Lean, Mean and Green in the World of NASCAR - The Journey of Making NASCAR Sustainable

NASCAR Green has been capturing the attention of race fans for the past five years in hopes of making one of the top spectator sports in the world more sustainable. Well, it has done just that. 75 percent of NASCAR fans are aware of NASCAR Green and its initiatives to make not only the sport, but the world a better place. 

Most fans have noticed a different look on the racecars for the past several race weekends - bright green colors on every single one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series vehicles where the driver's names are located on the windshield. A rather different look, it provides fans a different perspective as to why NASCAR is attempting to truly get their fans involved more than any other sport.

"In addition to having the comprehensive set of initiatives that we have, the thing that really struck us in building this platform over the past five years is how incredible over fan impact numbers have been around the NASCAR Green platform,” NASCAR Green Vice President, Dr. Michael Lynch said in an exclusive interview with Speedway Digest on Friday afternoon. “We have numbers such as 75 percent of avid NASCAR fans are aware of NASCAR Green and know that the sport cares about the environment. That’s a very recent number for us. The fact that NASCAR fans are twice as likely as non-fans to keep their households ‘green,’ and we are always looking at ways to improve the environment whether that be from getting fans more active. That’s a 70 percent difference from four to four and a half years ago."

"It actually goes back to one of the hypotheses that we had at the beginning which is – a NASCAR Green platform across the entire stakeholdership of the league had the potential to have a unique impact because of the mental framework and mental model that fans bring to this sport that is actually different from fans of other major sports like Major League Baseball, or football, the NBA, hockey or Premier League Soccer or the World Cup. The thing is – a NASCAR fan is a fan of NASCAR. On average, fans have six favorite drivers that they follow. That being the case, tackling ‘green’ from an overall sport level and having an integrated level from all of our teams and venues and all of our partners as well from broadcasters to manufacturers, really gathers fans around ‘green’ in a way that no other sport has had the opportunity to do because we are different fans from baseball and basketball and hockey because the team has the passion and the focus. In our case, the league level platform has a unique opportunity literally because of the mental framework of fans in the first place."

What NASCAR has done is incredibly rare in the sports world. With such a large fan base, the sanctioning body has turned a sport that has the potential to harm the environment, and has now made it extremely 'green.' NASCAR launched the Race to Green program in 2013 with the hopes of growing their sustainability, and that they have done. Besides joining forces with race teams, NASCAR has encouraged their partners to participate in NASCAR's Green initiative. It is bringing Fortune 500 companies together more than any other sport, and are doing so for an outstanding cause.

Here are some examples of what NASCAR's partners are doing this month: 

-Toyota will be pacing the Richmond Sprint Cup Race this month with a Camry Hybrid; Ford had a Ford Fusion Hybrid to pace the Sprint Cup race in Martinsville and a Fusion EcoBoost as backup pace car for the Martinsville race weekend.

-Coca-Cola Recycling will be activating recycling efforts in Texas, Darlington, and Richmond.

-Featherlite Trailers will plant 200 trees for every Featherlite Trailers NSCS driver win during the month of April

-Freightliner will plant 400 trees for every Freightliner NSCS driver win during the Race to Green platform

- 5.11 Tactical will be producing & providing 300 NASCAR Green patches for use on Officials Uniforms during the Green Platform window.

- 3M will be supporting the 2014 Tree Planting efforts.

There are endless amounts of projects going on thanks to NASCAR Green, but the impact is greater than one might believe.

"We categorized where our initiative would really make a difference,” said Lynch, who was previously a professor at Purdue University. “Then, we also realized where we could have the most impact is where we had the initiative to make a change of the environmental impact for the fans that can literally take these things home with them and get involved. We weighed in the initiatives of recycling at tracks, the camp grounds (which is very much like curb side recycling), our emissions reductions initiative, our bio-fuels in the racecars, the renewable energy across the sport and those were all a part of the initial phase. All of that sort of set a foundation to give us the opportunity to do some call-to-action work to have direct fan engagement and participate in the initiative with us by recycling at the track – putting the bottles and cans in the recycling bins.  Last year was our first year of the Race to Green initiative where we started from Earth Hour in early March to Arbor Day at the end of April with Earth Day in there as well."

"Last year was the first time we made a call-to-action. With the Arbor Day Foundation, and multiple of our corporate partners, last year it was 19 (partners) and this year it is about 30, you can donate a dollar to plant a tree in an area of natural disaster that caused devastation in the U.S. We forest that area and also, when you plant a tree that lives its full life, it stores about a metric ton of CO which is the amount generated by one of our Sprint Cup cars driving a 500-mile race. We issued that call-to-action last year, and the total from the tree planting was about 189 thousand, and we are replicating that this year with the Virginia Department of Forestry to place a lot of trees each year as well. Now, in later years, for our call-to-action, we will be adding in a contribution to the renewable energy in the U.S. Bringing household products and energy products in the sport will bring energy proficiency management. We will take steps over the next few years to engage fans on what they can do to reduce the amount of environmental impact that they can do in addition to driving a more fuel efficient vehicle that our manufacturers are producing."

