Vickers leads NASCAR's green movement

February 20, 2008 9:52:11 AM PST
The NASCAR garage area is filled with snorting 850-horsepower engines that get five miles per gallon on a good day and gruff crew guys who sip coffee out of one plastic foam cup and spit tobacco juice into another.

It's not the most likely environment for an environmentalist.

But that doesn't stop NASCAR driver Brian Vickers from talking up the potential of hydrogen-powered passenger cars or calling out political figures for spending so much time on sports when they should be tackling big issues like global warming.

"Congress, unfortunately, has made more progress on steroids in baseball and the Patriots, whether they're taping NFL games, than they have on global climate change, the war, economic recession and a budget that's out of control," Vickers said. "That's what (ticks) me off. I'm passionate about making the world a better place, and global climate change is one of those things."

Vickers, who races Toyotas for Red Bull Racing in the Sprint Cup series, is a self-described "huge recycler" who drives a Lexus hybrid away from the track. He can't wait for the day when he can trade that car in for an all-electric model or one that runs on a hydrogen fuel cell.

And he's lobbying his sport to do its part, urging officials to increase recycling programs and proposing that NASCAR buy carbon offsets to mitigate its environmental impact -- even if that impact already is minimal.

"It's a very small footprint we make," Vickers said. "It's only 38 races, 500 miles, 43 cars. The big global picture of things, it's a small place. It is a start, and every little bit matters."

Vickers' pro-environment comments might seem out of place in a sport that only recently switched from leaded to unleaded fuel. But NASCAR and its teams are beginning to wave the green flag as corporate sponsors express interest in using racing as a platform to market environmentally friendly products.

"At first glance, it might strike some people as unusual bedfellows," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "But I think there's an opportunity as all of us try to do a better job as a country on the environment."

Goodyear already cuts up used racing tires and recycles them into playground surfaces. A company called Safety-Kleen recycles oil and brake fluid at racetracks. Series sponsor Sprint recycles old cell phones. And in the grandstands, recycling bins are beginning to pop up next to garbage cans -- even if the piles of paper in the media center still get thrown away instead of recycled.

Poston said NASCAR's new office complex in Charlotte and International Speedway Corp.'s new headquarters in Daytona are both being constructed according to green building guidelines. And yes, the idea of buying carbon credits is on the table.

"There's a groundswell of awareness," Roush Fenway racing president Geoff Smith said. "We're all going to find out that it's going to be to our benefit, to the teams' benefit and to NASCAR's benefit, to assume a leadership position in an area that's going to help actually bring more money into the garage."

Smith said he has talked to several sponsors about green-themed programs. One wants to set up a pavilion outside racetracks where fans can learn about efficient household products.

NASCAR teaching fans about the environment? Smith said it isn't as odd as it seems.

"I think somebody did the math that all 43 cars all weekend don't put as much carbon into the air as much as one liberal's jet coming from L.A. to Washington," Smith said. "So we don't have a big negative footprint. But at the same time, I think there's a big opportunity to have a really positive footprint."

NASCAR could make a big statement by switching from gasoline to a biofuel, something General Motors has been lobbying NASCAR to do for two years.

"I'm passionate about the environment, and I work in racing," said Brent Dewar, GM's vice president of field sales, service and parts. "I usually get the question, 'Isn't that contradictory?' No. We're very passionate about green racing."

The Indy Racing League's IndyCar series began racing on 100 percent ethanol last year. And Dewar said this year's Indianapolis 500 will be led by a prototype Corvette pace car that runs on E85 ethanol -- and it will be driven by two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, who has a financial stake in the ethanol business in Brazil.

In a speech in January, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said officials are considering biofuels.

"While any steps we take with regards to fuels would have relatively little impact on the environment, it would be an important symbolic move," France said. "It's more important than ever to help make sure this country becomes energy independent and take the steps where we can to protect the environment. And you've got my commitment and everybody at NASCAR, we're going to do our part."

But Vickers isn't a fan of biofuels. Why turn food into fuel, he says, when something better is within reach?

"Now that you have the ability to make a good, functional hydrogen fuel cell car, then why are we even wasting our time with what's in between," Vickers said. "I don't understand that."

And Vickers isn't particularly hung up on driving a race car that runs on something other than gasoline. Instead, he can imagine a day when NASCAR is a museum in motion.

"Maybe 50 years from now there are no gas engines on the road, which would be fantastic. I would love that," Vickers said. "Maybe the one place you can still hear one is at a NASCAR race."


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