Mark Howell · Thursday May 3, 2012
It’s been said that “It’s good to be the king.” Nowhere is that adage more appropriate than within the world of big-time stock car racing, where Brian France and family govern NASCAR with an iron fist wrapped snuggly inside a velvet (and likely fireproof) driving glove. By being “the king”, I don’t mean as in seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty; by being “the king”, I mean it’s good to possess the power to create, administer, and police the laws that govern the folks beneath you.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Part of this tough job involves addressing public criticism and the blame that often goes with it. If the criticism gets harsh enough, or loud enough, those in power are able to make necessary changes… if they, in fact, care about the demands or the concerns of the people. If those in power don’t care about the concerns of the people, any criticism will fall on deaf ears, no matter how vocal the complaining may get.
Did I mention it’s good to be the king? You bet it is!
Hence the release, on April 19th (just in time for Earth Day), of an official white paper citing developments and advances made by NASCAR to promote a more sustainable and green environment. The document – loaded with big colorful pictures and filled with interesting statistics – addressed various projects aimed at turning NASCAR into an ecologically-minded sport/business. While the heads of state in Daytona Beach saw the paper as a timely opportunity to align the sport of stock car racing with socially-popular attitudes, I can’t help but think that the paper was meant to address increasingly-vocal criticism of NASCAR’s wanton abuse of natural resources.
The public has always placed heavy demands on the sport, but the eco-issue is sliding Brian France & Company under a mainstream microscope.
Some demands require a more rapid response from those in power than others. Concerns left ignored can become a launch pad for revolution (anybody remember “taxation without representation” or last year’s Arab Spring?), so it’s best to not meddle with the masses. When in doubt, give ‘em what they want. For added marketing oomph, say it was your intention to follow the people’s wishes all along; being the king means you’re always right, right?
NASCAR has been mired in these public relations quagmires for years, as we’ve seen with such hot button topics as the use of restrictor plates, the Chase/post-season format, the new points system of the month, the incorporation of electronic fuel injection, and – most recently – the supposed lack of cautions that are believed to dull the racing action. Perhaps no issue over the years has raised more eyebrows and ire than NASCAR’s abuse of natural resources. As fossil fuels follow the way of the dinosaurs that created them in the first place, NASCAR continues to sanction competitive consumption – going fast and turning left has been scarred by the general observation that race cars burn fuel, use oil, and spew exhaust while never really going anywhere.
This might, in reality, be the case, but it’s presumptuous to assume that NASCAR has turned a blind eye toward its use of natural resources. Despite its appearance, NASCAR has generally tried to act responsibly – whenever need be – regarding its attitude toward the conservation of our fragile environment. Here’s where being the king is helpful because you can make the rules, enforce them as you see fit, and change them to suit your personal preferences. “Big Bill” France saw saving fuel as part of NASCAR’s patriotic duty to a struggling nation during the oil crisis of the early-1970s; Grandson Brian, consequently, is encouraging similar measures, albeit while allowing the burden (and the cost) to be shifted onto tracks, sponsors, and race teams.
I’m sensitive to NASCAR’s new-and-improved approach to “green” issues as part of research I’ve been conducting that centers on how stock car racing might build its fan base by adopting more progressive attitudes. NASCAR has a long history of addressing technological, competitive, and socio-economic changes, but much of that history reflects an effort to maintain the status quo – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix with it” has been NASCAR’s de facto motto for over sixty years, even as fans and the media criticized the sport for often being more show than business (rumblings we’re hearing yet again as fans debate the supposed use of “phantom cautions” intended to affect race outcomes).
NASCAR’s off-track appearance, of late, has had a significant public relations feel (more so than in other years) given society’s concerns about the environment. Nowhere was this more evident than in last month’s white paper, titled “NASCAR: The Sports Leader in Sustainability”. To most observers, the words “NASCAR” and “sustainability” go together like oil and water. How can a motorsport where the cars get between two and five miles per gallon under green flag conditions be considered environmentally-conscious? Is it a matter of “too little, too late” as evidence in support of global warming grows and oil reserves dwindle? Why should a major player in motorsports even care about the health of the planet? It’s all about the racing, isn’t it?
