NASCAR goes green?

New tracks touted as good for the planet


NASCAR. Photo: Reuters
Coming to a neighborhood near you. Photo: Reuters

An endless stream of RVs is at a standstill, waiting to fill dirt parking lots. People congregate around barbecue grills, drink a few cold ones, and talk strategy. Fans adorned with drivers’ portraits or sponsors’ logos walk around the giant stadium shopping for NASCAR-branded goods to show support for their favorite teams. Soon the doors will open; 100,000 screaming fans will salute and root for the boys pushing Dee-troit’s finest steel 200 miles per hour around the oval track, fueled by 112-level octane leaded gasoline.

This scene can only mean one thing. It’s NASCAR season, and the great American races have begun. But if you think these events are confined to the Deep South, you’re wrong. If the executives at NASCAR and its subsidiary company, the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), have their way, their races will happen right in your backyard, no matter what corner of the US you inhabit. To get there, they’ve developed one great sales pitch: Not only is a NASCAR track in your area good for the local community, it’s good for the environment.

NASCAR popularity has risen sharply since the late 1990s. Now the fastest-growing sport in America, NASCAR can lay claim to over 75 million fans in the US alone  more than a quarter of the countrys population. NASCAR expects to increase the number of annual race attendees  3.5 million in 2004  especially as it tries to break into untapped markets. New tracks outside Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Dallas have helped shed the old NASCAR stereotype that it was just a sport for Southerners, moonshiners driving around in circles. The conglomerate is now looking across the US border with the formation of NASCAR Canada and NASCAR Mexico. The first NASCAR race outside the US was held in Mexico City in March.

In many ways, NASCAR is the epitome of the American psyche: fast, competitive and dangerous. It represents our love of cars, our dependence on the automobile industry (and our dependence on oil), writes Andrew Canon in The Daily Utah Chronicle. Auto racing perfectly characterizes the divide in America. Either you love NASCAR or you hate it. The branding of NASCAR autos with corporate logos is either a symbol of overcommercialization or of American ingenuity. Carbon dioxide and other auto emissions are either relatively harmless by-products or theyre contributing to the global warming phenomenon.

Its well known in the auto racing industry that the executives at NASCAR have made a concerted effort to move their sport out of the South and onto the national stage, where mammoth sponsorship deals and lucrative TV contacts are to be made. According to Racer magazines senior editor Ben Blake, quoted in the Snohomish County Business Journal, With seven tracks within a 200-mile radius in North Carolina, NASCAR/ISC set about thinning the herd with the goal of reducing the perception that NASCAR was a Southeastern concept and establishing it as a national sport.

To that end, NASCAR and the ISC have had their eyes on two major projects: a new track in the Northwest and another in New York City. In April 2004 the ISC announced its plans for a track in Marysville, Snohomish County, just 30 miles outside Seattle. Economic forecasts initially looked bright. ISC executive and local political leaders reported a new track and entertainment facility could generate $87 million in annual tourism revenue and $58 million a year in state and local taxes, as well as 160 full-time and more than 2,000 seasonal jobs. The 80,000-seat track, with amenities including retail centers, a family recreation area, and hiking and biking trails, would be used for NASCAR events on just two or three weekends a year, leaving much of the facility open to the public the rest of the year. The ISC cites similar tracks such as the Daytona International Speedway, used by charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross, Special Olympics, and the American Lung Association, at no cost to those organizations.

But citizens of Snohomish County werent eager to embrace the plan. As Tiffanie Kilmer of the grassroots organization Snohomish County Citizens Against a Racetrack (SCAR) told the Arlington Chamber of Commerce at a hearing on the proposed track, Studies have shown that economic studies undertaken by political groups with vested interest in the outcome often do not take into account the costs to the community. Profits from the project do not go back into the community but instead to a corporate owner, while debt typically remains the responsibility of the taxpayers.

“We want responsible
economic growth, not an
event-driven economy”

Many Snohomish County residents were unhappy to hear that the ISC was prepared to invest only $50 million out of the $250 million needed to complete the project, not to mention that local governments would have to spend $70 million on transportation improvements in order to accommodate the large crowds on race weekends. When asked during a public meeting why the ISC did not commit to spending more on local infrastructure, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon said, Indirectly they will. Sales taxes from the track would go to local governments, after construction costs are paid off. Reardon admitted that the state legislature would have to approve of such a deal. The members of SCAR are wary, as the mission statement on their Web site suggests: We dont believe in utilizing taxpayer expense and subsidy for profits that will be shipped out of state&. We want responsible economic growth, not an event-driven economy.

