The World of Sport: The Race for Sustainability

As I finish my senior year of college and face a future without an education for the first time since I’ve played race cars, I feel like I’m halfway through a 150-lap race. My car is neck and neck with the other racers. I’m cruising by or passing by people, all going a moderate 60 mph – and only 30 around curves.

I obviously had a slow paced but very tactical race to the finish. But so is the list of NASCAR drivers who are scheduled to face the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in early February.

In February 2022, nearly 60,000 people went to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time in NASCAR on the West Coast. I was among them, a NASCAR newcomer with blue jeans and no idea to get earplugs out.

And oh boy, was it that loud. The 23 race cars and their improved engines made a number on my exposed ears, ringing infinitely louder than any concert or sporting event I had attended before. The compact coliseum embraced the small track as the engines that wanted to go three times faster than the whoops.

Crying is what I tried not to do as my friend Ben and I watched the drivers in their vehicle. It was exciting and amazing but also a lot of twists to put my poor ear through — my ear, because when I left, she could still hear the music and the words of her loved ones.

NASCAR’s V-8 engines can’t reach top speeds of 200 mph or puncture a young man’s eardrums without gasoline. Like many gas-powered engines, NASCAR uses a spark-powered internal combustion system, which ignites the gasoline and forces the air out—making that iconic race car sound we all know and love (with the right protection).

If the motors were electric, NASCAR racing would be much quieter. This may take away from the overall experience for a NASCAR fan, but maybe the tracks can pump up the car’s noise? Because it’s not just our eardrums that damage gasoline engines.

Fossil fuels, namely oil, gas and coal, power virtually every non-electric vehicle. Now, electric cars are not an ideal solution, because charging anything would require burning fossil fuels if done in an area that uses conventional electricity generation. But if the region’s electric grid is powered by cleaner energy sources, electric cars are a significant upgrade in terms of climate compatibility.

Burning fossil fuels makes up 89% of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a 2018 study from the International Panel on Climate Change. Carbon dioxide emissions are the number one contributor to climate change and are behind already changing weather patterns, loss of polar ice and sea level rise.

NASCAR has yet to electrify, but the Clash at the Coliseum was rumored to be the site of a groundbreaking demo race that would create an all-electric racing series — according to documents leaked by the NASCAR-focused site Kickin’ the Tires.

Well, whether or not those plans have been postponed — or even existed — will not be answered in February. No such race has been decided, and the future of all-electric NASCAR is as foggy as that of a graduating graduate with a journalism degree.

While there are hundreds of millions of cars in use in the United States – less than 1% of them are electric – NASCAR’s electrification could still make a small dent in the ever-growing CO2 cloud.

Most NASCAR cars only run at 5 mpg, and unlike the average driver, you don’t have to comply with EPA emissions standards.

On a typical NASCAR weekend, the cars burn about 6,000 gallons of fuel, releasing about 120,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With 36 races in the NASCAR Cup Series, cutting those carbon emissions by just half would be significant.

Formula 1 is making an effort to become carbon-neutral by 2030 and some drivers, such as Formula 1 driver Alex Albon, believe the future of the all-electric Formula 1 racing series is “inevitable”, according to an interview with Pocket-lint.

The famous racing league is also in the middle of a 10-year moratorium on engine development in a bid to encourage teams to explore green racing technology. The popular racing series is focused on increasing electrification and fully sustainable fuel operation.

To NASCAR’s credit, they have an environmentally focused program called NASCAR Green and use Sunoco Green E15 biofuel, which reduces carbon emissions by 20% through an ethanol blend.

But, maybe, one day, NASCAR won’t use any fossil fuels at all. Gas-powered vehicles currently reach higher top speeds than electric cars, which could dampen NASCAR’s excitement. But, if you’re going to the Clash, where the average speed last year was just under 30 mph, don’t expect to see speeds no electric car can reach.

Patrick Warren is an associate managing editor and senior writer who writes about the relationship between sports and climate change. His column, “The World of Sport,” is published every Friday.

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