However, NASCAR's off the track initiative is not the only thing they are doing to make the sport sustainable. Since the launch of NASCAR Green in 2008, the importance of this campaign has grown to unbelievable levels. The most abundant gains, however, have been on the race track. 

NASCAR's Sunoco E15 fuel blend has been a leader for innovation. It has brought cleaner gasoline to the sport, and has also brought more partners into NASCAR than imaginable. Over the past several seasons, Kenny Wallace, Mike Bliss, Tayler Malsam, Jeff Burton and Austin Dillon have each been sponsored by American Ethanol and other 'green' friendly companies such as G-Oil or Family Farmers. This initiative has brought great partners to the sport, and what goes into NASCAR's new fuel combination might surprise you if you do not already know.

"It is actually pretty simple,” explained Dr. Lynch, who has been a large part in launching this oil, which is the world's most visible biofuels program. “It is Sunoco Green E15. It is 85 percent high octane unleaded gasoline from Sunoco. Then, it is 15 percent of American grown, American made ethanol produced here in the U.S. from corn grown here in the U.S. Ethanol, being a high-octane bio-fuel, actually increases the octane even further because ethanol has an average octane level of over 105 to 113 which is why we end up with higher horsepower in the cars with this high performance bio-fuel. There is actually a very simple formula to it. It is high-octane, high performance racing gas that Sunoco is creating (and they are truly the world experts at race fuel production), combined with 15 percent of American grown and made ethanol that Sunoco actually produces in their plant in upstate New York.”

But why is this fuel better than using regular racing gasoline? It is actually quite compelling.

"There are a few reasons. One is that by using 15 percent renewable fuel, you end up with a life cycle green house gas reduction of about 20 percent because the ethanol is produced in a state-of-the-art process. It is ‘greener’ from a green-house initiatives standpoint. Then, the performance benefit of it is literally eight to 12 horsepower as a result of having it. The reason of that is, based on a physics and performance standpoint, is that because ethanol’s octane creates a smoother blend which makes a clean burn. There is a lesser chance of irregularity of the pistons. What you get is – a very elegant, powerful motion in addition to lesser greenhouse gas emissions. You get sort of a maximum combo of a greener fuel. It is renewable, so you can grow the 15 percent out of the ground again. And you get added horsepower which translates to the performance of the cars which is something drivers have commented on since the beginning."

With an increase in horsepower has also caused controversy. So much controversy that NASCAR is planning on taking out approximately 75-100 horsepower over the next year or two to reduce speeds. However, Lynch said that a change in horsepower has little to no effect on the environment because of what the cars are producing is still the same.

A reason that this has occurred is because of the addition of Electronic Fuel Injection, otherwise known as EFI. Introduced during the 2011 Daytona 500, EFI has had a giant impact on the sport. Not only has it modernized the Sprint Cup Series, but it has increased the sustainability of the sport. However, it is still not present in the Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series or any of the developmental divisions. Instead, the lower tiers of NASCAR use carburetors. Part of the reason is because it will save the lower funded teams plenty of money, helping them survive in the sport. 

"Fuel injection is one where, like a lot of new aspects of the racecars, because of the cost implications of launching something new and because of the consciousness that NASCAR has of the sport with, and on behalf of the teams in the Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series and the developmental series to cost effectively compete. We need to make sure these folks continue to make a profit in what they are doing. These are all family businesses and they are the life of the sport. When something new like Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) comes in that has a cost component that needs to be managed and worked through with the learning curve over time, it is something that takes a lot to get started in the Cup Series."

"Then, as the learning curve is worked through and the cost is worked through, then it can be implemented into the other series and divisions. In this particular case, there was a bit of a timing issue as well because you might recall that EFI came in not long after we launched Sunoco Green E15 in the 2011 Daytona 500. EFI, when we talk about integrating to new partners, the complexity was being best handled at the Cup Series level from the start. A lot of what EFI is about is it automatically, with fine-penciled precision, dials in an air to fuel mixture that maximizes the efficiency of the engine. That is particularly important when you are dealing with a bio-fuel blend. If you get that air to fuel mixture right, and you get it adjusted to keep it optimized, then that explains why you get more horsepower from the biofuel blend and no hiccups with excellent results. Do they get that program to where it can be implemented in the Nationwide and Truck Series teams without negatively impacting them to make a living? That was really the logic that was going on there because everyone knew it was going to be something that would have technical bumps to go through, so start with the Cup Series teams was the thinking."

Another amazing innovation which NASCAR has created is the Air Titan. Everyone knows how dreary it can be to wait in the rain at a race track. After all, we all want to see a race - that's the whole point of going to the track. After the long, drawn out process of using the jet dryers, NASCAR Green has helped create the most state-of-the-art track drying process there is.

NASCAR is different from most other forms of motorsports since the cars do not race in the rain. Well, they do every now and then, but that is extremely rare and must be at a road course. The Air Titan has shaved more than enough time to get races in on the same day, saving fans another night at a hotel, or missing a day of work and/or school. However, there is a lot more that goes into the Air Titan than one can imagine.

