As part of NASCAR's Race to Green Initiative this month, the sport's executives and star drivers will participate in tree-planting ceremonies across the country. This weekend at Kansas Speedway, fans will see green-colored hybrid pace cars, hear about solar farms and celebrate recycling milestones.
But these aren't just photo opps or feel-good moments, being Green with a capital G is a way of life for NASCAR -- the result of nearly five years of foundation -- that rivals any Green program in sports and more often than not, leads the way.
While the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason format will distinguish this era of NASCAR competition, NASCAR Chairman Brian France's legacy will also be defined for something that will endure for decades: a wide-ranging environment-focused Green platform that impacts not just the tens of millions of NASCAR fans, but quite literally, will benefit the world in substantive and quantifiable ways.
Not only has the program's broad-based focus on recycling, alternative energy, biofuels and cleaner emissions changed a way of thinking, it has galvanized the way the industry conducts itself on a daily basis.
"When we launched NASCAR Green back in 2008, it was our intention for it to become one of the most powerful environmental awareness platforms in the world," France said."Today, NASCAR has the largest and most comprehensive recycling, tree planting and renewable energy programs in sports. Far from a handful of symbolic gestures commemorating a particular day or observance, NASCAR Green is a compilation of palpable changes our sport has made to how we run our business year-round.
"We knew that to do it right, we needed to be strategic, methodical and place a great amount of rigor behind each and every green initiative we implemented to help stimulate participation from our industry. With the help of a wide range teams, tracks, some best-in-class partners -- and most importantly NASCAR fans -- our sport began to slowly and positively shift consumer behaviors and attitudes around Green? and shatter any doubts that we're taking sustainability seriously."
France first announced his intentions in January of 2009 after consulting with leaders in the industry including former Vice President Al Gore the previous summer. And the outcome was a decision to hire Dr. Mike Lynch to lead and organize a comprehensive Green program within the company.
Even Dr. Lynch, who spent the previous 20 years working on green technologies within the corporate world, admits he never considered an auto racing series -- which was still just completing a switch to unleaded gasoline -- to enlist his help in a Green-focused movement.
But, he believes the great paradox is that NASCAR has been the ultimate proving ground. Its move to use of Sunoco Green E15 ethanol-infused fuel, the creation of a huge recycling effort and the commitment to offset carbon emissions has shown what is possible and even increased the fan base.
This month alone -- in a nod to Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 26) -- NASCAR's Green Clean Air Tree Planting Program Delivered by UPS will include enough new trees to absorb carbon emissions equivalent to all the racing in NASCAR's three national series for an entire season.
It will be highlighted by reforestation efforts at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania tomorrow. And NASCAR official partners, such as Sprint, UPS, Ford Motor Company and 3M, have committed to planting thousands of trees in conjunction with events around the country.
"At first, I was actually quite skeptical, as anyone would be, wondering how this would work, but at the same time because of the passion that Brian (France) and (International Speedway Corporation Chairman) Lesa (France Kennedy) and (NASCAR president) Mike Helton had for it from the start, that commitment and the charter it provided, once I worked through the initial analytical skepticism, it became quite clear that it could be a truly inspirational and aspirational platform, bigger than anything else,'' Lynch said candidly. "That was my hypothesis, and the data has proven that.
"With our 20-20 hindsight, it was a very insightful moment in the sport, and it took real leadership and courage on Brian's part to really work to get this platform up and find the right place in the sport,'' Lynch explained of the timing.
"It seemed like green consciousness in general was moving, and there was a general focus on it in the media, but it was really the beginning so there was no way to know how far or how fast the green movement in America was going to happen or when the shift was going to happen.
"It seemed like it was happening enough to set up a green initiative around it, but it took courage to do it. Remember, you're talking about the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, and literally, the financial situation, job losses, tremendous uncertainly, the stock market correction, real estate prices had plummeted.
"It was really a very dark, uncertain time, and we said, we're going to launch NASCAR Green in the midst of one of the worst recessions in the history of the country. It was fair for folks to say, 'Isn't that a little paradoxically? Don't we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about being green in the sport?'
"But what Brian's insight was, was the sport had a potentially unique situation in terms of being a proving ground, a platform and a stage for green technologies and solutions if the right strategy could be developed so it was worth the risk and the investment at the time in spite of the headwinds of the tremendous financial uncertainty everyone was facing.''
Yet what looked like a daunting task was actually an easy sell within the sport and the multi-layered approach -- including elements of competition and partnering with corporate sponsors -- has been intrinsic to the success.
It was a natural extension for NASCAR tracks to get in lock-step. Coincidentally, about the same time as NASCAR's Green program was taking shape, Pocono Raceway -- which hosts a pair of Sprint Cup races annually -- had started a massive Green program. It's 25-acre solar panel farm -- built on an old parking lot near the track -- will produce enough energy over the next 20 years to completely power the track but also an additional 1000 homes, according to the track.
"It's just a matter of people leading the way and showing the world it can be done,'' said Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky. "I applaud Brian for having the insight to do this and the guts to do it and really go against the grain of what people might have thought this sport was all about, that 'no, we're not just a bunch of guys burning fuel and going in circles, we're much more than that.'
"We have a huge impact in America through sport, and if we can take the tens of millions of fans we have and say, 'this is how you do it right.' And together, with all the tracks and the leagues, we have the potential to really make a difference in the country.
"People have a tendency to follow what sport does, and if sports can be a leader and a role model for the world to do this and follow these best practices of life, we're going to make a better world for all of us and for our future.''
That's exactly the vision France had.
"Time and time again, our sport has demonstrated that it is a great validator of technology, particularly in the green and transportation sectors," France said. "There's no better example of that than our seamless transition to Sunoco Green E15.
"In a relatively short period of time, we validated the biofuel's performance under the toughest racing conditions on a weekly basis. I see great potential for us to continue to help other industries, like the auto manufacturers, test and authenticate emerging technologies."
Adds Dr. Lynch, "I can speak firsthand to that because I was the guy who came in and started it in the context of all that and, yeah, it was a challenging time but at the same time it was a real strong opportunity space.
"In the end, the smart business move was that while everyone else was sort of fearful and hesitant to do something new, here we came along and did this really bold new initiative and did it large and did it the right way from an analytic standpoint ,and it ended up being a really smart business move in addition to doing the right thing by the country and the environment as well.''
While the Green platform has created a great new synergy between NASCAR and its corporate partners, inspired fans to become involved -- research shows they are now 100 percent more likely than non-fans to consider their households very green -- but, France says the green initiative is fundamentally about doing the right thing.
"As a company and a sport, we must continually push ourselves to innovate at every turn with the goal of improving our product, our business, and enhancing the way we go to market," France said. "Attacking the challenge of going green was no different.
"My job is to set the agenda for NASCAR; and, in my view, NASCAR has a responsibility to be the example by helping to pass along a cleaner and healthier planet for generations to come. The steps we've taken over the last five years are a good start, but I expect us to continue to explore practices and partnerships that help reduce the carbon footprint of NASCAR."
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