“The race is gonna be fun, but at the same time, I can start educating,” he says.
If actions like Pappas’s and Jensen’s catch on throughout motor sports, could they convert a demographic that might otherwise be unreceptive? After all, NASCAR boasts 75 million fans; the American LeMans Series is watched by 8.5 million. The Indy Racing League and Champ Car Series each have scores of devoted followers. That’s a whole lot of people, ripe for an environmental education.
Plus, these groups represent a range of backgrounds. Pappas points out that the spectators that he’ll catch at an American LeMans race aren’t necessarily “a bunch of people swilling on Coors Light.” They sure aren’t: the American LeMans Web site notes that half the sport’s fans are between the ages of 25 and 49 and earn more than $90,000 a year. On the other end of the spectrum are NASCAR fans, who are generally a little older, and earn less money — most make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.
But no matter whom they’re reaching, even stealthy proselytizers like Pappas and Jensen have their work cut out for them. When I posted a query about the connection between environmentalism and motor sports on the Beech Ridge forum at MaineRacing.com, the (few) responses didn’t indicate a particularly receptive crowd. As one gentleman wrote in an e-mail: “If you are one of those tree huggers ... you may as well forget it. ... what’s good for the environment is bad for short track racing ... enough said. ... if you want to hang someone for polluting the environment, go call on NASCAR.”
NASCAR representatives in Daytona did not return calls for comment. (Hey, if the company wouldn’t grant Auto Week an interview on environmental issues last month, did we really think they’d call us back?)
This brings us back to Beech Ridge. There are more than 2000 small tracks like this around the country, which host everything from NASCAR events to local sports car competitions. For the most part, drivers at the NASCAR Saturday nights use the same high-octane unleaded fuel that drivers would use in the big NEXTEL Cup Series.
Their fans are loyal, and they like things just the way they are. “There’s an allure and a magic to the roar of the race cars,” Beech Ridge’s Cusack says.
Last Saturday, 26-year-old Craig Smith was one of many young fathers who showed up to Beech Ridge with his family to watch Maine drivers compete in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Smith is extremely wary of any kind of hybrid-car races, which he thinks would be both expensive and not as fun to watch. But he’s open to the idea of carbon offsets: “If they want to plant trees somewhere, that’s fine,” he says.
So don’t change the cars, but the tracks themselves?
“It’s not a bad idea,” Cusack says.
It’s one that’s being tested in that other Portland, on the west coast, at the Portland International Raceway (PIR). Rather than leave emissions control in the hands of drivers and individual teams or races, the city-owned park decided about two months ago to work with the city's Office of Sustainability to calculate the track’s emissions — both operational (such as those that come from electricity or fertilizer use) and racing-related (PIR hosts both stock and open-wheel car races).