Well…. it IS all about the racing, but it’s also about showing some kind of sincere concern for a serious international condition. Why should NASCAR get off free-and-clear as race teams burn through as much as two million gallons of gasoline in competition each year, yet I’m supposed to recycle all my cans, bottles, paper, and plastic? By going green with the full (and very public) support of Brian France, NASCAR demonstrates that it’s more than just a resource-guzzling, corporately-driven money machine…. it’s a resource-guzzling, corporately-driven money machine that truly cares about Mother Earth.
And how do we know this? We know this because it says so in the white paper. The first sentence states that, “In just under four years, NASCAR and its stakeholders have made substantial environmental improvements and technological advancements and continue to set new benchmarks.” Never mind that I, for one – an automobile historian who tracks trends and developments related to the sport – can’t recall ever hearing about the “NASCAR Green” initiative prior to the 2011 season. No matter; Brian France has taken steps to try and resurrect lagging fan numbers through the advent of ecological awareness. It’s like having a weight-loss center owned-and-operated by Dunkin’ Donuts….
Not that NASCAR was ever totally ignorant of prevailing attitudes and changing conditions. Nearly forty years ago, when America was in the throes of an energy crisis, it was NASCAR that took matters into its own hands to stave-off public criticism and present itself as being sympathetic to the plight of fuel shortages. In 1974, NASCAR organized efforts to reduce its fuel consumption by 25% to exceed requests made by the newly-formed Federal Energy Office, which was created to monitor national fuel use. This initiative stemmed from a joint meeting held in November of 1973 by officials representing the major auto racing sanctioning bodies in operation at that time: USAC, SCCA, IMCA, NHRA, and NASCAR. The National Motorsports Committee grew out of this joint meeting. About two weeks later – on November 25th, 1973 – President Richard Nixon announced that gas stations would be closed between 9:00 p.m. on Saturdays through midnight on Sundays until further notice was given. Fuel consumption in America had become a federal issue.
NASCAR scrambled to comply with growing national concerns about excessive fuel use. The National Motorsports Committee conducted its own detailed study of annual “petroleum consumption by various sporting associations and leisure time activities” (quoted from Greg Fielden’s “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing”, v. 4, p. 82). Automobile racing finished seventh in the NMC’s final report, coming in behind “vacation travel” (which ranked first), horse racing, football, and movie attendance. On January 3rd, 1974, the Federal Energy Office praised the NMC for “’having the foresight to complete figures on energy consumption in the sports and leisure time areas’” (Fielden, v. 4, p. 83).
Big Bill France served as a liaison between the National Motorsports Committee and the Federal Energy Office. France declared that, “While auto racing uses only a minimal amount of fuel in contrast to other leisure time activities, we are anxious to cooperate in the overall curtailment in the use of fuel…. Auto racing is a highly visible sport and it has a public relations problem inasmuch as we are very vulnerable. We feel it is important to cooperate with the government’s request to exceed the 25% overall cut if possible. I am sure the quality of NASCAR racing for our fans and competitors will be unaffected” (quoted in Fielden, v. 4, p. 83).
Race track operators were asked to submit proposed fuel reduction measures to NMC Executive Director John Cooper (formerly of Ontario Motor Speedway in California). In addition, Big Bill announced that the 1974 Daytona 500 would be shortened by 50 miles (or 10%), and that drivers would be limited to 30 gallons of gasoline for practice sessions. Other track owners were encouraged to reduce race distances and fuel use at their upcoming events, as well. France’s measures at Daytona cut fuel consumption during Speedweeks in 1974 by over 30% from the previous year. Similar gas-saving initiatives were used by other tracks during the NASCAR season, including the reduction of starting fields for most Winston Cup events.
This direct approach seems to be the most obvious: cut overall fuel consumption by reducing starting fields and shortening races. There was a time, believe it or not, when it was okay to have fewer than 43 cars start a NASCAR event; a few weeks ago I wrote about attending the 1992 Hanes 500 at Martinsville Speedway, a race where 32 cars were on the grid. Given the number of start-and-park cars we see in the Sprint Cup Series, doesn’t it make ecological sense to reduce the fields and reduce the consumption?
Cutting race distances is another option we’re seeing put into use, albeit for non-green purposes; the two Cup events at Pocono Raceway have been reduced by 100 miles each, but that was to keep fans (and teams) from getting bored during the races’ often-dull middle-third of merely clocking laps. Tony Stewart, at one point last season, said that most races could have laps dropped since much of an event is spent trying to conserve your car for a final segment sprint to the finish; perhaps taking a Saturday night trophy dash approach to Cup races would save fuel and reduce the supposedly-tedious nature of long, green flag runs.
