASCAR uses about 8,960 gallons of oil per race weekend on tires alone. Its a little tough to tell how much CO2 is emitted when oil is burned, but one estimate places the number at about 317 kg (or 698.86 lbs) per barrel. That amounts to roughly 149,090 lbs of CO2 emitted into the air per weekend.

Again, that number doesn’t take into account any of the support vehicles needed to make the races happen, just the actual race cars.

When taking into account all the other factors that aren’t unique to this sport — the cars the fans drive to the game/race, the air travel, the TV crews, the land used for stadiums/racetracks, the lights — it’s clear just how much impact NASCAR has on the environment.

Does that mean we need to stop it? Of course not.

NASCAR is exciting. The cars go extremely fast and the action is non-stop. The sport shouldn’t be abolished any more than baseball, hockey, or football. Instead, the leadership at NASCAR should take car racing’s energy use seriously and consider new ways to grow the sport and entertain fans — all while helping develop new, less energy-intensive technologies.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center for American Progress.

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36 Responses to Why NASCAR Needs To Think About Energy Use

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    I don’t see much chance of success here. Better to mock them as hopelessly out of touch energy hogs, and leave it at that.

  2. fj says:

    Using huge amounts of power, waste and emissions to run around in circles it is a metaphor for the way we do civilization.

    • Artful Dodger says:

      In the early 1950s, Civic planners and marketing wonks faced the dilemma of selling urban sprawl and the automobile. Then, one of the brighter suits at this secret meeting asked, “how do we turn sitting in traffic into an exciting spectator sport?” And NASCAR was born…

  3. BBHY says:

    “Each gallon burned emits about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of carbon dioxide…”

    No, that is not right. Whenever electric cars are mentioned, everyone wants to follow the whole sourcing chain all the way back to the coal mine.

    That 20 lb figure is only the direct emissions from burning the fuel itself. It does not take into account all of the processing steps from drilling, pumping, CO2 injection, water injection, water extraction, transport, refining etc. Even when all of that is taken into account, no one ever counts the gas flaring that takes place, since in most places natural gas is a wasted byproduct of oil extraction. The atmosphere still gets the carbon, so that should be counted too.

    An ever growing portion of the oil is coming from tar sands which has even higher production emissions.

    The actual total CO2 emissions from burning a gallon of gasoline is much higher than 20 lbs.

    • Eric says:

      No thats about right a gallon of gas weights about 6 pounds. as matter cannot be created nor destroyed there is no way 6 pounds by itself can make 20 pounds. The only way you can get close to that number is to sources tree out the exhaust.

      • Keith says:

        That 20 pounds of CO2 contains over 14 pounds of oxygen from the air, combined with the carbon from the hydrocarbon fuel. Not exactly extra mass created out of thin air but that is where it comes from.

    • fj says:

      Emissions, environmental footprints, and waste of transportation infrastructures and built environments that must support vehicles that move more than 1,000 pounds of extra steel, glass, plastic, etc. per person are extremely excessive and also ignored.

  4. Dean Moriarty says:

    I’m a pretty liberal guy. And I absolutely HATE cheap-labor crony conservativism. However, honestly, pushing this kind of policy agenda will only serve to marginalize the great cause of liberalism in the minds of the moderate electorate, or those in the big tent who support our candidates for their positions on labor and social safety nets. It plays right into the hands of those smarmy schmucks on the Right who feed them the lines of “you didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left YOU.”

    Energy efficiency in the greater social structure is clearly a noble cause. This is an entertainment industry, with infinitesimal impact on our energy independence and overall pollution problem. The only chance for a return to a Democratic majority involves electing moderate-to-conservative Democrats from districts that normally vote Republican. We did that in 2006, but gave it back in 2010 by allowing the GOP to paint those guys as being beholden to too much of the liberal agenda.

    I know we want to change so much of what is wrong with our country, but to win the war, we must choose battles that do not result in the loss of such warriors who in so many other important areas would stand with us. They cannot stand with us if they are not elected, and pushing issues like this makes it more difficult to get them there. Just my opinion.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      The dumbing-down of the public is an essential feature of the Rightwing neo-feudal project. For the first time in history, average IQ test results are falling in the West. A dumb public, brought up on mass culture that destroys brain cells, is a fruitful recruiting ground for the Tea Party and whatever comes next.

  5. As an environmentalist who grew up loving NASCAR, I feel conflicted every weekend. NASCAR can certainly do more, but it must tread carefully to avoid the wrath of conservative fans. (For example, many dislike having an electric car as a pace car, and wouldn’t accept a whole field of them.) But NASCAR is attempting to promote electric cars by having them as pace cars.

    They have switched to gas with a small percentage of ethanol and gone to the electronic fuel injection system to reduce emissions, and are looking at other ways to do so. Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania is the world’s largest solar-powered sports venue and powers neighboring homes as well. Sonoma is also partially solar-powered. I’d love to see what can be done in places like, say, Phoenix and Daytona.

    I definitely want to see more, but steps are being taken in the right direction and need to be encouraged. It doesn’t help to write off NASCAR and its fans as hicks or hopelessly out of touch. Who knows? Maybe eventually the more conservative fans will get it, too.

