NASCAR Goes Green: A Job Well Done or a Lipstick on a Pig?

Earlier this week NASCAR announced race cars had racked up more than one million miles of driving on Sunoco Green E15 ethanol blend, the official fuel this season. This choice of fuel is part of a greater effort NASCAR is making to green up its auto racing business. Some see it as a great opportunity not just to reduce NASCAR’s footprint, but also to reach about 75 million fans that follow the races on TV and at the tracks. Others believe this is nothing more than greenwashing.

If you ask Mike Lynch, managing director of green innovation for NASCAR and the architect of these changes, it’s actually very simple. “The incongruity is part of what makes going green in this sport so impactful,” he told the New York Times earlier this month. “We get that sport that bring so many people together and broadcast to such a large audience has environmental impacts. The good news is that its environmental impacts that can be addressed with best in class solutions and technologies” he added on another occasion.

NASCAR is an extremely popular sport, and most of the fans do not have an interest in environmental issues. In other words, they’re not treehuggers and I’m not sure how well they respond to messages coming from Al Gore. NASCAR races are wasteful from an environmental standpoint, producing not just a large carbon footprint, but also tons of garbage headed to the landfill. Sustainably minded readers will recall that waste means an opportunity for efficiency. You can imagine the potential Lynch saw in front of him when he took this job in 2008.

Lynch did quite a lot in just three years, establishing a long list of green initiatives–mostly joint initiatives with NASCAR’s partners. He excelled at utilizing the existing green expertise of NASCAR’s partners and integrating it into the races. Recycling, one of his main areas of focus, is a great example. NASCAR created what it claims to be the largest recycling program in sports in collaboration with partners such as Coca-Cola and Coors Light. These companies, which are NASCAR sponsors, are expected to recycle about 12 million bottles and cans this season, twice as much as last year.

Recycling doesn’t end with cans of coke and bottles of Coors light. NASCAR is collaborating with Safety-Kleen, a recycler of automotive fluids to increase safe disposal of race car fluids. This collaboration started a long time ago but has expanded in the last couple of years to collection of used fuels, lubricants and oily rags at tracks and race team shops. According to the New York Times, 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.

And what about the cars? Goodyear recycles all of NASCAR’s tires (about 120,000 per season) and Exide Technologies provides car battery recycling services. Professional drivers and fans can even buy now used racing parts in a shop opened by Roush Yates, a supplier of Ford Racing engines for NASCAR. According to the good folks at Roush Yates, 90 percent of a NASCAR race car is now recycled in some way.

Another important part in NASCAR’s green plan is the fuel. In 2010 NASCAR announced that on the 2011 season, NASCAR’s major three national touring series will run on Sunoco GreenE15 – “a 15-percent ethanol blend using American-made ethanol from corn grown by American farmers.” As Lynch explained it, “the transition to Sunoco Green E15 takes NASCAR’s environmental commitment to the next level. American ethanol creates jobs here in the U.S., helps foster energy independence, and continues the greening of our sport.”

Now, you know and Lynch knows that corn-based ethanol is far from being a best-in class solution. Hell, even Sunoco admits it – “Sunoco supports the development of sustainable biofuels as a way to increase fuel supply in our country. Corn-based ethanol will likely remain a part of the fuel mix, but isn’t a perfect long-term solution. We’re concerned about the sustainability of food-crop based fuels due to the possible detrimental impact they can have on food prices, land use, and carbon dioxide emissions,” they wrote in 2010.

The reason Lynch and NASCAR chose Sunoco Green E15 is because they believe it’s a win-win-win solution for them in terms of quality (high-performance racing fuel), values that matter to their audience (creating American jobs and fostering energy independence), and the environment (reducing harmful emissions). This reasoning might not work too well with environmentalists, but it is a great example of the green path NASCAR is trying to create – they’re very business-minded. Their goal is to carefully engage with their audience and frame the changes in terms that are most acceptable for them.

I’m not sure how many environmentalists would see it as a reasonable compromise, not to mention that some of them believe the effort to green up a sport that is based on cars doing four to five miles per gallon is like putting a lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.

Yet, there are millions of NASCAR fans who are exposed to recycling, clean energy (solar panels in some of the tracks), and other environmental messages because of NASCAR efforts. It doesn’t mean these fans will transform into treehuggers, but it might help to get them to be a little bit more eco-conscious. Add to that all the resources saved by NASCAR efforts and I believe you will get a positive bottom line – far from perfect, but still positive.

Image credit: Sassen Design, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

3 responses

  1. Great article. If NASCAR can get people excited about alternaive fuels, efficiency, and electric vehicles then I’m all for it. As for the event itself, NASACR isn’t really supposed to be “green”… .it’s about a couple days of indulgence – drinking lots of beer, burning lots of fuel, making lots of noise. Not that I’d support that kind of thing on a daily basis, but having the outlet is probably healthy for society….

  2. This is a clear example of how actions in sustainability must be linked to your market’s expectations.

    For many companies only 5% of its markets is a social and economic elite that would care for sustainable standards. The remaining 95% cares only for price.

    The goal is to be sustainable without being sophisticated and that is, in my opinion, what NASCAR is doing. They are exposing an audience to a number of messages that wouldn’t get otherwise.

    Let’s not forget that true change will come when the masses shift their practices, not the elites. And let’s not forget that of the 7 billion human beings, 80% are not sophisticated whatsoever.

    Twitter: CarlosViescaLob

Leave a Reply