Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: With Fuel Crisis Persisting, Time to Ban NASCAR?

This past weekend, in an effort to avert my eyes from continuously climbing numbers at the gas pump my eyes came to rest upon a series of NASCAR stickers affixed to a 1977 Ford Mustang fueling up in front of me. Trying not to think about the $60 bill I just ran up for 13 gallons of gas, I started to ponder exactly what kind of impact NASCAR is having on our current fuel woes.

By the time I got back in the car and rolled back onto the road — a roll that probably cost me $3.62 — I was pretty convinced I was onto something. All I needed was to do a little research and I was sure I could single handedly end this gas crisis and then usurp the presidency from Jimmy Carter … Okay, so the ’77 Mustang and the gas fumes may have played a small role in that last thought.

Several Internet searches and one splitting gas-fume-induced headache later, I discovered that by most estimates NASCAR vehicles average an astoundingly meager five miles per gallon — less at top speed. So, maybe we’re on to something here.

NASCAR posits that 6,000 gallons of fuel are used on average in a race weekend. With about 40 events over the course of a NASCAR season, that’s 240,000 gallons of fuel. Sounds significant, right?

Figuring most people travel 12,000 miles per year in their car and estimating most American-owned cars get about 20 miles per gallon on average, NASCAR’s gas could fuel 400 cars for an entire year. Or, figuring that most people fill up every 10 days, it would give 14,600 cars one tank. I’m no economic expert, but would the current gas crisis really be eased by giving one-tenth of the population of Joliet, Ill. a free tank of gas? I tend to doubt it, but the debate doesn’t end there.

I think you have to evaluate more than just the basic numbers when considering this question, and it’s here where racing is most vulnerable.

Racing enthusiasts would argue that about seven 10 hour flights by a Boeing 747, a figure probably reached daily before noon at any U.S. airport, equates to the fuel consumed during an entire NASCAR season. However, that doesn’t equate the purpose of a trans-Atlantic flight with one dude in a fire-proof suit making 1,000 left turns for the better part of a Sunday afternoon. The plane can bring 500 people to a completely different part of the world. The racecar driver ends up exactly where he started.

And that doesn’t even consider the tens of thousands of fans that traveled out to watch the race in the first place, using up more gas since race tracks aren’t usually subway accessible. So, there’s our conclusion, right? Burning fuel just for entertainment isn’t worth it and NASCAR and other racing entities should be banned. Done.

Or not.

Those thousands of people attending these races do a lot more than burn fossil fuels and inhale exhaust fumes from their favorite drivers. They also generate a ton of revenue that has made NASCAR one of the most profitable sports ventures going. The sponsorship deals, the TV deal, the sponsors buying ads from the network with the TV deal, the fans buying the products of the sponsors who bought ads from the network with the TV deal and the local stores and concession stands that sold the fans the products of the sponsors who bought ads from the network with the TV deal — that’s a lot of cash being generated by NASCAR. Three years ago, International Speedway Corp. estimated that a proposed track to be built in Bloomfield, N.Y., would generate $45 million in state and city tax revenue, not including property taxes. That particular track never reached fruition, but $45 million in taxes is a fairly sizable chunk for markets like Dover, Del., or Talladega, Ala., that don’t have the same sort of tourist drawing power as their big-city brethren. Can you think of a good reason to visit Darlington, S.C., besides racing? Me either.

When you consider the huge economic benefits NASCAR brings to these locales, and when you consider the huge economic powers wedded to the sport — including juggernauts from the oil, tobacco and alcohol industries — the notion that NASCAR or other forms of racing may be banned is about as likely as, well, me usurping the presidency from Jimmy Carter. But even if NASCAR and its gas guzzling ways aren’t going anywhere, the topic of how the racing body approaches this era of high gas prices is worth exploring.

What about incentivizing new, less-gas demanding forms of racing? How about an exhibition race, or even a new circuit, featuring hybrid cars? The Toyota Camry, currently used by NASCAR is already one of the top-selling hybrid models.

Obviously the Prius and the Camry aren’t going to zip around at 200 mph. But a restriction on fuel stops and bonus points given for the driver to achieve the highest MPG could be interesting and innovative. NASCAR’s pit crews have some of the most talented and knowledgeable gear heads out there. You think there might be a technological breakthrough if they spent a month or two tuning a car for a chance to chase a $5 million purse* (*subsidized by energy companies looking for a sustainable future and some good PR with prices topping $4 per gallon across the country).

It may not be what John Q. Racingfan wants to see, but it may stop relatively uninformed people like me from automatically assuming NASCAR is part of the current gas price problem. And heck, with a little creativity, they may even prove to be part of the solution.