When the 43 NASCAR drivers start their engines for Sunday's Daytona 500, they will be doing so for the second year with American ethanol-blended fuel in their gas tanks.
The Sunoco Green E15 racing fuel, a renewable fuel blended with 15 percent American-made ethanol from American-grown corn, emits 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than unleaded gasoline, according to NASCAR. This claim is disputed by some in the industry who say that it does not cut emissions by as much as NASCAR claims. NASCAR says the use of ethanol save 300,000 regular gallons of gasoline during last year's NASCAR season.
The renewable fuel blend is the centerpiece of an array of green initiatives helping NASCAR shed its image as a sport filled with gas-guzzling cars, not to mention the waste generated by its fans at any given event. The challenges faced by NASCAR are similar to those faced by any company seeking to environmentally retrofit an organization in response to consumer demands and the need to lower costs.
Launched just four years ago with a simple recycling campaign, NASCAR Green now comprises a vast collection of programs designed to reduce the sport's environmental impact.
Mike Lynch, NASCAR's managing director of green innovation, said the racing series, with 65 million fans worldwide, has provided the perfect opportunity to instill a wide assortment of environmentally friendly practices, from those focusing on the race cars and speedways to others affecting television broadcasts and corporate offices.
"This is a unique platform to give real-world relevance to green technologies," Lynch told BusinessNewsDaily. "The canvas for potential is so broad."
NASCAR's environmental push was sparked four years ago, based on the belief that its fans were heading in a more green direction themselves.
"In late 2008, we were pretty representative of what was going on out there," Lynch said. "By and large our sponsor base was not very green-focused at all, but we had an insight that this was the way the country was headed."
Today, almost all companies have some type of green effort, and Lynch said it's not just because it's the right thing to do.
"Things that are good for the environment have become a competitive edge," Lynch said. "We are glad we launched it when we did."
NASCAR Green's first campaign, its recycling program with Coca-Cola and Coors, has grown to become the largest effort of its kind in sports, with more than 1,000 tons of cardboard, cans and bottles recycled last season alone.
Overall, NASCAR has more than a dozen environmentally friendly practices in place, including a clean air program that plants 10 new trees for each green flag dropped during a race, a wireless device recycling program that allows fans at races to pick up a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope to recycle their used wireless phones, batteries and accessories, and a hauler emission reduction program that curtails the idling of the race car transporters at the track.
"We are all about high tech, low tech and everything in between," Lynch said.
Other programs focus on recycling car batteries, oil recycling, disposal and cleaning services and paper reduction.
NASCAR's latest green initiative, announced this week, is a partnership with Creative Recycling Systems that will promote the recycling of televisions, computers and other electronic equipment.
NASCAR will host collection events and conduct campaigns to help raise awareness of the importance of properly recycling electronic equipment, according to Lynch.
A number of NASCAR's motor speedways also have started their own green programs. Among them, Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, which in 2010 installed a 3-MW solar farm to power the track’s energy needs and support the local energy grid. With 40,000 solar panels on 25 acres of land next to the track, the Pocono solar project is more than two times bigger than any other renewable energy stadium project in the world.
Individual racing teams also are in on the act.
One example is Roush Fenway Racing, which in 2010 recycled 26,660 pounds of plastic, 100,000 pounds of steel and aluminum and 11,335 pounds of paper.
Additionally, Kyle Busch Motorsport's new 77,000-square-foot corporate headquarters was built and filled with cutting-edge green technologies such as geothermal heating and cooling, cocoon insulation and LED lighting.
NASCAR is especially pleased with how much their fans have embraced their green messages. Lynch said a survey of NASCAR and non-NASCAR fans three years ago showed they had similar green behaviors and attitudes.
Today, NASCAR fans are 50 percent more likely than non-fans to say their house is green.
"From the fan standpoint, it has really been a rather striking thing," Lynch said. "NASCAR fans are moving the perception of themselves and their households in a green direction more so than non-NASCAR fans."
Lynch said he expects the NASCAR Green to continue to expand, noting the racing series offers a prime opportunity to showcase how the innovative green technologies being created can be used by anyone.
"We can take things that are hard to understand and make them relevant to everyone," Lynch said. "We can offer that next phase of proof."
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has worked in public relations and spent 10 years working as a newspaper reporter before becoming a freelancer reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.