The following is an op-ed written as the midterm for my God and the New York Times class at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
Running on Fumes
By JIMMY GAWNE
From now until November, every weekend, millions of Americans will gather together in their homes, sports bars, community centers, and even houses of worship. They will set aside differences of politics, of religion, of gender and sexuality. They will be joined by a bond of beer and high speeds, as each proclaims his or her fealty to one of forty-three men, each wearing a number and the logos of a dozen or more companies. I am decidedly one of those individuals – but each time I tune in, I have to ask myself, “As a progressive Christian and dedicated environmentalist, should I really be watching?”
NASCAR is not exactly what we would think of as a “friend of the environment”. During February’s Speed Week at the Daytona International Raceway in Daytona Beach, Florida, NASCAR’s various drivers together drove approximately 50,000 miles. Per the estimation of FOX Sports commentator Michael Waltrip, NASCAR’s race cars achieve gas mileage of approximately 4.3 miles per gallon. That translates to approximately 11,500 gallons of gas used. Assuming that gas in Florida was about $3.75 per gallon during Speed Week, that’s just over $43,000 worth of gas – and that doesn’t even take into account the 200 gallons of jet fuel that were incinerated when driver Juan Pablo Montoya slammed his Chevrolet Impala into a track dryer truck.
Expanding these numbers to the entire season, we can estimate that approximately 160,000 gallons of gas will be used on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit. A further 85,000 gallons will be used on NASCAR’s Nationwide “minor league” circuit, with 44,000 gallons more on NASCAR’s Camping World truck racing circuit. Based on current prices, that comes out to approximately $1.1 million in gas throughout the season – not exactly indicative of the world fuel shortage we keep hearing about.
Furthermore, NASCAR at its core is not exactly designed to appeal to people like me. NASCAR is intrinsically linked with conservative politics – Mitt Romney made an appearance at the Daytona 500. Rick Santorum actually sponsored a car during the same race. And during the Virginia Republican primary, Sprint Cup driver Brian Vickers “chauffeured” Romney press secretary Andrea Saul from place to place.
Then there are the sponsorships, designed to appeal to your inner redneck. The logos of beer companies adorn numerous cars in all three circuits, and one driver is even sponsored by Gunbroker.com. While NASCAR has backed away from the redneck image somewhat in the last few years, it is difficult for fans to forget that until a few years ago, the truck series was sponsored by Craftsman Tools, the junior circuit by Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, and the senior circuit by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
The question is, does the image match the reality? Surprisingly, the answer is: not really. For starters, in 2011, NASCAR switched to exclusively using Sunoco E15 fuel in its race cars. Containing 15% ethanol, E15 actually burns cleaner than the standard unleaded we put in our own cars. Secondly, as of this year, each NASCAR race car is equipped with an electronic fuel injection system, which introduces fuel into the engine more efficiently, allowing fewer hydrocarbons to escape. Between those two factors, it is projected that overall gas mileage will be approximately one mile per gallon better than in 2010, meaning that in two years’ time, NASCAR has decreased its annual fuel usage by an estimated 90,000 gallons.
Then there is the economic reality. According to the Washington Economics Group, the 2010 Daytona Speed Week and July weekend together meant $1.9 billion in benefit to the Daytona Beach economy. While that is far more than most race cities can expect to take in, the impact at and around each track is nonetheless still significant. And not only do cities benefit from NASCAR, so too do charities – NASCAR officially supports thirty-six different charities, most of which focus on children, chief among those charities being the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma at Wake Forest University’s Baptist Health Center.
Perhaps lost in the shuffle but no less important is that NASCAR has made greater strides than any other sports league in breaking down gender barriers. While there are several professional women’s sports leagues, NASCAR is the only league where women compete side-by-side with men, with Danica Patrick driving on the Sprint Cup circuit, Johanna Long on the Nationwide circuit, and Jennifer Jo Cobb on the Camping World truck circuit.
So, yes, I think it’s okay for me to watch NASCAR. That is why, when the next Sprint Cup race comes around, you will find me watching, hoping to see Brad Keselowski win his first race of the 2012 Sprint Cup, eager to see if Danica Patrick can become the first woman to win a major NASCAR race, wondering if Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will break his 131-race winless streak. And I will be comfortable in the knowledge that I am watching a league that truly has dedicated itself to making the world a better place.