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1,652 Solar Panels and a Herd of Sheep Can't Make a NASCAR Racetrack Green

Nice try, NASCAR, but it’s impossible for a business as carbon-hungry as high-speed racing to go green.

The Infineon Raceway, a NASCAR racetrack in California’s Sonoma Valley, has been vacuuming up praise from the environmentally-minded for its green initiatives. The raceway has a comprehensive recycling program and uses reclaimed wastewater for landscaping. It uses owls for pest-control and sheep for lawn maintenance. As part of a larger NASCAR initiative, it plants 10 trees to offset the carbon emissions of each race. It hosts races featuring electric motorbikes. Last month, the raceway announced it had swapped out the 7,000 traditional lightbulbs in a highway-side sign for 57,600 LED lights and cut the sign’s energy use in half. It also announced it had installed 1,652 solar panels, which should provide 41 percent of the raceway’s demand for electricity.

But despite Infineon Raceway’s best efforts, it’s impossible for a business as carbon-hungry as high-speed racing to go green. They’re not greenwashing, exactly: The raceway’s not trying to fool its customers or its detractors into believing that zooming around at speeds topping out over 190 miles per hour and crashing cars into each other or walls is good for the environment. Treehugger calls campaigns like Infineon Raceway’s sustainability push “green wrapping” — cloaking an activity that will never be planet-friendly in a mantle of squeaky-green behavior.

Race tracks go through a lot of rubber, for example: last year, Infineon Raceway recycled 14,000 pounds of tires. Recycled tires often become playground turf, and parents have found that chewed up, repurposed bits of tire cling to their children after a bout on these surfaces. The EPA has studied the health impacts of those bits of rubber, and while its first, limited inquiry did not reveal dangerous levels of particulate matter or heavy metals like lead, the agency wasn’t willing to exonerate recycled tire turf based on that data alone. In New York City, for instance, private testing of tire turf fields found levels of dangerous hydrocarbons that exceeded state soil limits for those contaminants. Recycling the tires puts that waste to better use than tossing or burning them, but it does not erase their impact.

NASCAR isn’t above good old greenwashing, either. The tree-planting scheme that Infineon Raceway takes part in, NASCAR Green Clean Air initiative, is meant to offset the roughly 10 tons of carbon that a typical NASCAR race emits. The association claims that planting 10 trees “will mitigate 100 percent of the carbon emissions” produced during a race. Their math is simple: a tree is supposed to capture one ton of carbon over its lifetime; ten can capture “the entire CO2 emissions from a typical race.”

It’s a nice gesture, but that's all it is. Given that it takes a tree about 100 years to soak up its ton of carbon, the emissions from a single race would be hanging around in the atmosphere for decades before the trees NASCAR raceways plant offset them. That would be if planting trees worked as an effective offset. But scientists have been skeptical for years about the benefits of planting trees as a method of mitigating carbon, particularly in temperate zones, like Sonoma, where Infineon Raceway has so far planted just 100 trees to offset its activities.

As long as race tracks continue to operate, it’s better that they use technology like solar panels and LED lights. Infineon Raceway is also setting a good example for fans that frequent its races (although Pixar’s Cars 2 may have already done a better job at converting any susceptible car-racing enthusiasts to environmentalism). But if its leaders were really committed to running a green business, they’d have fewer races or shut down the track altogether.

Picture courtesy of Infineon Raceway

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