"Well, you can imagine that anything where precision applies, a sheet of heated air, there are a bunch of different things that you can do with that – whether it is on the racing surface or otherwise. The focus of the R&D team and the focus on the rollout of it are to get the tracks dried faster and get back to racing sooner and get races in on the same day or evening. The fans in particular make a huge investment to come out to the track to see a race. If they don’t get to see a race that same day, that is a huge impact, and NASCAR knows that. The Air Titan, the original and 2.0 versions were designed to deliver to the families and fans that come to the track to maximize the opportunity to know that they are going to go to the track and know they are going to see that race. As you may imagine, when you are leaning in with mother nature like that, that is a tough challenge. That is where our team really focuses to define how to get the tracks dry as fast as possible and refining the implementation of this system of exactly how it is used and whatever fine tuning is needed to be done to any part of it. Anything that can be done to shave five to 10 percent off of the margin of the time is a huge impact for everybody. It requires the full focus of the team. The complications of the Air Titan right now are just not as important as making sure that the actual track drying process is completely optimized with every opportunity we use it to put the cars back on the track."

Wait, but there is a lot more. There are plenty of physics and mathematical equations which the NASCAR Research and Development team must conduct in order to truly define what is needed to dry a track as quickly as possible.

"It was along the lines of practicing the best products along with a lot of R&D development. It went all the way back to the concept of this team, before the version one came along, there was an enormous amount of conceptual work done to figure it out like ‘what is a track surface?’ And it actually is a very complex surface area at a microscopic level. How does water behave on the surface? It is really hard to understand this in terms of a physics and math standpoint. How does water evaporate exactly? How do you maximize the speed of having water evaporate? Because in the end, that’s what we are trying to do. You have a complex surface area. There are millions and billions of little craters in there where water can go, or little channels that they can go down. How do you tackle all of that with a machine that can be built cost effectively, that can be used straight forwardly to be transported to 38 locations a year, will have a reasonable amount of maintenance throughout the year and that will be as ‘green’ as possible," Lynch said as he elaborated on what the Air Titan does better than the jet dryers.

"You can imagine the white board sketching that goes on. Dozens of experts were tabbed with the enormous amount of prototypes that we were testing. The versions of the development of the one we are using now made us have to go back to the beginning and ask – ‘what is the track surface? How does water behave on it? How can you tackle it?’ Then, in order to get to that point, we had to create a machine to spread water out as much as possible to let it evaporate as quickly as possible into the air. What are the ways that you can speed that up and have that optimized to run an entire solution package? It is the same kind of logic that goes into building any kind of system. 3M engineers will give you the same way that they develop products for 3M that are very much the same type of any complex equipment that any complex solution company makes something work. Getting from here to Mars creates some of the renewable energy that uses amazingly complex systems. A lot of those engineers would walk you through the same process that I just walked through here that our R&D team goes through in Concord, NC."

While NASCAR is seemingly happy with the development of the Air Titan 2.0, there is plenty more that they want to do in the future. Anything and everything that can make the Air Titan cleaner and faster is on the table. Obviously, it will not always work just like what happened at Texas, but it certainly increases the chance of getting a race in on the same day if there is inclement weather in the area.

The greatest part of this initiative is how hard everyone is working to get the job done. It does not matter if companies are competing against each other in the marketplace - they just want the world to be a better place.

“Sprint consistently is encouraging fans to recycle their used phones with recycling at the tracks. I know Mike touched on Coca-Cola recycling. Safety-Kleen recycles all of the race used oil. We have a lot of partners consistently working each race weekend with the sport," added Brad Klein, Manager of Business Communications for NASCAR.

So, how can fans help out? Well, it is quite simple. Participate at the track and at home. NASCAR Green has plenty to look forward to in the future, and you will certainly see that as time rolls on. For now, however, show support of NASCAR's partners such as Safety-Kleen with their at-the-track oil recycling, Sprint's used phone recycling, track initiatives of planting trees, the work of Toyota to help show why hybrid cars are supportive of sustainability efforts and dozens of other activities and projects which NASCAR has started. 

 

Joseph Wolkin

Joseph Wolkin (@JosephNASCAR) is a sophomore at the Queensborough Community College as an English major. He’s a native of Whitestone, NY, just outside of New York City, and has been attempting to find roots of motorsports within his area since 2004. He started out as just a fan, but over the course of his high school career, he ended up falling in love with writing.

Joseph has been covering NASCAR since 2011 for several different websites. Recently, he was named as one of two lead NASCAR columnists for Rant Sports after working for the site for over one year. Working with Rant Sports for approximately 14 months, Joseph has covered New York City area sports teams such as the New York Giants, New York Mets, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and more.

Through his passion is for NASCAR, Joseph has adapted to changing times and realizes that he has numerous opportunities in the journalism work. As one of the top young sports writers, his goal is to become one of the top motorsports writers of this new digital media era. However, he also believes that it’s important to stick to the traditional routers of print publications after seeing his high school newspaper dissolve due to a lack of funding.

Currently, besides his duties with Speedway Digest, Joseph is a columnist with Fronstretch.com, Motorsport.com and has a weekly article in NASCAR Pole Position's digital version - ROAR! Weekly Race Preview Magazine.