NASCARs eco-friendly pitch
After a summer of debate over the proposed NASCAR track among Snohomish County residents, local officials eager to close the deal helped promote the ISCs most ingenious sales pitch of all: that a racetrack would be good for the local endangered salmon, and in turn a benefit for the environment. As stated in the Snohomish Daily Herald on October 22, 2004, The cars (from fans attending the races) would be parked on grass, allowing rainwater to percolate into a shallow aquifer below and keep stream flows high. Such natural processes cant happen if the land is paved over with big-box stores, warehouses and parking lots. Paul Roberts, development manager for the county executive, agrees. This kind of facility will put less pollution into the environment than almost any other development scenario.

The ISC presumably chose the 600-acre site in Snohomish County  already slated for development  to avoid lengthy land-use battles over protected farmland. The site, zoned by the County for light-industrial use, is likely to have become a mega-strip mall. This scenario, the ISC claims, is detrimental to the nearby fish-bearing streams. Coho salmon, cutthroat trout, and the occasional chum salmon spawn in Edgecomb Creek, which flows through the proposed NASCAR site. The concrete landscape that would appear if a mega-mall were built would collect oil, antifreeze, and other toxins from the shoppers parked cars. Once the seasonal rains come through, storm drains would funnel the toxins directly into sensitive natural habitats, such as the surrounding streams.

The ISCs planned parking lot would be left as grass and dirt, which slows runoff and  the ISC claimed  would avoid overwhelming the fish with waste. But as the report in The Herald states, Opponents (of the track) laugh at the idea, imagining motor homes, full-size trucks and buses squishing over muddy, rut-covered fields. They point to an aquifer thats so shallow that a couple of minutes of shoveling will expose the water table during the wet season.

So is a NASCAR parking lot better than a mega-mall parking lot? A soil survey of Snohomish County by the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows the planned NASCAR site has an extremely high water table, aquifer, and porous soil conditions. These conditions make the aquifer very vulnerable to contamination from surface pollution. During NASCAR events, many such pollutants are disposed of or leaked on the grass parking areas. These include  and are not limited to  oil and gasoline from parked vehicles, spilled beverages, and drained motor home sewage. Either way, neither development is good for the environment.

Marysville and county officials could always step in and make sure that the aquifer and streams are protected as the area develops without a racetrack, adds John Healy, communications director for 1,000 Friends of Washington. Nowhere is it written that we have to develop every vacant piece of the planet.

NASCAR crash Photo: Reuters
A crash during the 2005 Daytona 500. Photo: Reuters/Pierre Ducharme

Living in the past
When it comes to the racing cars and how to race them, NASCAR chooses to stay close to its roots, despite much technological advancement in the automotive and racing industries. After all, at one point in NASCARs history, the cars that were racing were supposed to be as close to stock as possible, hence the word stock in National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. The Chevy small-block V-8 engine recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and still operates much as it did originally  carburetor and all. Today, the cars that compete on the Nextel Circuit, NASCARs premier-level race series, get an average of four miles per gallon during 500-mile races. With recent gasoline prices on the rise, many team owners are seeing operating costs soar, especially in their travel budgets. Weve got about 2526 total vehicles, and we do a lot of traveling, almost 50,000 miles a year, said Ray Evernham, a NASCAR team owner, in The Daily Review. Throw in the airplane fuel, the tractor-trailer fuel and all the shop vehicles, and its probably brought the cost up 30 percent. Fuel costs are estimated to be in the six figures for a team with a total yearly racing budget of $1516 million. During the 1974 oil shortage, NASCAR shortened the Daytona 500 by 50 miles, reportedly to conserve gas.

Despite the apparent lack of effort to put a halt on the stunning levels of fuel consumption typical of NASCAR racing, the sports representatives continue to preach energy efficiency to its fans. On NASCARs Web site, the organizations title sponsor for tires  Goodyear  posted a news bulletin to readers encouraging them to keep their own automobiles tires correctly inflated to ensure maximum fuel efficiency. With the heading Air Care Could Ease Pain at the Pump, the bulletin read, Running a tire 20 percent under-inflated can increase fuel consumption by 10 percent. In addition, the tires tread life can be reduced by 15 percent or more. They should know: Each of the 43 cars competing in a NASCAR event uses up to 60 tires per race-weekend.

