But more than any other American sport, Nascar is also a for-profit business, and like many companies these days, it is focused on cutting costs by recycling, conserving and generating its own energy. While the core of the sport remains unchanged, Nascar, its teams, track operators and sponsors are employing an ambitious set of green initiatives that includes collecting used fuel, planting trees to offset carbon emissions, and deploying sheep to keep the infield grass short.
Going green not only saves money that can be spent on drivers and cars, but it has also created new revenue by attracting sponsors to Nascar that want to trumpet their eco-friendliness to the millions of fans who watch races on television and at the track.
Of course, these efforts will not alter the essence of a sport that celebrates fast cars that burn copious amounts of gasoline, a fact that has led many critics to accuse Nascar of greenwashing, or claiming unfairly to be environmentally friendly. But many who work in Nascar say that reducing and recycling are imperative precisely because so much waste is produced, and if money can be saved in the process, all the better.
“The incongruity is part of what makes going green in this sport so impactful,” said Michael Lynch, Nascar’s director of green innovation. “There’s a bias that the sport is not green and therefore the fans aren’t green.”
Nascar is not the first sport to have an eco-campaign. Baseball teams including the St. Louis Cardinals and the Seattle Mariners are aggressively recycling and conserving. The Portland Trail Blazers, the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic among other N.B.A. teams play in arenas certified by the United States Green Building Council. The builders of a new Formula One track in Austin, Tex., are planning a host of environmental initiatives, including buying carbon offsets.
Many environmentalists support these efforts not just because of the volume of resources consumed at stadiums and at arenas, but also because so many people watch sports and are likely to follow examples set by the players, teams and leagues. This may be particularly true at Nascar races, where the event itself is about consumption.
“This is not the sport that you would expect to hear green messages, so it’s a good learning opportunity,” said Andrew Winston, who runs Winston Eco-Strategies. “You’re reaching millions of people who have not heard much about it at all and are sometimes hostile to it. So if you open their eyes to it, it’s certainly worth it.”
Indeed, the greening of Nascar is a sweeping undertaking because so many people attend so many races in so many places, at tracks that are turned into small cities with all the associated problems of garbage, water, power, sewage and air quality. To tackle these challenges in a systematic way, Nascar hired Lynch in 2008, just as teams, tracks and others in the sport started to feel the effects of the recession.
Rather than institute rules, Lynch brought people from all parts of Nascar together to figure out how environmental programs could help them cut tens of millions of dollars in costs without imposing too much strain on their operations.
Lynch started by expanding efforts already under way. Safety-Kleen, a $1.2 billion recycler of automotive fluids that started working with Nascar two decades ago, expanded its collection of used fuels, lubricants and oily rags at tracks and race team shops. In addition to the 225,000 gallons of fluids it expects to bring in this year, Safety-Kleen also recycles oil filters, fluorescent light bulbs, metal shavings, aluminum and steel.
“None of that goes in a landfill,” said Drew Patey, the director of motor sports for Safety-Kleen which, because of its alliance with Nascar, now works at IndyCar races, too. “Guys in the heartland who didn’t see recycling as a priority are seeking us out.”
Nascar also claims to have the largest recycling program in sports because of Coca-Cola and Coors Light, two Nascar sponsors that are expected to recycle about 12 million bottles and cans this season, twice as much as last year. At races, the trucking company Freightliner stations a clean-diesel rig — with a Richard Petty custom paint scheme — bearing a Coca-Cola compactor that crushes up to 1,000 containers a minute. Hundreds of tons of cardboard are also collected each season.
Despite the scale of these efforts, Lynch does not disagree with environmentalists who call these recycling measures low-hanging fruit. So he has supported other projects like the installation last year of 40,000 solar panels over 25 acres at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. The track operator, which spent about $15 million to build the three-megawatt solar farm, now saves about $500,000 a year in energy costs and has produced electricity equal to 324,000 gallons of gasoline.
About 225,000 gallons of fluids like used fuels are expected to be recycled at Nascar tracks this year.
“We gained a lot of fans because of it,” said Brandon Igdalsky, the raceway’s president. “Our generation is trying to clean up the things that our grandparents and great-grandparents did.”
Igdalsky said that he paid more for his solar power system because he bought parts made in the United States. Indeed, many businesses at Nascar, perhaps playing to the sports’ fans, which skew toward the South and the Midwest, view their green initiatives almost as a patriotic duty. Generating electricity from the sun is not just about saving money, but also a way to wean the country off imported oil.
That was part of the thinking behind Nascar’s decision to make Sunoco Green E 15 ethanol blend its official fuel this season. The choice was contentious. Fans and drivers protective of the sports’ traditions look warily on efforts to tinker with something as elemental as fuel. Many environmentalists object to corn-based ethanol because it may drive up food prices and may not reduce emissions by as much as its proponents claim.
The ethanol blend Nascar uses does boost horsepower slightly, alleviating fears that it would hurt speeds on the track. And many at Nascar note that ethanol is produced with corn grown in the United States, which and helps reduce reliance on imported oil.
“We have all the resources here and we have to take care of the environment,” said Clint Bowyer, a driver with Richard Childress Racing. “Ethanol is a big step in that direction.”
As part of a broader sponsorship, Nascar put the logo of American Ethanol, the promotional group for Growth Energy and the National Corn Growers Association, on the green flags used to start races.
To offset the substantial amount of greenhouse gases still produced at races, Nascar has started to plant 10 mature trees after each race, often in communities near the tracks. The Toyota Camry hybrid is the pace car of choice at many races. At the Infineon track in Sonoma, Calif., a small herd of sheep graze on the infield to keep the grass trimmed.
Another example is the Roush Fenway team, which recycles 96 percent of each car it produces and has eliminated Styrofoam cups and bought bicycles for workers to get around its facility in North Carolina. Still, even the most avid environmentalists at Nascar acknowledge this is only the beginning of a long process to clean up the sport.
“We’re realists and we race cars that burn a fossil fuel that get four to five miles per gallon, and we can’t change that,” said Ian Prince, the chief sustainability officer at Roush Fenway. “But we can change the other 99 percent of it.”