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Racing into Oblivion

Why I said goodbye to NASCAR.

by
Mark Stuertz

Bio

July 1, 2012 - 12:02 am

Two decades ago, NASCAR — the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing — was enjoying explosive growth. Fortune 500 companies such as DuPont, Kellogg’s, and Procter & Gamble were bankrolling its expansion. The sanctioning body was stretching way beyond its deep Southern roots, opening tracks in the unlikeliest of places, including New Hampshire (70 miles north of Boston) and Fontana, California. In 1994, it conquered the capital of open-wheel racing: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500

But it all stalled in 2007.

Since the onset of the recession, NASCAR has been suffering a long streak of precipitously declining track attendance and TV ratings. And it hasn’t recovered.

NASCAR’s slump has been blamed on a number of things: a sluggish economy, a reliance on an older (and white) male fan base, cookie-cutter cars, the waning of American car culture, weak social media offerings, high gas prices, and boring races. In 2010, NASCAR Chairman Brian France ordered a five-year plan to stem the bleeding.

But on May 21, 2012, NASCAR may have choked off that five-year plan before it could get any traction. On that day, NASCAR inked a deal with the Obama EPA. Under the terms of the three-year pact, NASCAR will “stimulate participation in EPA programs” and “foster greater environmental awareness among NASCAR fans.” The EPA will identify the environmental “programs and messages that are best suited for promoting environmental stewardship and sustainable behavior.” NASCAR is charged with “encouraging greater environmental awareness and sustainable behavior by their fans.”

In other words, NASCAR is now an official EPA apparatchik charged with shoving the agency’s Orwellian propaganda down the throats of its fans in an attempt to change their behavior. NASCAR has essentially agreed to become a corporate crony of the EPA’s job and wealth shredding machine. For a sport that has always prized independence, raw power, and American traditions (invocations and military flyovers start each race), this may be too much for its core fans to swallow.

Yet the move follows a recent and steady progression. For the last couple of years, NASCAR has been drifting leftward, synching with the turns its drivers routinely make as they lap oval racetracks. On Earth Day 2012, NASCAR released its “sustainability white paper” that includes on-track “successes” such as a 25-acre solar farm to power Pocono Raceway.

In 2010, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) announced an agreement to sponsor Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet to promote its foundation. This is the same AARP that fights entitlement reform while it lobbies for greater federal largess. This is the same AARP that annually siphons tens of millions of dollars in federal grants as a registered nonprofit charity. This is the same AARP that vigorously pushed for congressional passage of the much-reviled Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It was then granted a sweetheart waiver from the law’s mandates that regulate the Medigap policies AARP sells.

Then there’s NASCAR’s embrace of ethanol. Partnering with American Ethanol, NASCAR has launched a PR campaign touting the benefits of E15 fuels — that is, gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol fermented from corn. There are promotions at the tracks and commercials run during races promoting the fuel. Cars in NASCAR races have been fueled by E15 since the 2011 Daytona 500.

NASCAR claims “renewable” ethanol is environmentally friendly, generates “green” jobs, reduces dependence on foreign oil, and improves engine performance and horsepower. NASCAR fans, the racing body says, are 40 percent more likely than non-fans to support using ethanol to bolster energy independence.

But NASCAR is just blowing ruinous PC smoke in the faces of its fans. The touted ethanol benefits are dubious at best and false at worst for at least four reasons. First, ethanol contains significantly less energy than gasoline on a per gallon basis: 78,000 Btu for ethanol versus 115,000 Btu for gasoline. So it’s difficult to see how ethanol can boost performance and horsepower.

Second, because ethanol contains less energy (lowering fuel economy) and is expensive to produce, it drives up the per-gallon cost of gasoline. Thus, ethanol can’t compete with gasoline on the open market without a portfolio of subsidies and tax credits. So NASCAR fans (and the rest of us) pay for the stuff twice: through taxes and at the pump.

Third, it takes roughly as much fossil fuel energy to produce ethanol (transportation, cultivation, fertilizers, pesticides, refining) as it releases. So in terms of energy inputs and outputs, you’re essentially running in place. How does that contribute to energy independence? And the ethanol production process consumes copious amounts of water and nonrenewable land resources. So the “renewable” designation makes a mockery of truth-in-advertising standards.

And fourth, ethanol isn’t “environmentally friendly” at all, at least in terms of carbon emissions, as even Al Gore concedes. The whole production process releases more carbon (assuming that’s bad) than do fossil fuels. The ethanol lobby is little more than a corrupt political machine, whose purpose is to reelect incumbent politicians from farm and ethanol-producing states by transferring wealth to those states from the rest of us.

Plus, because a significant and growing portion of corn production is dedicated to ethanol, it drives up food prices, as even the Congressional Budget Office concedes. Ethanol is also very corrosive — so much so that E15, the fuel NASCAR is pushing, will damage the very types of cars many NASCAR fans are driving.

Yet nothing shows NASCAR’s contempt for its fan base more than its pact with the EPA. The EPA’s war on coal and on projects such as the Keystone pipeline is costing NASCAR fans jobs as it squeezes them by driving up the cost of energy and food. That’s less money for race tickets. The agency’s destructive regulatory agenda is strangling innovation and job creation by heaping ever more burdens on small and medium businesses. EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz famously touted that the agency’s goal is to crucify oil and gas companies. This is the company NASCAR proudly keeps?

NASCAR once harbored and nurtured a fierce independent streak. The sport was founded by bootleggers who sped over dirt back roads in souped-up cars to evade the taxing and regulatory authority enforcers. It was the domain of mavericks, such the late engine builder and crew chief Smokey Yunick — the greatest rule-bender of them all. He once made inspection weight by packing his car’s roll cage with wet sand. He installed little plugs in the floor so that on race day, they could be popped to let the now dry sand run out, giving his driver a distinct weight advantage. There was no explicit rule against that.

That celebration of cunning and independence is long gone, replaced by centralized five-year-plans. NASCAR is now just another looped-in corporatist, working hand-in-glove with an agency that has utter contempt for this nation’s founding principals as well as its citizens. As a copious consumer of fossil fuels and big carbon emitter (not unlike “green” Hollywood), maybe NASCAR buckled under pressure. Maybe it thought it was better to enlist with “the man” than fight him.

We saw how well that worked out for the Catholic Church.

As a former Texas Motor Speedway season ticket holder and a regular attendee of the Brickyard 400, I have one thing to say to NASCAR: good riddance.

Mark Stuertz is a Dallas-based writer, political activist, and practicing Buddhist.
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