NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: It’s Not Easy Being Green… So NASCAR Better Start

A not so amusing thing happened to me one night last week while I was fueling up my black and gold ’76 Trans Am en route to a local car show. I’m used to the car eliciting a lot of reactions; usually a thumbs up, a smile or an endless string of questions asking if it’s a real Smokey and the Bandit car. But as the young man fueling his Honda Civic Hybrid approached me, he didn’t seem to want to know about the car… or Burt Reynolds. Instead, I was stunned when he asked me who, exactly, I was trying to impress.

What I should have said right there was pretty young women of questionable morals; but as I quickly realized, that might have made things worse. I told him I wasn’t out to impress anyone; I was just buying gas. Quick to respond, he asked if I understood my 455 Pontiac turned 750 cubic feet of clean air into carbon monoxide a mile. I told him that sounded high to me, and that I didn’t drive the car much anyway. It was a toy car; my daily driver averages 30 mpg, and I also frequently ride a motorcycle that gets 50 mpg. But out of nowhere, I felt on the defensive, especially as his girlfriend – who was rather cute, though of unknown moral character – came toward me with a handful of pamphlets.

Now, I hate pamphlets… and I especially hate people who hand people they don’t know pamphlets they don’t want. All of a sudden, it seemed to take forever to fill the Trans Am and while I did so, I was berated for the size of my carbon hoofprint or something like that and called an environmental terrorist. I got annoyed. I was taller than the kid by a head and a decade ago, I would have punched him right in the yap – but I’m older and wiser now. I tried twice to explain I do about 2,500 miles a year in the car – no sale. So, when I left the lot of the Sunoco, I did so in a cloud of tire smoke that would have made Jimmie Johnson proud – with my 800 CFM Quadrajet sucking huge amounts of fresh air through the shaker scoop, and a pair of Flowmaster Forties ripping the holy night. If I had stopped to consider things, the local police department was almost directly across the street; yeah, I may be older, but perhaps not that much wiser. Fortunately, I didn’t get ticketed for reckless driving – or even environmental terrorism.

It’s a sign of the times, I guess. The Green movement has gone from the liberal left to mainstream in this country. What was once the exclusive province of wild eyed fanatics like Al “The Sky is Falling!” Gore has reached Main Street and the way Americans live their lives. As a result, politicians on both sides of the aisle are suddenly eager to take the high ground on “renewable resources,” moving towards draconian higher fuel-mileage standards and reduced emissions for passenger cars and trucks – even as the Big Three in Detroit struggle to stay afloat.

That new public sentiment leaves NASCAR’s broad flanks open to attack. I’ve already had some people, obviously not fans of the sport, wonder why gasoline is “wasted” in automobile racing during this current energy crisis. They want to know what sort of fuel mileage Cup cars get (lousy) and what sort of smog reduction systems they run (none). As a high-profile sport that celebrates the increasingly demonized fast, loud cars, it behooves NASCAR to start their own green initiatives before someone running for or holding public office insists we do.

Step one would be simple. Just as Bill France Jr. did back during the first gas crisis, we can cut the length of our races by 10-20% to burn less fuel and produce less greenhouse gases. Yes, it’s a symbolic gesture – the amount of gas consumed and greenhouse gases produced in an entire season of Cup racing are barely a blip on the big picture radar screen – but we’re doing our part. Some folks, like my strident buddy in the Civic Hybrid, aren’t going to be appeased. So in another symbolic gesture, I’d suggest that NASCAR take 1% of the race purse and 1% of ticket prices to buy and preserve virgin rain forest in South America, the forests that the Greenies call the “lungs of the planet.” Another 1% might be donated by track owners and promoters to initiatives local to their track intended to preserve green space, wetlands and forests. Now, I admit that I’m a hidebound traditionalist. I’ve always loved the 500-mile races because they are a test of the cars’ and drivers’ endurance… but I’m also a realist. In contemporary NASCAR, racing 500-mile events are only a test of the fans’ endurance, since the drivers don’t actually start competing until the final 20 laps of the race anyway. Sorry… I don’t know how to fix that.

The next step would be to approach the design of the cars themselves. With the help of Sunoco, NASCAR’s official fuel supplier, we should begin looking at having all the race fuel converted to E85 by the 2011 Cup season. In addition, the biomass fuel would not be derived from foodstuffs eaten by humans and livestock – the use of corn for ethanol has raised prices at the grocery store and contributed to famines worldwide. Instead, all of our race fuel will be generated from saw grass, grass clippings, and other renewable, if unpalatable, crops. That would be a great PR move for Sunoco in a time where oil companies and their obscene profits have replaced Congress as the most loathed institutions on Earth.

Secondly, we’re going to finally reduce the engine sizes for the Cup, Nationwide, and Craftsman Truck Series entries from 5.7 liters to 4.6 starting in 2010. Given the same design parameters, a smaller displacement engine will burn less gas than a larger one. Reduced power would also actually benefit racing… not hurt it. It’s been shown time and time again that lower speeds on oval tracks actually make for better racing, with more side-by-side action and overall passing. So, in one fell swoop we’ll make a symbolic gesture towards being green while actually taking a stride towards improving the dismal quality of racing as of late. Who knows? With reduced horsepower in the Cup cars, Goodyear might even be able to design a tire that lasts more than 10 laps at Indy!