If the NASCAR executives, engineers, and technicians are reluctant to go to their own Web site to learn to become more energy efficient, they could look to their youngest fans for assistance. Take fourth-grader Carlos D. Fernandez, winner of the 2003 Hispanic Heritage Art Contest, which asked students to submit artwork and a supporting essay on the theme of Transportation in the Next 100 Years. The winners artwork was then presented in the form of a design for a NASCAR race truck that competed in an official Craftsman Truck race. Fernandezs artwork depicted a purple NASCAR race truck named Flamer with tongues of flame on both the hood and along the bottom of the door panels and rear fenders. As Fernandezs essay explained, Transportation in the next 100 years would involve getting energy mostly from the sun and wind. Because of our concern for the environment today, my vision for transportation is of a truck that is much safer and cleaner than today.

Old habits
Despite NASCARs ability to kick its ties to the tobacco industry  race tracks that long bore the logo of the Winston Cup now have a Nicorette car competing on the track  the sport has still been unable to quit its addiction to leaded fuel. Although leaded gasoline was eliminated from automobile use in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, Congress exempted the auto-racing and airline industries in 1990. While many race series, including Formula One, have since shifted to a mixed ethanol fuel, NASCAR still runs on lead.

With the sports rising national popularity, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked NASCAR to phase out their use of leaded fuel, though still only on a voluntary basis. Frank ODonnell, president of the group Clean Air Watch, recently wrote to the chairman and CEO of NASCAR, Brian France, to encourage the phase-out of lead in stock car racing. In his letter, ODonnell said, 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. Blood lead concentrations lower than 10 parts per million can permanently diminish childrens mental capacity. Studies show an association between low-level exposure and criminal behavior, hearing loss, and difficulty metabolizing vitamin D. In 2002, the EPA reported that lead particles from auto exhaust can remain aloft for as long as 10 days, traveling many miles from their source.

Still, NASCAR has not found an alternative to leaded fuel, which they say helps their engines run more smoothly. According to NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Posten, quoted in Sporting News, NASCAR has looked into and will continue to look into making the switch to unleaded, but has not been able to find an alternative to lead, which lubricates engine valves. Posten reiterated his concerns during a segment by NPRs Living on Earth that aired May 6, 2005. Its not as simple a process as you might think, but it is one that were working on and it is absolutely a high priority and that is why we are continuing to work with EPA to find the solution.

Back to the drawing board
By the end of 2004, the proposed NASCAR/ISC track for Snohomish County fell apart. Local officials claimed theyd had difficulty getting the ISC to commit more than a small percentage of the total costs of the project. In the end, officials and residents agreed that the cost to taxpayers was too high.

The pause in the search for the next site to host a Northwestern track for NASCAR was brief. By spring 2005, as many as 10 separate locations were back on the table as possible NASCAR track sites. With the Northwest in flux, NASCAR and the ISC have attempted to move closer to the biggest prize  New York City.

What better fit for a sport that wants to show off its multi-billion dollar enterprise than a home in the countrys business capital? Unlike the potential sites in the Northwest, the ISC has found a location and managed to buy the land ahead of public debates. The 600-acre site on Staten Island, also zoned for light industrial use, is slated to become the home of the next NASCAR track, complete with its own retail center, new ferry dock, soccer fields, and  to be true to NASCARs environmentally friendly pitch  a 240-acre wetland preserve, the largest private restoration project the area has seen in 50 years. The community is starting to get involved and voice their concerns, including, among other things, traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, and the suitability of the terrain to house such extensive development. The ISC claims that if the racetrack is not approved, the land will be turned into an industrial facility. The New York Times reports the land once held 82 oil storage tanks and is undergoing cleanup. Four million cubic yards of silt from New York Harbor will be needed to prevent the property from flooding during rainstorms, while developers must protect muskrats, herons, and ibises in the surrounding marshland.

With New York already notorious for its traffic jams, many are concerned a track will overload local streets. The Sunday drive or Saturday drive without NASCAR is horrific. Its a nightmare, said New York City Councilman James Oddo, in a report by the Daytona Beach News Journal. How the heck are you going to get 80,000 people to Staten Island? The presumption is, it cant work. According to the same report, Race fans in the area surrounding New York City would be forced to leave their vehicles and take mass transit. Gone would be the giant RVs, parked pickups and tailgate parties surrounding the event.

Public transportation to a NASCAR race? No more RVs? Looks like NASCAR will really have to let go of the past. It seems some habits may be harder to quit than others.

Natale Servino is an Earth Island Journal intern.

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