    • Artful Dodger says:

      Have you visited http://green.nascar.com/

      So here’s how to REALLY make NASCAR green:

      Coat the track with solar cells embedded in the paving material. Electrify the cars. Use inductance power transfer from the track to the car (wireless). Use regenerative braking to send power back into the track.

      How to get that great engine noise? Subwoofer in every car, and the digital soundtrack set to 1976! Download your favorite car sound from iTunez!

      Done this way, daytime racing produces zero CO2. At night, power the cars with windmills installed in the infield. Just a single 1 MW wind turbine offers 670 hp continuous for 2 cars. Two dozen wind turbines would power an entire 43 car field.

      Bonus: that solar track and all those wind turbines make power year-round, not just on Race Day. Send it to the grid to offset the energy used by the Teams to travel from Track to Track.

      Seriously, it could happen. Solar road tech exists today, and who better to build and promote the prototype than the Sunny South?

      C’mon NASCAR, if you don’t do it, ya know Indy Racing League (IRL) will! They’re already ahead of y’all with Push-to-Pass electric assist on CHAMP cars. It’s time for some good ol’ backyard engineering. Cowboy up, NASCAR!

  6. Sorry; I missed the author’s original statement about E15 being introduced in 2011.

  7. Gail Zawacki says:

    “Does that mean we need to stop it? Of course not.”

    Of course we should! We should also stop all other non-necessary wastage of fuel.

    What part of life-threatening catastrophic climate change isn’t being understood here?

    Oh, so car races are exciting? So are hurricanes, tornados, crop failures, famine and war.

    • fj says:

      Yes, of course we should stop NASCAR.

      Even here on Climate Progress, the failed policy of climate pragmatism prevents this.

    • Jason Calley says:

      We need to be consistent when we implement our principles. The people attending the Rio conference on sustainability will burn (I estimate) well over 100,000 gallons of jet fuel in their trip. haven’t these people ever heard of teleconferencing?!

  8. Michelle M says:

    There are several things humans do that are simply a waste of energy. Nascar: Zoom zoom zoom in circles, crash, blow up…zoom zoom zoom. It’s brainless entertainment. Las Vegas: Flashy light, flashy light, flashy light, flashy light. Blink, blink, blink, blink. Oooh, pretty.

    • Madsen says:

      The whole freakin’ way of life of the majority of the U.S. has to immediately change from waste, noise, pollution, no matter whether it’s NASCAR or football games, large music festivals, CAFOs, constant lawn mowing, thoughtless driving, air travel,etc. It’s killing those of us downstream and upwind. Let’s hope we run out of all fossil fuels sooner rather than later.

  9. Trevor Hall says:

    Good analysis, but you’re missing the forest for the trees. The much larger impact is from the fans driving to the race. The 20-25K cars driving an average of 50 miles to get to the racetrack generate 10x the carbon footprint of the actual race cars. When you look at it in those terms, it doesn’t make sense to single out NASCAR.

    When the Dallas Cowboys moved from Irving to Arlington (a city famous for having no public transportation system), one result was their fans now driving an additional 1M vehicle miles per home game.

    Do we shut down all spectator events? No. But if stadiums are going to be built with public funding, at a minimum, they must be transit-accessible.

  10. Dean Moriarty says:

    @Fj, Michelle,and Gail:

    You DO realize that we still live in AMERICA? Your priorities and opinions about the relative value of certain activities does not mean that others must bend to your will, right? Furthermore, while many organizational behaviors do have externalities, legislating the very EXISTENCE of such organizations is a perilous claim. Imposing one’s own axiological assumptions on others, especially in a case of relatively arbitrary selectiveness (how many other industries and activities would people want to see banned because they have consequences that violate other people’s moral compass?)

    At the end of the day, you are advocating socialism, not liberalism. Liberals are people who seek progressive outcomes while preserving the basic ideas of liberty and consumer freedom, of seeking fairness without imposing absolute social engineering by the few on the many.

    As they are written, your comments all completely validate the complaints made about liberals that we are simply elitist snobs who are out trying to control the lives and take away the freedoms of everyone who doesn’t share our enlightened worldview. That’s a dangerous thing, not just from the political problems of convincing people to support us, but from my perspective, that is NOT the way I want to achieve the goals of our ideological beliefs. Good luck with that.

    • Gail Zawacki says:

      I don’t advocate wasteful squandering of fuel because it violates my “moral compass”. I am in favor of strict rationing because emissions violate my health, my climate, my ecosystem, and my children’s future. It’s got nothing to do with morals and everything to do with survival.

      If that’s socialism, I’m in.

  11. gina monti says:

    For 29 years and counting I have been, and still am a NASCAR fan. The parts that I enjoy watching are the decisions being made on pit road during a race; like whether they take 4 tires during a stop, just take 2 tires during another stop, just fill up on fuel only, or any other chassis adjustments to help the handling of the car. When those decisions are taken into account, then it makes it more interesting to see wins like Tony Stewart at Michigan in 2009, and Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma in 2010, where both drivers won their respective races a mile or almost six miles with an empty gas tank.

