Two writers debate NASCAR's pros and cons
By James Marshall Berry and Rob Loughran
I don't know about you, but I'm still kind of upset that we don't have flying cars and personal jet packs like we were promised back in the 1960s. Until that days comes, it's an automobile-driven world, pun intended. If it rolls, men—and more often these days, women—will race it. Automobile racing is steeped deep in the fabric of American tradition, responsible for more than just a fun afternoon in the sun.
Racing is typically the proving ground for improvements to automobiles, especially for safety. The rearview mirror was first used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911, years before it was ever implemented on production automobiles. Features like "crumple zones" on modern vehicles—areas of the car that absorb impact during a collision—and better and safer guardrails on America's highways are all direct results of auto-racing technology and innovation. Also, racecars go fast, which means they have to stop fast as well. The first hydraulic braking systems were used on racecars, and even front-wheel drive was tested on the track years before it went into commercial vehicle production.
Many ask the question: With gasoline at over $4 a gallon, isn't auto racing a waste of fuel? How much gas could we save if we just stopped doing it?
Let's have a look at the numbers and put some things into perspective. According to Brad Klein, from NASCAR's marketing department, the average race weekend uses 11,800 gallons of gasoline. Whoa, that's a lot, right? Well, consider that, according to Boeing's website, a 747 in a cross-country flight uses one gallon of jet fuel each second. Thus, all the gasoline used in a NASCAR weekend equals the amount consumed by one 747 on one 196-minute flight.
FUN IN THE SUN: Infineon is aiming to generate 40 percent of its electrical power needs from solar sources.
Klein's figure covers all three NASCAR race circuits—the Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series and the Craftsman Truck Series—so to approximate, let's divide it by three. Hence, the fuel burned at this weekend's Sprint Cup at Infineon Raceway will equal the amount of fuel used in 65 minutes on a single 747 flight. According to Mike McCarron, spokesperson for San Francisco International Airport, there are an average of 608 of those flights each week originating from SFO alone. The flights are six hours, one-way. Put into perspective, the amount of fuel used at an auto race is literally a drop in the bucket.
And what about that fuel? It's cleaner-burning fuel than what you can put in your Prius at the local gas pump and use to drive to Whole Foods. Once again, auto racing is at the forefront of innovation and fuel technology, as the fuel NASCAR will run at all its events this year is a special hybrid refined by Sunoco in Pennsylvania. It emits 20 percent fewer greenhouse gasses than the unleaded fuels sold in every gas station in the country, and it also gives the engines increased horsepower. The mix, called Sunoco Green 15, is a blend of racing fuel and ethanol. It's just one of the many green initiatives NASCAR has focused on in recent years.
Some of NASCAR's initiatives include the planting of 10 trees for each drop of the green flag, which last year resulted in the planting of over a thousand trees. That program has now expanded to 21 tracks nationwide. There are new LEED green-certified office buildings, office paper reduction and mandates that race haulers no longer idle at the tracks. NASCAR has a robust recycling program at its race venues, with over a thousand tons of material expected to be recycled in the 2011 season. Much of the recycling is done on the spot, with partners Coca-Cola and Coors Light providing the equipment that moves from track to track.
NASCAR race teams are seeing that being greener equals operating leaner, with the help of GE to install energy-efficient bulbs in many of the facilities, turning to solar for power and using soy- and water-based chemicals for cleaning. Even the racecars themselves are recyclable, with Roush Fenway racing pledging to recycle 96 percent of each racecar that is retired.
At this point, many might ask: "Well, what about all those tires? Racing sure uses a lot of those, right?" Again, let's put it all in perspective. A typical NASCAR weekend will use about 3,500 Goodyear tires. Calculating for all three circuits, 1,100 or so tires will be used at Infineon for the Sprint Cup race this weekend. According to the EPA website, in 2003, the last year data is available, there were 300 million passenger car tires "scrapped" each year. That doesn't count commercial vehicles, including pickup-truck tires.