Finally, we’re going to step into the 20th century at last and have the Cup cars run fuel injection rather than carbs. Again, I’m a hidebound traditionalist; and I love carbs. I love taking them apart and tinkering with them; in fact, I’ve bought three of the things in the last three months. But the fact remains that the last passenger car to use a carb was the lowly Chevette Scooter sometime back in the ’80s. For better or worse, within my lifetime, I figure the last place we’ll be able to see a mechanical secondary double pump four barrel Holley carb is in the Smithsonian Institute.

In its place, fuel injection has become a wonderful thing. Look at the horsepower the late model performance cars make with fuel injection. I hate to admit it, but a lot of these modern muscle cars can stomp the Hell out of the legends of the ’60s and ’70s, all while getting decent fuel mileage and meeting emission standards along the way. Given proper regulated design parameters, fuel injection can greatly improve the fuel mileage of stock cars (that’s important, since E85 really hurts fuel mileage) and lower the amount of carbon monoxide at the track – fumes which have been sickening drivers, crew members, and fans for decades. Again, it’s a move that’s good for the environment and good for the fans.

While we’re at it, track owners and promoters can contribute to our effort as well. Let’s face it; a lot of empty aluminum cans are generated at a stock car race. Heck, just look at all of ’em that hit the track when Kyle Busch wins! There need to be large and convenient recycling bins at every track to see to it all empty pop and beer cans are recycled instead of ending up in a landfill. To encourage their use, promoters could put up standup cardboard cutouts of Kyle Busch atop the recycling dumpsters to allow fans to toss their cans at Kyle without causing catastrophe. Tickets and programs could be printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. Carpooling by the fans could be encouraged by premium parking for high occupancy vehicles (and motorcycles of American manufacturer) with easy access routes out of the track after the event. Track facilities themselves could be designed and redesigned with more green-friendly technology, like wind mills and solar panels, with the excess energy generated during the 50 weeks the typical track isn’t hosting a Cup event going to the local power grid to lower the cost of energy for local consumers. Trees could be planted on track property to offset the race’s environmental footprint… etc., etc. In truth, there’s thousands of small gestures racetracks could make that I’m overlooking here to prove to the Greenies, “OK, we get it. We’re working hard to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

Teams could also become part of the initiative. Let’s face it; those bulking mastodons of team transporters burn a lot of fuel and roll a lot of miles. Again, with Sunoco’s help and strategic planning, those rigs could all be converted over to biodiesel. And team owners should consider transporting personnel to tracks within a reasonable distance by car or truck rather than private aircraft. A Ford Expedition might be a horror to the environmentalists – but a private jet makes it look like a Prius. Even the racecar drivers might try making a statement by driving to races (after all, they are supposed to be pretty good at that stuff). Taking a trek to Darlington, Richmond or even Atlanta and Dover in the car rather than firing up their personal helicopters and jets – twin symbols of conspicuous consumption in harsh economic times – would really send a message that NASCAR’s taking initiative. Hell, maybe they could use Segways rather than two stroke golf carts to get around the track grounds.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think this green frenzy is going away anytime soon, even if gas prices were to somehow drop down to more manageable levels (as reduced demand indicates it should). So, it’s time for NASCAR to police itself and prove that they are good environmental citizens of the Earth (God, I feel vomit trying to exit my nostrils even writing that!) before the politicians, meddlers and Greenies step in and make their own policy law. When the Barbarians arrive at the gates of NASCAR, we need to be able to say we have managed to reduce our oil consumption and greenhouse gas output by 33% of 2008 levels, and plans are in place to reduce it by 50%. Clearly, that would generate vast amounts of good will… but no matter what, just don’t let those Greenie Weenies enter the track property to hand out pamphlets. Did I mention I hate pamphlets and pamphleteers? Bastards, dirty rotten bastards, why I ought to…

Anyways, if we don’t act now, the alternative is to have some unholy overlord like the EPA insist that stock car racing take place with four-cylinder hybrid cars with full catalytic converters and mufflers (and the roar of an unmuffled V8 is the last good and true thing unsullied in stock car racing) against our will. It can happen. The majority of the American auto industry’s problems stem from well-meaning but boneheaded politicians without a clue about automotive design and consumer preferences making their shortsighted demands about automotive safety, fuel consumption and emissions standards.

Meanwhile, I guess I’ll don a ball cap and dark sun glasses and take the Trans Am for a five-mile blast down dark country roads, reveling in the joy of 455 cubic inches, 360 (dyno tested) horsepower and 490 foot pounds of torque surging through a Borg Warner ST10 four speed to a 3.42 posi rear – staring across that big gold screaming chicken on the black hood as telephone poles began looking like a picket fence. That’s before the Greenies can pry the keys from my cold, dead hand to stop such foolishness… but they’re going to have to catch me first.

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