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Energy & Environment

Gas-Guzzling NASCAR Takes Green Initiatives To Heart

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Michael Tomsic
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When you think "environmentally friendly," NASCAR is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

After all, burning fuel is a fundamental part of stock car racing. But NASCAR, like other pro sports, is trying to decrease its carbon footprint. Some of those initiatives will be on display at the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The same sport that roars to life with this:

"Drivers, start your engines!" Guy Fieri screamed at the start of the All-Star Race last weekend in Charlotte.

Also has executives pushing this message:

"The more that we can demonstrate the impacts that we can have to improve and reduce our carbon emissions – any part we can do, we think that’s important," says Brent Dewar, NASCAR's chief operating officer.

NASCAR’s green initiatives include installing thousands of solar panels at several tracks and, so far, planting more than 370,000 trees across the country.  

Some speedways also use geothermal energy to manage air conditioning systems. Here’s how Tim Hagler of the Charlotte Motor Speedway explains it to visitors.

"I guess when you’re growing up and those hot days when you didn’t have air conditioning and you kind of went under your house where it was real nice and cool and you laid under there with the dogs - if you ever did that - or you kind of hide from your mom and dad, did you ever do anything like that?" Hagler says as the crowd chuckles and a few hands go up.

"It’s cool up under there right?" Hagler continues with a laugh. "That’s kind of the same thing - we bring some of the coolness underground up to the buildings and use that."

During races, even pit stops now have a green touch. They include refueling with a 15-percent ethanol blend. That's 5 percent more ethanol than what you probably put in your car. 

When NASCAR started using an ethanol blend in 2011, it worried some drivers and fans. But now, here's Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s take on it.

"It feels like home," he says. "It just seems like we've been using it for years and years and years. We used to have concerns about how it would perform, and it's an afterthought at this point as to how it affects performance."

It's also reduced emissions by 20 percent, according to NASCAR.

A former senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Allen Hershkowitz, says green initiatives are gaining momentum across sports.

"All professional sports leagues in North America, and in fact, all the major sports federations around the world, have embraced the need for environmental stewardship," he says.

Hershkowitz is now the president of the Green Sports Alliance, which advises many leagues and teams, including NASCAR.

NASCAR wouldn’t say exactly how much pollution its races are responsible for. In general, Hershkowitz says sports emissions are tiny compared to, say, coal plants.

"The actual footprint of sporting events is not large," he says. "The market and cultural influence of sports is gigantic."

Think about it this way, he says: there are far more people who follow sports than who follow science.

The NHL is trying to connect the dots for hockey fans.

"Our sport is directly impacted by climate change and fresh water scarcity because our sport grew up on frozen ponds," says Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s senior director of public affairs and sustainability.

The league is trying to offset its impact by investing in renewable energy and more efficient arenas, as are most leagues.

Also, NHL teams are offering fans incentives to use mass transit, carpool or even ride a bike.

"Certainly we recognize that one major impact of our carbon footprint is fan travel, which is the way in which our fans get to the arena," Mitchell says.

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Credit Michael Tomsic
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RVs start to fill up a campground outside the Charlotte Motor Speedway the week of the Coca-Cola 600.

Fan travel is an especially big challenge for NASCAR. Thousands of racing fans drive to the track in gas-guzzling RVs or:

"My giant diesel truck," Brian Freese said with a laugh. He attended last weekend’s All-Star Race with a friend and his father.

Two of the three are not sold on the idea of man-made climate change. But they do approve of NASCAR’s green initiatives.

"Well, we only have one planet so try to take care of it as best we can, and if it's good for the environment, I'm all for it," Tommy Raymer says.

"I'm definitely all for it," his dad, Tom Raymer, says.

"I think it's important that NASCAR try to stay up with the times, and emissions in your race car is an important aspect of that," Freese says.

Those are the kinds of reactions that Catherine Kummer likes to hear. She's NASCAR's director of green innovation, and she's gotten some odd looks when she tells people her title.

"At first they give you a little bit of a double take: 'it's a bit of an oxymoron, is it not?'" Kummer says.

But once she explains NASCAR’s investments in renewable energy and ethanol-blended fuel – as well as its extensive tire, oil and event recycling programs – she says people realize "NASCAR" and "green" isn’t that bizarre a combination.

"We certainly won't claim to be a carbon neutral sport," she says. "At the end of the day, we race race cars every weekend! We have thousands of people coming and traveling to our events every single weekend, so we're doing all that we can to offset that."

And to teach all those fans how to do their part, says Brent Dewar, the chief operating officer. 

"We're a sport that has a large fan base, and if we can get a percentage of our sport to understand the initiatives that we're doing to reduce our footprint, then that can apply to other things they do where they work, the groups that they socialize in," Dewar says. "If everybody does a little bit of their part, that impact can be so much greater."