Can auto racing project two shades of green?

By Brittany Patterson | 02/19/2015 07:57 AM EST

Leilani Münter, whose self-proclaimed motto is “Never underestimate a vegetarian hippie chick with a race car,” isn’t your typical NASCAR archetype. She’s spoken before the United Nations and twice to the White House on the importance of caring for our environment, but she said she most enjoys talking to her race car fans.

Leilani Münter, whose self-proclaimed motto is "Never underestimate a vegetarian hippie chick with a race car," isn’t your typical NASCAR archetype.

At 5 feet 3 inches tall and just over 100 pounds, the former biology major and current vegan may be small, but she says she’ll gladly shout from any platform she’s given on the importance of caring for our environment. She’s spoken before the United Nations and twice to the White House, but she said she most enjoys talking to her race car fans.

Münter, who fell into racing by accident in 2001, says since reaching a professional level in racing where she garners attention as a driver — she is currently with the ARCA Racing Series and raced Saturday at Daytona International Speedway during the Lucas Oil 200 — her voice as an environmentalist has been magnified.


"There’s a lot more crossover than most people think," she said.

Münter has been particularly vocal, adding a section to her website on environmental news; racing a car decked out in advertisements for the documentary "Blackfish" and another for Operation Free, a group of veterans advocating for clean energy; purchasing an acre of rainforest for each race she runs; and driving her Tesla (which is powered by solar energy from her rooftop panels) to and from races.

When she began touting environmentalism as a driver, Münter says many of her fans either didn’t know or didn’t want to know about climate change, but she has been heartened by how the response has changed. For example, she recalls one fan, "your typical NASCAR fan, think a Budweiser in his hand, wearing a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt," who emailed her asking for more information about the program she uses to purchase rainforest as racing emission offsets.

"He said he was racking his brain trying to figure out what to get his wife for her birthday, and he was writing to me to find out how to do that," she said. "That was five years ago. It’s only gotten better."

Still, the driver says she’s had trouble finding sponsors that fit with her environmental mission, but as an athlete she says it’s a privilege to be able to reach people because of her sport, adding that it’s just as important for athletes to speak directly to the fans who love them as it is for the sports industries to make efforts on their own.

The dialogue, she argues, is especially important for racing fans who aren’t necessarily the types of people she’d see on the environmental circuit.

"But they’ll be at the race this weekend, and every chance I’ll get I’ll try to talk to them," she said.

Is one of the world’s most influential sports sustainable?

Motorsport, which includes NASCAR, Formula One and rally car racing to name a few, has a substantial global fan base. NASCAR estimates it has 75 million fans, 100 million to 105 million if you go by Nielsen television ratings. In 2014, worldwide television audiences for Formula One topped 425 million.

Auto racing isn’t known for being particularly good to the environment.

Leilani Munter
Leilani Münter at a NASCAR race. (She’s also a biology major.) | Photo courtesy of Alex Krohn Photography/Wikipedia.

"I think there is a strong case to be made that, other than perhaps golf, stock car racing has been the most environmentally destructive sport in the North American pro sports landscape," Joshua Newman, director of the Center for Sport, Health and Equitable Development at Florida State University and author of a book about NASCAR, said in an email.

"It was founded on the spectacle of speed, and that spectacle takes a lot of horsepower, a lot of petrol, and a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. NASCAR race cars travel millions of miles per season (racing, practicing, transporting to races, etc.), with staggering emissions rates (about 2-5 miles per gallon) and has historically used lead additives in its racing fuels."

In 2008, NASCAR launched its sustainability program, NASCAR Green, and this year marks the inaugural season for Formula E, an entirely electric 10-race offshoot of the racing behemoth Formula One.

Of the sports that climate change will impact, notably snow sports and others that are played in the increasing summer heat, motorsport isn’t really one of them. In the ways it will be affected, it is well-positioned to adapt, said Greg Dingle, a lecturer for sport management in the Department of Marketing and Management at the La Trobe Business School in Australia.

"The motor industry has a long history of engineering cars to run in hot temperatures," he said. "Motor racing is a sport with considerable adaptive capacity."

Still, because car racing depends on nonrenewable resources such as oil, plastics and rubber, and racing events bring thousands out to racetracks around the world, motorsport plays a role in producing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, Dingle wrote in a 2009 paper on the environmental sustainability of motorsport.

"Sport has a significant capacity to communicate to people what we can do about climate change," he said. "Since motorsport is fossil fuel-based in a big way, what they’re really saying is we don’t care."

NASCAR’s green campaign

Six years ago, Michael Lynch was brought on board to create a formal new strategic business initiative for NASCAR.

"There was no partner outcry, no fan outcry for it and no regulatory pressure whatsoever," the vice president of green innovation said. "It was seen as an opportunity for the sport to make a huge difference and demonstrate that green could be done as a business."

The first order of business was to introduce a new biofuel blend, he said. For many years, perhaps the most substantial environmental impact of NASCAR has been its lifeblood — fossil fuel.

Although leaded gas was phased out of the consumer market much earlier, until 2008, stock cars were allowed to continue using leaded gas because of an exemption written into the Clean Air Act. In 2006, a U.S. EPA report titled "Air Quality Criteria for Lead" stated leaded fuel may pose a serious risk to residents living near racetracks, fuel attendants, racing crew and staff, and spectators. In January 2006, NASCAR voluntarily partnered with EPA and agreed to switch to a lead-free, 15 percent ethanol blend created by Sunoco.

