NAScar-bon neutral?

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 30, 2007

At two miles per gallon, open-wheel cars (the classic “race car” like those used in the Indianapolis 500 or Formula One, with wheels set out from the car’s body and a tiny cockpit sized for only one driver) aren’t any better in terms of fuel mileage. But they are far more responsible in terms of what type of fuel they use. For years, Indy Racing League cars ran on a mixture of ethanol — alcohol-based fuel (usually made from corn) that burns cleaner than petroleum-based gasoline — and methanol, another alternative fuel that is carbon-based but produces fewer emissions than gasoline. This season, for the first time, Indy cars are running 100 percent on ethanol.

More examples of environmental friendliness abound. Cars that race in the Champ Car Series run entirely on methanol. And Honda’s Formula One team is going all out this year to promote “My Earth Dream,” its 2007 race car that won’t carry any corporate-sponsor names — instead, it will display the (tiny) names of average racing fans who donate money toward Honda’s environmental charity. At the New Hampshire International Speedway, the largest track in the region that hosts actual NASCAR series events, several colleges just competed in designing, building, and racing hybrid sports cars.

Meanwhile, NASCAR — the most popular and best attended of all racing series — seems always to be behind the curve. They’re switching over this season from leaded fuel (which releases dangerous lead particles into the air and soil) to unleaded. That’s great news, but keep in mind that the rest of the country hasn’t used leaded fuel since 1996 — and most Americans started phasing it out in the 1980s.

Although General Motors — which manufactures Chevrolets, one of the most popular NASCAR engine brands — has urged NASCAR to switch to ethanol, NASCAR says it’s waiting for the science of ethanol to fully develop before they invest in huge technological changes. (This isn’t totally bogus. The debate over ethanol’s eco-friendliness is only getting more tempestuous as national leaders champion its benefits — mostly for Corn Belt economic reasons — while some scientists wonder if the process of making ethanol by fermenting and distilling starch sugars actually creates more greenhouse gases than ethanol usage reduces.)

Star-studding it up
The folks who fill the grandstands at race tracks around the country — the so-called “NASCAR dads,” who earned their title during the 2004 election, or the young families who show up at Beech Ridge with “Bush-Cheney” stickers on their cars — aren’t your typical left-wing greenies. That said, neither are the innovators at the forefront of this revolution in motor sports. Many of them are savvy business moguls who recognize the public-relations value of reducing their environmental impact.

Take Tim Pappas as an example. When Pappas hits the American Le Mans tracks around the country this year as the co-owner and driver of Team TransSport Racing, he’ll be heading a totally carbon-neutral team. Everything from the racing fuel to the team members’ transportation to and from the race — 444,146 pounds of carbon in all — will be offset by renewable-energy credits provided by the Colorado-based Renewable Choice Energy. Renewable Choice is one of a growing number of companies that offer “carbon offsets” (which some compare to the ancient Catholic practices of granting indulgences to sinners) in the form of planting trees or paying for renewable energy production that’s meant to compensate for greenhouse-gas emissions.

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