  12. Hephaestus42 says:

    Your point is what exactly? A Boeing 747 uses 5 gallons per mile of flight. So a single trip across the Atlantic uses more fuel that a NASCAR race.

  13. Bill Walker says:

    Just to keep things in perspective, while the carbon emissions of motorsports are obvious and direct, I’ve seen past analysis that shows the carbon footprint of NFL football is larger than that of NASCAR. I’m not saying we don’t need to reduce or eliminate the emissions of motorsports, but I am saying don’t assume motorsports are the worst offenders simply because exhaust emissions are part of the sport itself. The most obvious offenders aren’t necessarily the worst offenders.

    • fj says:

      Yes, we’d all be much more effective facing down climate change head on with large scale reductions of emissions along with low-eco foot print adaptations and integrations with the rapidly changing environment.

      Once the radical climate reality — roughly equivalent to climate hawk reality and to the scientific reality these days — catches on things like the NFL and NASCAR will be socially lunatic unacceptable like defecating in public space with the legal consensus confirmation.

      • Artful Dodger says:

        And the Civil War will end Racism in America… well, you can’t change everybody’s mind. Some people are just gonna believe what they believe. NASCAR is a faith-based constituency.

  14. Gail Zawacki says:

    Bill, I personally would have gladly included the NFL but I had concerns for my personal safety.

  15. A quintessential Business-As-Usual discussion:

    Stopping NASCAR is a great benchmark, ranking right up there with halting all commercials on broadcast TV – happened only twice that I know of – JFK assassination and 9-11

    Global warming is a human social disease and climate is not the real issue – since that is just unfolding according to science – the real issue is the human ignorance, malaise and lack of will power to face it a revised future.

    When we are ready, then NASCAR will be totally redefined along with everything else.

  16. While we must recognize that pro sports and sporting events do waste energy in general, any bit of progress is important. I am not Nascar fan (I am not a fan of motor sports) but them steering towards biofuel is a start. NFL stadiums starting to renewable energy to power the stadiums is important. Energy efficiency in MLB stadiums is good too.

    For those who criticize sports as harming the environment, should realize, yes there may be some leagues that waste a lot of energy, we should also be supportiing those who at least go towards renewable energy.

    Sports are a very important part of our society, and to say that we can not have pro sports is lame. If people are going to blame environmental problems on pro sports, then also blame it on the large music and arts festivals also. They also create a large carbon footprint, and are as guilty as sin also to causing the problem.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    Max Frankel mentioned “the cars the fans drive to the game/race” and Adam Johnston pointed to other large events and festivals with big carbon footprints. An obvious commonality of these phenomena is the massive dependence on carbon-intensive transportation of the audience, not so much the performers.

    NASCAR fan vehicles caught my attention when it became clear that the invasive insect, emerald ash borer, was hopping hundreds of miles around the country in the firewood carried by NASCAR fans, who frequently travel with an RV or trailer and set up a campsite with a wood fire at the race locations. So think 10 to 12 mpg for RV and trailer-hauler diesel engine and multiply that by thousands of fans.
    We might extrapolate to the customer component of the carbon footprint of regional shopping malls? After all, shopping is said to be one of the major American ‘sports.’

  18. fj says:

    That even China would not invest in the Hummer brand might serve as a welcome analogy to what might happen except that the NFL and NASCAR are both entertainment which normally does well in hard times.

  19. joyce says:

    My daughter dated a Formula 1 engineer, and when talking at lenghth with him about what he does–I realized that the technologies they invent/discover could go a long way to helping build fuel efficient cars for all of us. Perhaps NASCAR is way different, but in Formula 1 races they need to be light–so need to sip fuel since they don’t want to be burdened with the weight. There are lots of aerodynamic things they do as well to be as efficient as possible. I came away pretty impressed, and decided, like the many who posted above, that the biggest problem is probably all the folks driving to the event–not the race itself. It’s sort of like the space shuttle. Humongeous amount to fuel used to launch, but they’ve given us so much information and useful things, like “Tang.” ha.

    • ozajh says:

      Porsche once suggested that the FIA throw all the then-current engine regulations out of the window, and allow the manufacturers X Litres of a specified fuel per 100 kilometres of race distance. Have a different X value for each category (and these days perhaps equivalence tables for different fuels).

      Tell everybody the X values are going to be reduced by a set amount every few years.

      Then let the engineers get on with it.

      • ozajh says:

        Further to my previous comment, the refuelling ban in Formula 1 has a similar effect. Specific fuel consumption is now a real issue, hence everybody’s using KERS and the systems are getting better every year.

        No doubt this will filter through to road cars at some point, but the improvements in engine performance over the last 50-60 years have IN GENERAL been applied to increasing power and top speed rather than reducing fuel consumption. My bog-standard 2006-model 2-litre KIA has the road performance of an absolute top-of-the-line luxury car of the early 1950′s. (And yes, far far better fuel consumption. But note that it DOESN’T have better fuel consumption than the 1950 market equivalent here in Australia, which would be something like a Morris Minor that would be flat out at 65mph.)