NASCAR Green has 26 programs, including tree planting to offset racing emissions, recycling at the tracks and tire recycling.

Specific to NASCAR is that the brand is the overarching framework, and that gives the company a unique pedestal to promote green messaging, Lynch said.

"If you ask a NASCAR fan what they’re a fan of, they’ll tell you straightforward, ‘I’m a NASCAR fan,’" he said, as opposed to being a fan of a specific team. "Fans embody the whole lifestyle, they live the sport."

That means, Lynch said, NASCAR Green can use radio, television and social media messages for the entirety of the sport’s 38-week season.

Formula E 'Spark' race car
Preparing for Miami and Long Beach: A Spark-Renault SRT_01E on a test run at a British racetrack. | Photo courtesy of FIA Formula E.

According to NASCAR polling, it seems to be working. Three out of four NASCAR fans are aware of NASCAR Green and say it shows NASCAR cares about the environment. Eighty percent of fans believe in climate change, and two-thirds support actions such as buying solar panels for their home and using light-emitting diodes.

Rebecca Scott, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri who has written about the intersection of NASCAR and the environment, said she’s sure the company means well but its efforts amount to greenwashing.

"Ethanol is a great example," she said. "It displaces petroleum to biofuel, but that doesn’t change consumerism or driving. It’s a way of being green but doing the exact same thing they were doing before."

Scott said without challenging the inherent consumerism and dependence on fossil fuels built into the sport, NASCAR is merely trying to expand its fan base by appealing to Americans who might have the environment on the mind.

"I guess it’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t represent a real transformation," she said.

Or, as Newman puts it, NASCAR Green is primarily an effort in what brand managers call organizational perception management.

"This is a tactic historically used by military agencies seeking to divert attention away from the effects of war (death, destruction, etc.) and toward more positive renderings of freedom, liberation, and sacrifice for the nation," he said. "The costs associated with actually making the sport more environmentally sustainable (or less impactful) would be far greater than the cost of having Jeff Gordon plant a few trees or putting a few Coca-Cola emblazoned recycling bins at Darlington Raceway."

It is a shrewd business decision, he adds, but will come nowhere near offsetting the negative environmental — and long-term economic — costs the sport enterprise passes on to taxpayers and citizens in communities where their events are held.

For Dingle, as long as fossil fuel continues to be the backbone of the racing sport, any actions the industry might take maintains the status quo.

"They’ve very sensitive to criticism because it’s a lot cheaper to maintain the status quo," he said. "To move to 100 percent solar-powered cars, or hydrogen-powered cars, it’s all technically possible, but it’s expensive and it’s a big change, and they’re entirely dependent on the auto industry to make a significant change themselves. A zero-emissions race car, that’s something approaching sustainable. Anything less than that isn’t a change."

Enter Formula E

On March 14, the world’s first fully electric racing series, an offshoot of Formula One dubbed Formula E, will make its American debut in Miami.

The inaugural season features 10 teams in single-seater cars built by a partnership between the French automaker Renault, and a consortium of companies that make Formula One race car components called Spark Racing Technology.

The result was the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, a car that is made from carbon fiber and aluminum and fueled by a specially developed battery. The car’s electric motors are 200-kilowatt pieces of technology developed by a Formula One giant, McLaren Automotive.

The electric cars can’t go as fast as their Formula One counterparts, topping out around 150 mph, whereas Formula One cars often hit 200 mph and are quieter, too. Drivers liken the sound the electric cars make to that of a jet engine.

The idea is to leverage people’s interest in the technology powering the electric race cars and hope it translates to decisions they make about personal vehicles they could one day choose to own. By innovating the technology for the racetrack, the organization hopes it can spur growth in the commercial sector.

"This concept is at the very core of the idea behind Formula E," said Luca Colajanni, head of communications for Formula E. "A series that must not only promote electric vehicles but one that also serves as a technological test bed for manufacturer."

The organizers are hoping to reach younger fans by racing on city streets in urban environments, using social media and playing music in the background at races. Colajanni says the United States has the biggest market for electric vehicles, and Formula E’s presence here is no accident. It is the only country hosting two races during this first season.

Miami was chosen because "it’s a city that looks to the future, which experiments with new technology and is oriented toward sustainable development, and it’s also a place to have fun," Colajanni said. The second American race is scheduled to be held in Long Beach, Calif., in April.

The organizers say they are not trying to compete with existing motorsports but to get young people interested. The idea has been championed by Jean Todt, president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the Paris-based governing board for international racing events.

"Few people are as aware as Todt of just how useful motorsport can be as a promotional tool, as well as a driver of technical development, and we shared his idea that electric vehicles needed something specific in terms of motorsport to try and make a leap forward in terms of quality," Colajanni said.

Speaking from her Tesla Model S as she drove it from her home in Charlotte, N.C., to the Daytona International Speedway, Münter stressed how much interest she gets from both her neighbors and race fans about her electric car.

She says she makes a big deal about driving long distances on electric because in her experience the best way to feed the curiosity and show people more environmentally sustainable actions can be taken is to "just do it."

That action, she said, needs to come from both the sports industries, which she sees evolving, but also from the athletes themselves. The potential is there.

"I cannot control what the racing series does, but my efforts are about educating as many race fans as I can," she said. "Just because you like fast cars doesn’t mean you don’t care about the ocean or clean air or clean water."