I’m a NASCAR fan, and a…. Climate Scientist?

Everybody has their quirks right? Everyone has certain things about them that subvert expectations – things that make people furrow their brow and say “wait, really?” A bodybuilder who loves cute little kittens? A bald hairstylist? A Dodge Ram owner who doesn’t drive like a massive prick? Not what you’d expect! I’d wager to say I have one of the more surprising expectation subverting traits out there – one that almost always yields at the very least a confused look.

I’m currently a climatology PhD candidate at the University of Delaware. Everything that I study is built upon a foundation of being as strong a steward for the planet as I possibly can. It’s meant to be my job as a climatologist to continue the seemingly never-ending fight to protect our planet’s atmosphere from entities that seem to want to harm it with impunity.

However, even with climate science being essentially the focal point of my life – I’m also a diehard NASCAR fan. On one hand I want to protect the atmosphere and save the planet… but on the other hand I genuinely love what could realistically be considered the most ecologically irresponsible sport in the world. How is that even possible?

At left: Me at the 2022 Daytona 500. At right: Me at the 2019 American Association of Geographers annual conference.

This weird intersect stems from childhood. I’ve wanted to be a climatologist for as long as I can remember. My dad is a climate professor, and I always wanted to “follow in his footsteps” in a manner of speaking. He instilled in me from a very young age a love of the science, and a firm grasp of why it is important. Almost my whole life I have been trying to better understand the Earth-Atmosphere system, and have taken that desire so far as to make it my career.

Just as I’ve been interested in the weather my entire life, I’ve loved NASCAR almost as long. Starting at about 8 years old I started following NASCAR and it became just about my favorite sport. As a kid I would sit and watch every lap of every race, I just couldn’t get enough of it. The speed, the sounds, the action…. I absolutely loved it. I fell out of touch with the sport a bit as a teenager, but fell back in love with it in 2016, and now like it more than ever – even to the point that I’m now writing for a NASCAR site! It was “one of” my favorite sports as a kid, but it’s my unquestioned favorite as an adult.

Climate & NASCAR are two of my absolute favorite things in the world, two childhood loves that I never shook – but how do I balance these two things that seemingly have irreconcilable differences? How could I possibly balance my love for NASCAR with my concern over the ever worsening state of our Earth’s atmosphere, particularly when NASCAR – and all forms of motorsports, really – directly contributes to that environmental degradation? Well, it’s complicated…

NASCAR is inherently terrible from an environmental perspective. While the figures vary depending on speed and track type, NASCAR cars generally only get in the neighborhood of 3-5 miles per gallon. Multiply that by 40 cars over 300-500 miles, and you’ve got several thousand gallons of fuel being burned over the course of just a few hours.

This is a dangerous game, but I am going to pose a hypothetical using some very rough averages: let’s say you have a race weekend with all three National Series at a track – a cup car would use about 100 gallons of fuel throughout a 400 mile race, an Xfinity car would use around 75 over a 250 mile race, and a truck would use around 50 over a 200 mile race. Multiply those figures by 40, 38, and 36 respectively and you are talking about – and this is a conservative, ballpark figure – 8,600 gallons of fuel being burned on a single race weekend. Every gallon of fuel burned releases about 20 pounds of Carbon Dioxide, so that is around 172,000 pounds (86 tons) of CO2 for a single race weekend. Yikes! For perspective, the average American emits around 30,000 pounds (15 tons) of CO2 in a given year, though that figure varies by source.

That’s one heck of a carbon footprint… and that isn’t even considering all of the fanfare surrounding the race – fans driving and flying in, powering the track, tailgate BBQs, so on and so forth… OR the fact that the Cup Series runs 36 races a year, Xfinity runs 33, and Trucks run 23. Taking that into account using my (again, very rough) per race averages, you’re in the ballpark of 5.5 million pounds (2,800 tons) of CO2 per season! How could a climate scientist possibly justify enjoying all this?

For starters is a bit of deflection: these races would happen regardless of whether or not I was watching and enjoying them. So, while of course there’s sometimes that little voice in my head that says “you should feel bad” I just… don’t. What would me feeling bad accomplish? What would that change? Not a thing quite frankly, unless I managed to land my dream job as the “chief meteorologist for NASCAR”, at which point decision makers in the sport might listen – but until then, why get upset? What would that do other than ruin one of my favorite things in the world? Sorry, I’m just not wired like that.

It’s also important to consider the impact of NASCAR against.. well, everything else. Again, a typical race weekend emits a conservative 86 tons of CO2. In 2020, according the EPA, the United States as a whole emitted approximately 5.981 billion (that’s 5,981,000,000) tons of CO2 equivalent. That means that a typical NASCAR weekend is responsible for about .00000001% of the US’s annual emissions. Even if you used the annual figure of 2800 tons per season, all you would do to that number is lop off one zero, and change the one to a four.

Now, I need to make this abundantly clear: any reduction is a good reduction. We should be fighting to reduce emissions in any way possible, NASCAR included – but when you’re talking about percentages this small, outrage and abandoning the sport is simply not my default reaction. I’d rather direct that outrage at entities that really deserve it (I’m looking at you Exxon, Nestle, and US Congress).

To NASCAR’s credit, they have been trying to improve their environmental standing over the last several years, and have worked with a variety of sustainability-focused groups starting in 2008 with their “NASCAR Green” program. They switched to a cleaner burning ethanol blend fuel (Sunoco E15) in 2011 which helps cut down on-track emissions by up to 20%, ramped up race-day sustainability efforts with various recycling programs, instituted solar power at tracks, undertaken various carbon offset programs, and encouraged the teams to place an emphasis on efficiency and sustainability. While there is of course still a long way to go for a sport emitting at the level that they are, they are at least putting forth a concerted effort – and that goes a long way in my eyes. (Source: https://green.nascar.com/nascar-green-an-industry-effort/)

One of the biggest ways that I justify the intersect though, is this: once the sport gets to the point – because let’s face it, it will – where it is considering transitioning from gas powered to electric cars, I will fully, and happily support it. I would be as big a proponent for that move as you could possibly imagine. Every time someone shoots me that confused look upon learning I’m a NASCAR fan, and says “how can you support that”, this is my default response – that I would support the electrification of the sport.

Of course, transitioning to electric cars would have huge environmental benefits – take that 8,600 gallons of gas and shove it – but there would even be on track benefits, namely: INSTANT TORQUE. Sure, you’d lose the sounds, and the smells, but I personally wouldn’t mind being able to sit row one at Daytona without headphones on and hear cars fly by me at almost 200mph. Particularly if those batteries are charged using renewable sources of energy, you can take the sport with one of the biggest carbon footprints around and shrink it by orders of magnitude almost immediately.

I would actually support expediting this transition. Realistically though, I fully recognize that even half-serious discussions about that are well off into the future. Still, it helps me reconcile my seemingly irreconcilably juxtaposed views.

So, there you have it – that’s how I justify being a NASCAR fan despite being a climate scientist. As with anything in our modern age, of course NASCAR could benefit from continuing further down a path of sustainability and environmental stewardship – but in the meantime, I’ll continue tuning in every week, showing up in person every once in a while, and being the superfan that I am.

Published by Walker Skeeter

Walker is a 4th year climatology PhD candidate at the University of Delaware. Despite being a climate scientist, Walker has been a NASCAR fan for over 20 years! His favorite drivers are Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, and Alex Bowman in cup, and AJ Allmendinger, Tommy Joe Martins, and Ryan Vargas in Xfinity. Outside of racing, he enjoys talking about (and studying) the weather, watching Baltimore sports, and playing video games.

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