Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Is Nascar as think as it green it is?

with 2 comments

A couple of years ago I wrote an op-ed (that didn’t get published) calling for the banning of Nascar.

This year, we can add to the list of great American traditions people will be enjoying on the Fourth of July—fireworks, barbeques, getting falling-down drunk in public parks with little fear of arrest—the annual running of the Daytona 500, the biggest event on Nascar’s calendar.

Environmentally speaking, the Daytona 500 is just the tip of the melting iceberg, stock-car-racing-wise. Nascar operates 41 races a year, each involving 43 cars (why 43 every time? I have no idea) with engines that probably get about 5 miles per gallon (they are built for speed, and run at speeds that can average between 71 and 155 mph) for as many as 500 miles. Assuming 70 percent of the allotted miles are ultimately driven (cars drop out due to engine trouble, crashes and other factors), that’s about 120,000 gallons of gas they’re going through each year. (500/5x41x43x0.7=123,410). At 19.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas that’s nearly 2.4 million pounds of greenhouse gasses emitted.

I thought this was a tremendous waste, and reason to outlaw the organization.

As Daytona approached, I dusted off my old op-ed and prepared to update it and post it here. Just to be safe, but expecting nothing had changed in the intervening period, I searched “environment” at and came across a press release dated last month.

Apparently sensitive to the public image problems its carbon footprint presents amid recent concerns for the environment, Nascar was detailing its new initiative to offset emissions produced by the races.

Over time, rolled out across all three national series, NASCAR and its partners will be planting approximately 20 acres of new trees each year. Michigan International Speedway, which is at the forefront of green initiatives, is matching the carbon-capturing planting effort at its track.

Now hold on just one cotton-pickin’ minute. 2.4 million pounds of GHG is about as much as 1,100,000 kilowatt hours of electricity from a coal-fired power plant, 890 flights from New York to London, 125 people flying 30,000 miles…you get the idea. This much emissions is going to be offset by planting a few trees?

So let’s analyze the math of Nascar’s carbon-sequestration program. An acre is about 4,000 square meters. Let’s be generous and say one tree per square meter, meaning 80,000 trees (4000×20). says a mature tree (>5 years) absorbs 30.8 pounds of CO2 per year. So that’s 80,000×31 equals…

2,480,000 pounds of CO2, or almost precisely what I had calculated Nascar emits in the same timeframe–foiled!

Now, it’s not as perfect as that: if experience with the crooked peach tree someone planted at the house I used to live in is any guide,  a mature tree needs more than a square meter at its base if it’s going to be able to grow to its full potential at the top. And then, some species of trees can take decades to mature. There’s no guarantee those trees will be there for as long as Nascar is running races, and the association is doing nothing about the emissions of the millions who come to the tracks to watch the races (which is actively encourages and profits from). There’s also the worrying phrase “over time” in Nascar’s announcement, as well as the fact that stock-car racing promotes a car culture that will, before long, be regarded as a bizarre relic and become as socially anathematized as smoking.

There’s also a very recent history of ostrichism at Nascar that makes me think this could all be a bunch of PR hooey or hocus-pocus; the organization only stopped using leaded fuels, which contribute dangerous toxins to the air, in 2007. The spokesperson for the Bristol Motor Speedway said at the time, misleadingly conflating tailpipe emissions (which cause smog and can be limited) with greenhouse-gas emissions (which result from the burning of gasoline and can only be reduced by burning less of it), that the change “will help reduce emissions” and that Nascar is “doing its part [to] help reduce emissions.” Uh-huh, and how many biofuel cars are you racing?

On the other hand, the June 12 press release stated, Nascar recycles all the oils, fluids and tires used by the cars during the races, facilitates recycling at its events and its headquarters are LEED-certified (which is totally overrated, but it’s better than nothing).

I’m not exactly Nascar’s target demographic, but those that live within driving distance of most of the races—i.e., people in the Southeast and Midwest—have as much to gain by slamming the brakes on global warming as anyone. Hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather events are predicted to become more frequent and more severe, according to climate models, and these events happen more in those parts of the U.S. than others. Hopefully it won’t take a tornado touching down at a Nascar event—where 100,000 people, tons of steel, and thousands of gallons of combustible materials come together—to get Nascar fans to realize the severity of the situation. They, like the rest of us, need to accept that individuals must make sacrifices, corporations must make investments, and governments must make policy changes to confront this most serious challenge of our time.

It’s good to see an organization like Nascar raising the issue’s profile. So while I’m not ready to hand a trophy to Nascar for its green initiatives as I still don’t have enough information, I applaud its efforts. And I don’t say ban Nascar (link bait!).

What do you think?

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2 Responses

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  1. Nice one. Made me wonder (among other things): are there certain kinds of trees that are more carbon-hoggish than others? Is there any relation bw how fast a certain tree grows (i.e. eucalyptus vs, say, maple), or how much water it sucks up, and how much carbon it can swallow? And is an acre of trees always better than, say, an acre of solar panels? And since the true thrill of speed is really all about pushing your vehicle beyond its capacity on the given terrain, wouldn’t it be just as fun to race solar golf carts on old wagon roads?


    July 3, 2009 at 9:10 am

  2. Sequestering carbon through tree planting quickly gets boggy as a vanishing Louisiana wetland. As you suspect, the amount saved varies by species; the Dept of Energy says a fast-growing hardwood like an elm absorbs a lot more than a cypress, for instance. There are a lot of problems with this method, as opposed to replacing GHG-spewing energy sources with clean ones, beginning with the fact that trees release their CO2 when they die. They can also reduce biodiversity when planted in this way, and trees planted far north or far south may increase global warming since they absorb and retain solar heat. None of this isn’t to say avoided deforestation isn’t something that should be striven for. (Thanks to the Colorado Tree Coalition,’s Mr Smarty Pants, and the NY Times for this info.) And yes, racing clean cars could be its own thrill, though as one Nascar racer told the NY Times it would require a completely different style of driving.

    Paul Tullis

    July 3, 2009 at 11:08 am

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