The World of Sports: Racing toward sustainability

As I wrap up my senior year of college and face a schoolless future for the first time since I played with toy 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 people or being passed by them, all going a moderate 60 miles an hour — and just 30 around the curves. 

I clearly have my own, slow-paced but highly tactical race to finish. But so does the roster of NASCAR drivers set to take on the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in early February.

In February 2022, nearly 60,000 people took to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for NASCAR’s debut on the West Coast. I was among them, a NASCAR newcomer with blue jeans on and any thought to bring earplugs off.

And, oh boy, was it loud. The 23 race cars and their souped-up engines did a number on my uncovered ears, causing them to ring infinitely louder than after any concert or sporting event I had attended before. The compact Coliseum hugged the small track where engines that wanted to go three times as fast roared in outcry.

Cry is what I tried not to do as my buddy Ben and I watched the drivers at their craft. It was electrifying and mesmerizing but also way too many laps to put my poor ears through — ears that, because I left when I did, can still hear music and the words of loved ones.

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

If the engines were electric, NASCAR races would be quieter. This would perhaps take away from the overall experience for NASCAR fans, but maybe the tracks could pump in car noise? Because it’s not just our eardrums that gasoline-powered engines are harming.

Fossil fuels, meaning oil, gas and coal, power virtually every nonelectric car. Now, electric cars aren’t a perfect solution, as charging anything could require burning fossil fuels if done in a region that uses conventional electricity generation. But if the region’s electric grid is powered using cleaner energy sources, electric cars are a significant upgrade in terms of climate compatibility. 

The burning of fossil fuels makes up for 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 the already-changing weather patterns, polar ice loss and sea level rise.

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

Well, whether or not those plans were postponed — or even existed — will not be answered come February. No such race is scheduled, and the future of an all-electric NASCAR is as foggy as that of a graduating senior with a journalism degree.

While there are hundreds of millions of cars in use in the United States — less than 1% of which are electric — NASCAR making the switch to electric could still make a small dent in the ever-growing cloud of carbon dioxide.

Most NASCAR vehicles run at just 5 mpg and, unlike your average driver, do not have to comply with Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards. 

In a typical NASCAR weekend, cars burn around 6,000 gallons of fuel, resulting in the release of around 120,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With 36 races in the NASCAR Cup Series, reducing those carbon emissions even just by half would be significant.

Formula 1 is making the effort to go carbon-neutral by 2030 and some drivers, like F1 driver Alex Albon, believe that the future of an all-electric Formula 1 racing series is “inevitable,” according to an interview with Pocket-lint. 

The popular racing league is also in the middle of a 10-year ban on engine development in an effort to encourage teams to explore green racing technology. The popular racing series is focused on increasing electricity use and running on fully sustainable fuels.  

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 its ethanol blend.

But, perhaps, one day, NASCAR won’t directly use any fossil fuels at all. Gas-powered vehicles currently reach faster top speeds than electric vehicles, which could perhaps take away from the excitement of NASCAR. But, hey, if you’re going to the Clash, where the average speed last year was just under 30 mph, don’t expect to see speeds that any electric vehicle couldn’t reach. 

Patrick Warren is the associate managing editor and a senior writing about the relationship between sports and climate change. His column, “The World of Sports,” runs every other Friday.