And while we’re talking about shortening races, why doesn’t NASCAR save resources and build fan interest by cutting events from its annual schedules? It makes sense that audiences would be more interested in races if they didn’t occur so often. Add a handful of open weekends to the lineups, and not only will fans be more inclined to watch the races when held, but a reduction of events will enable both teams and spectators to reduce their fuel usage.
The central problem I have with NASCAR’s recent sustainability report is that the sanctioning body expects too many developments and changes from its partners, tracks, and teams – developments and changes that should originate, by example, from the top (as in from NASCAR) down. It’s ironic that the sport responsible for the environmental damage in question expects other participants to pursue costly and time-consuming advances to turn the ecological tide.
As NASCAR celebrates its recent construction of two LEED-certified structures (NASCAR Plaza in uptown Charlotte and the ISC/NASCAR offices in Daytona Beach) on page two of the eight-page document, the report devotes multiple pages to efforts made by corporations and race tracks feeling the need (or the pressure?) to go green. Companies such as Sprint, Coca-Cola, Coors Light, Safety-Kleen Systems, and Goodyear have all developed avenues for collecting and recycling materials at events, done in part – one might guess – to stay in NASCAR’s good (and Earth-friendly) graces.
Additional eco-friendly projects undertaken by several race tracks are also cited in the report, including Pocono Raceway’s famous 25-acre solar farm, Darlington Raceway’s 25-acre switch grass patch, and Infineon/Sonoma Raceway’s use of sheep (!) to clear grassy areas and fire lanes. Next up: Bruton Smith will use mine mules to haul away the graduated banking removed from Bristol Motor Speedway. So… does going green before throwing the green mean earning more green?
In 2011, NASCAR implemented its use of “American-made” E15 ethanol in all of its national touring series events – a very public effort to try and reduce the sport’s consumption of foreign oil. This season has marked the introduction of electronic fuel injection, which gives teams an opportunity to custom-tune their injectors and set the precise amount of fuel sprayed into each cylinder. The use of EFI should cut fuel consumption a bit by reducing the fire often seen blazing from exhaust headers when drivers work the throttle. Despite the reaction of hardcore fans to these recent developments, NASCAR believes they’ll help make the sport more eco-friendly.
Another eco-friendly campaign tied to NASCAR’s “penance” for decades of environmental “sin” is the “NASCAR Green Clean Air” program – a form of outreach that plants ten trees for each green flag dropped during NASCAR Sprint Cup and Whelen All-American Series races at 26 tracks across the country. The idea is for the trees to capture all of the carbon produced by the cars competing at the events. While well-intended and clearly visible from a public relations angle, planting trees incurs much less expense than restructuring an entire race shop, yet some teams feel this kind of change is worth the effort and cost – especially if it accommodates the new clean, green attitude within NASCAR.
Kyle Busch Motorsports built a new facility that’s currently seeking to earn LEED certification, and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has implemented modifications to save on its overall energy usage. Roush Fenway Racing has added green technologies to its operation, as well, by putting environmentally-friendly fire suppression systems onto its stable of Fords (a system created, oddly enough, by RFR-sponsor 3M). According to the white paper, Roush Fenway Racing recycles 96% of each car, has saved 372,960 kilowatts of energy over the past two years (enough to power ten homes for a year), and has installed a “Hanger Photovoltaic System” that offsets 17,500 pounds of carbon dioxide (about as much as 250 trees). I guess the days of burying wrecked cars behind the shop are gone for good – in hopes of doing good. All of this may seem pretty elementary, but it marks the beginning of what will become standard operating procedure for race teams. Going “green” will continue to be encouraged by NASCAR brass, especially once it starts to quell public criticism and negative feelings about the sport.
At the center of “NASCAR Green” are Brian France and all of the sanctioning body’s administration, the executives who hope this initiative continues “growing faster than ever … constantly creating new programs, identifying potential partners and setting new benchmarks that allow it to take positive steps toward reducing the sport’s impact on the environment.”
As Kermit the Frog says, “It’s not easy being green”. For Brian France and all the folks running NASCAR, being “green” is a lot easier if you’re the king. As for me, I just hope they recycled that Coors Light can that supposedly was tossed onto the backstretch at Richmond late Saturday night. If I have to recycle my cans, NASCAR should do the same…
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