Once again, NASCAR is way ahead of the curve when it comes to recycling, with 100 percent of its used tires recycled the following week of the event at Goodyear's North Carolina facility, where the material is shredded and used for asphalt mixtures. The general public's recycling rate for tires is at about 80 percent, which leaves about 60 million tires heading to the landfill each year—or, even worse, dumped illegally.
Here in our own backyard, Infineon Raceway is leading the charge when it comes to operating greener. Just this year, a partnership with Panasonic will allow the facility to generate over 40 percent of its power from the sun. Its new sign, seen from Highway 37, is completely solar-powered. The facility has a full-time, year-round shepherd and about 3,000 sheep that keep the vegetation down, minimizing the need for gas-powered equipment. Numerous owl boxes around the facility help with rodent prevention without the need for pesticides and poison.
Since 2004, when the recycling program went into full swing, the facility has recycled over 74 tons of material and was recognized by the state of California for its efforts. Ninety percent of all its janitorial products are environmentally friendly, and water-saving facilities in the restrooms have resulted in a reduction of water use by 36 percent.
The raceway also has its own water and sewage systems, not relying on the county or city for any of its water needs, and all vegetation is maintained with recycled water. Infineon also recycles over 3,000 pounds of cardboard each month, with on-site balers. All oil and chemicals are gathered for recycling by Safety-Kleen Systems, who last year alone recycled over 220 million gallons of used oil from racing facilities around America.
So now you can go out and enjoy the race. When you do so, feel good that you're having fun with a sport that truly cleans up after itself.
James Marshall Berry is a musician and internet consultant who's painted the number 43 on anything with wheels since he was five years old, and he's tempted to do the same to his 2007 Nissan Altima. Find him at www.jmberry.com.
I'm not against racing. I run the occasional 10k and half-marathon. I realize competition is a genetic imperative for the human species.
But the popularity of NASCAR offends, mystifies and intrigues me. I pick up the newspaper and section after section warns, exhorts and accuses me of being immoral because I'm not "green" enough.
So be it. I don't drive a hybrid, I eat New Zealand lamb and I refuse to throw away perfectly good lightbulbs so I can use those costly-yet-somehow-money-saving incandescent corkscrews. And I'm certainly not going to buy new appliances until the old ones don't freaking work anymore.
But nearly every item on every page of the newspaper chides that I need to be greener than Kermit the Frog. And then I open the sports page. Emblazoned across the front is the coiffed, manicured and incredibly fresh-looking winner of the week's NASCAR race.
The sports page features NASCAR pictures and NASCAR race coverage and NASCAR season standings and prognostications and the usual overblown polysyllabic and hyperbolic blather that sports writers love. But there's no mention of the fact that 30 or so high-performance 10 mpg (if that) NASCAR racecars just burned an ocean of gasoline to go around an oval for four hours.
Where are all the greennecks, all the holier-than-thou assholistic prophets of doom when it comes to NASCAR? Why does NASCAR receive absolution for burning up several tons of fuel—in a sanctioned and celebrated manner—to drive precisely, specifically and intentionally back to where they started?
Think of the fuel—and tires and belts and oil and lubricants and filters and antifreeze and steel and plastic and the occasional human being—burned through in testing, qualifying and racing. Think of the greenhouse gases that could be eliminated by outlawing these beastly indulgent mechanical hedonists. Each of these races attracts a sea of humanity that motors in from hundreds of miles away driving Winnebagos and cars and vans and trucks.
THE OTHER VIEW: Driving in a circle, over and over—what's the point?
If we want to reduce dependence on foreign oil, wouldn't eliminating NASCAR (and all the subsidiary "minor league" racing circuits that exist to prepare drivers and crews) be an immediate and definite and substantial savings of oil that American soldiers are, right now, dying to procure and/or protect?
Rather than, say, replacing my energy-gobbling incandescent Curious George nightlight?
