Cars speed through the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR

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Is NASCAR really that bad for the environment?

In the United States, more people watch NASCAR racing than baseball, supposedly "America's pastime." It's second only to football, with 75 million dedicated fans who tune in (or show up) almost every weekend of the year to watch stock cars race around a track at speeds up to ­­­­­­­190 mph (306 kph) [sources: Fulton, Eaton].

The cars' non-EPA-regulated engines and dangerously high speeds make the sport exciting to watch. They also make it one of the least environmentally friendly sports out there. NASCAR drivers make a living doing exactly what the rest of us are supposed to avoid in order to stave off global warming: Drive ridiculously powerful, gas-guzzling sports cars at extremely high speeds for entertainment value.

The sport burns so much fuel that the U.S. government labeled NASCAR a waste of gas during the fuel shortage of the 1970s. As a result, NASCAR shortened one of its races from 500 miles (804 kilometers) to 450 miles (724 kilometers) as a goodwill gesture. (It was a temporary change.)

So, just how much fuel does it take to hold a NASCAR race, and what effect does it really have on the state of the atmosphere? Is it a major CO2 contributor, or does it just get a bad rap because of the nature of the sport?

In this article, we'll find out whether NASCAR is as big an emitter as it seems. We'll check out the fuel and CO2 numbers, see how it compares to other activities, and look at the potentially "greener" future of the sport.

The first thing to understand when looking at NASCAR's carbon footprint is that race cars are even less like regular cars than some of us think. That speed comes at a price.

The emissions from NASCAR races quickly pile up.

AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File

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Racing and Global Warming

When you see a car doing dozens of laps at close to 200 mph (322 kph), it becomes pretty obvious that aside from the internal-combustion thing going on under the hood, a race car has little in common with the cars we drive to work. But there are more differences than meet the eye.

First, all that power means the gas in the tank doesn't go far. While many commuters grumble if their car gets less than 20 miles per gallon fuel efficiency, and some cars out there get 50 mpg, 5 miles per gallon is standard for a NASCAR car. Also, the devices that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated on normal cars to keep emissions to a safe level, like catalytic converters, are not built into race cars. NASCAR race cars are only regulated by NASCAR.

This all adds up to some serious fuel consumption. In a single typical NASCAR race weekend, with more than 40 cars at high speeds for 500 miles (804 kilometers) -- plus practice laps -- at 5 mpg of gas, you're looking at, conservatively, about 6,000 gallons (22,712 liters) of fuel [source: Finney]. Each gallon burned emits about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of carbon dioxide, so that's about 120,000 pounds (54,431 kilograms) of CO2 for a race weekend [source: FuelEconomy]. Multiply that by roughly 35 races per year, and NASCAR's annual carbon footprint is in the area of 4 million pounds (1.8 million kilograms).

Yes, that's a lot. The energy expended in one race could power more than three houses or drive seven cars for a whole year [source: Shelby]. But is it a lot in the grand scheme of things?

It depends on how you look at it. That 6,000 gallons (22,712 liters) of gas over two days starts to look somewhat reasonable when you consider that the United States eats up about 400 million gallons (1.5 billion liters) per day, any old day of the year [source: Finney]. And 4 million pounds a year doesn't seem like much compared to the world's 6 billion tons (5.4 billion metric tons) of CO2 emissions every year, or the 1 million tons (907,184 metric tons) emitted for the one day of the 2005 Super Bowl [source: Fulton].

But it's an extravagantly high number next to the 45,000 pounds (20,411 kilograms) of CO2 the average American life emits in a whole year.

So where does that leave us? With a sport that, while it may not be single-handedly sending the human race into a warm extinction, could definitely use some greening up. And change is actually not that far off.

Could the future of NASCAR look a little greener?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

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NASCAR Being Green

Even NASCAR realizes it's an atmospheric burden. The big news is, the organization (or at least its sponsors) are starting to care.

Contrary to popular belief, car racing as a whole is not insensitive to environmental concerns. Other racing associations, such as Formula One and Indy, have already taken some pretty giant steps toward reducing their effects on the environment. Formula One is in the midst of a 10-year ban on engine development instituted to push teams into developing green racing technology instead [source: Eaton]. And Indy race cars now run on 100 percent ethanol fuel [source: Fulton], a corn-based, renewable energy. Sure, those cars get about 2 mpg, but it's a lower-emitting 2 mpg.

NASCAR has been behind the curve for years in this regard. In fact, until 2007, NASCAR cars were running on leaded gas, which emits toxic lead into the air and has been out of most people's gas tanks since the '80s [source: Fulton]. The organization has simply left environmental issues off its agenda -- until now.

Perhaps in response to genuine concern over its status as a major emitter, or perhaps because public opinion has begun to take issue with such rampant gas guzzling when global warming is a looming threat, NASCAR is trying to green up its image. It recently partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a program to promote high-MPG vehicles at NASCAR races. Not on the track -- the eco-friendly production cars are displayed at the fairgrounds to attract NASCAR fans to the idea of lowering fuel consumption in their daily lives. But still, it's a start.

NASCAR teams themselves are making the bigger (if mostly symbolic contribution). The Hall of Fame racing team has committed to purchase carbon credits to offset all of the carbon it emits for 18 races of the 2009 season. That includes travel, practice and racing emissions. And NASCAR driver Leilani Munter buys an acre of rainforest to offset each of her races.

As is the case when anyone buys carbon credits to offset nonrenewable energy use, whether this NASCAR trend actually decreases environmental impact is up for debate. But at least as far as raising awareness goes, it's a promising first step toward making NASCAR a slightly less destructive force. If actual technology changes follow, NASCAR might very well get pushed back on the list of environmentally nightmarish sports.

For more information on NASCAR, global warming and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Eaton, Kit. "NASCAR Team to Clean Up its Eco-Cred, But Formula 1 Still Wins That Race." Fast Company. Feb. 26, 2009.http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/kit-eaton/technomix/nascar-team-clean-its-eco-cred-formula-1-still-wins-race
  • Finney, Mike. "Like the cars, fuel goes fast in NASCAR." AZ Central. June 2, 2006.http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/0602nascargas-ON.html
  • Fulton, Deirdre. "NAScar-bon neutral?" The Boston Phoenix. May 30, 2007.http://thephoenix.com/Boston/Life/40854-NAScar-bon-neutral/
  • Johnston, Nick. "Is Motor Racing in The 21st Century Morally Irresponsible?" Bleacher Report. Sept. 7, 2008.http://bleacherreport.com/articles/54869-is-motor-racing-in-the-21st-century-morally-irresponsible
  • "NASCAR, EPA to promote high-efficiency vehicles." NASCAR. Sept. 4, 2008.http://www.nascar.com/2008/news/headlines/official/09/04/high.efficiency.vehicles/index.html
  • Wood, Shelby. "One NASCAR driver, one race = seven cars driving for a year." The Oregonian/PDX Green. May 8, 2008.http://blog.oregonlive.com/pdxgreen/2008/05/_nascar_gas_mileage.html