Think for a moment: If the engineering acumen and cash-backing that goes into making these cars go fasterfasterfaster were dedicated to seeing how far and fast we could go on one tank of gas we'd have a car capable of 100 mph and 100 mpg within two years. Wanna bet?
I say give each existing NASCAR race team subsidies and sponsors and just 10 gallons of gas every Sunday—with the last car running declared the winner. Keep the financial incentives the same, and this new LASTCAR racing series would be more popular than American Idol.
But, alas, LASTCAR will never happen. You can't replace NASCAR; you can't even effectively boycott NASCAR. You can boycott the races by not attending or watching them on TV, but to really hit them where it hurts, we'd need to boycott the sponsors—i.e., don't buy a Big Three car or a Toyota.
After this it gets tricky. We'd also have to stop eating M&M's, Kellogg's cereal, Burger King, Domino's pizza and Cheerios. We'd forgo drinking Budweiser, Crown Royal, Miller Lite, Red Bull, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. We couldn't use FedEX or UPS for our shipping needs. Shopping at Lowes, Office Depot, Home Depot, Best Buy and Target would be forbidden. The next time we invade a country that had the audacity to build their pissant culture on top of our precious oil, we couldn't use the National Guard or the U.S. Army, both NASCAR sponsors. Worst of all, Little Debbie snack cakes are off limits: she sponsors a car in the Sprint Cup.
But if NASCAR were outlawed, it would result in a civil war. Our entire civilization is currently designed for cars, not people, and NASCAR happens to be the racing circuit by and for the people.
These days we humans, minus our Detroit exoskeletons, are the interlopers on our own cities' streets. Parking spaces trump pedestrians and bicycles. Our street construction and repair budgets dwarf human-services monies. We've designed Habitrails for mindless and soulless automobiles, and yet we live here dodging cars, breathing fumes and waiting with compliant stupidity for the "WALK/DON'T WALK" light to change.
We are absolutely blind—in the same autonomic way we are unaware of our heartbeat and respiration—to our worshipful obeisance to automobiles. As John B. Rae wrote, "The automobile is the idol of the modern age. The man who owns a motorcar gets for himself, besides the joys of touring, the adulation of the walking crowd, and . . . is a god to the women."
Not coincidentally, NASCAR's premier race day is Sunday. Hundreds of thousands worship in person; millions watch on the tube. Auto racing is sacrosanct because the automobile is the United States of America's one true god. And we feed that hungry god, with human flesh, on a daily basis.
Millennia ago when an Aztec priest plunged his surgically sharp stone knife and a still-beating human heart was plucked from the sacrificial victim's chest, it was not simply the death of a human. It served to honor a deity who would continue to approve and prolong and provide for some holy aspect of Aztec civilization.
So it is today with the United States and our car cult. Highways are our Aztec pyramids, sacred sites where we practice our incidental human sacrifice. Highway deaths are accepted as the price of keepin' it rollin' down the line.
The unprecedented popularity and cult of personality that surrounds NASCAR ("Who's your driver?") has installed those drivers, whether NASCAR likes it or not, as high priests in this cult. There are millions of Americans who adore and emulate these drivers with a "24," "03" or "88" bumper sticker. The NASCAR boys drive faster and farther and better than we do. They visibly risk death every week, and when they survive, we survive. Our cars, our culture survives. NASCAR escapes scrutiny, environmental damage is never hinted at, the word "waste" is never uttered.
NASCAR's spectacle rationalizes a plunder economy in search of petroleum. It makes starting a war neither for liberty nor to ensure peace but to secure oil fields somehow worthwhile. Road carnage and the oil-war dead are slickly and stylishly justified every week by the NASCAR spectacle and the art of human sacrifice.
Find Rob Loughran's mystery fiction, science fiction, children's fiction, joke books and short story collections at www.robloughranbooks.com. Rob lives with his wife, Penny, and a 2001 Saturn L300 in Windsor, Calif.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.