How NASCAR is going green

FORTUNE — In many ways, NASCAR shares similarities with the rest of America’s top sports leagues: big crowds, big-time athletes, and even bigger money. One way in which NASCAR strays from the pack is in its environmental challenges. Unlike the National Football League or Major League Baseball, NASCAR not only deals with spectator waste — nearly 100 tons of recyclables at some of its larger races — but also with pollution from the sport itself. Fortune interviewed Dr. Mike Lynch, NASCAR’s Managing Director of Green Innovation, to discuss the association’s green programs, the use of ethanol in racing fuel, the potential for solar-powered racecars, and the daunting task of cleaning up after 100,000 fans. An edited transcript follows.

Fortune: “NASCAR Green” started a few years back in 2008 – what was your mission in starting the program?

Lynch: What NASCAR was aiming to do was — again four-and-a-half years ago, not really knowing that green was going to go as far as it did in this time period or as quickly as it did — was to become part of the community that was leaning in a green direction. Then also offer up NASCAR as a proving ground and as a demonstration platform for green technology solutions and products to show their relevance and how they can literally do what everyone has found that green products and solutions can do, which is save money, perform at least as well as the traditional alternatives, and in some cases perform better. And in that context, doing the right thing by the environment, creating jobs, as a result — new jobs that are here in the U.S. — and also helping us out with our energy independence as well, making us a little bit less dependent on foreign energy sources.

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So it was doing all that. But then the other key ingredient, which is what made the [Managing Director of Green Innovation] role here at NASCAR Green so interesting, was that the charter and the vision from the beginning was to have it be smart business, to actually have it be a business within the sport that had its own viability as a result of the fact that we pursued it to have its own legs in every way. And it really has played out very well.

Racecars create a lot of CO2 emissions, and NASCAR recently announced a new program aimed at planting trees around the country to combat this — please explain.

So the NASCAR Green Clean Air Tree Planting Program delivered by UPS [is a program] where there are going to be a little bit more than 8,000 trees that will go in the ground under a stewardship program having to do with the Arbor Day Foundation. They’re not tiny, tiny little seedlings, but they’re one to three feet tall when they’re planted, and they’re planted carefully and in a protected area. They’ll live their 40-year life span on average, and 8,000 is more than twice as much as you need in order to capture all of the CO2 emissions of all the racing in practice and competition and qualifying that we do for all three of our major televised series: the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Because NASCAR is built around car races, there are going to be auto pollutants and issues with emissions that you face on a weekly basis. What are your big challenges when it comes to pollution in the sport?

Yeah. I mean, when we designed NASCAR Green as a program, we took a step back at the very beginning and thought about the environmental impact of the sport. And that environmental impact is in three major categories of activity. One is in waste, because we gather over 100,000 people [at a race] every week. Another is in emissions, which has to do with emissions from the racecars, emissions from support vehicles, fan travel, and the like. And then the third category is around power generation, because you need electricity for all of this, and there’s different ways to do that now, whether it’s renewable energy or alternative fuels like natural gas.

How much CO2 is emitted during a NASCAR race? Essentially you have these cars driving at high speeds for long distances around the track every week.

Emissions from a car during a typical race, this is actually something that anyone can calculate using EPA calculators on the Internet and using public information about our racecars. So our cars get between — depending on the race and the conditions and all that sort of thing — get about 4 to 5 miles per gallon. That’s a publicly known piece of info. And so if you assume a 500-mile race, plus or minus about 100 gallons of Sunoco Green E15 [gasoline] is being consumed by each car. So in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, you’ve got a 43-car field, so you basically have 4,300 gallons of fuel being consumed in that race to run it 500 miles, assuming all the cars run the whole 500 miles and all that sort of thing.

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And then the EPA calculators, what they show you is that when you consume that much unleaded gasoline, even taking out the 15% factor of ethanol in there, it comes to roughly 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide, 1 metric ton of CO2 emitted per car. So 43 metric tons for a 43-car Sprint Cup race. And the thing is [when] a tree is planted and lives its 40-year life span, pretty good rough numbers [show] a tree will absorb and store about 1 metric ton of CO2.

In 2011 NASCAR started using gasoline made with 15% ethanol. It doesn’t seem like you’ve noticed any negative impact in performance for the cars, is that correct?

No, we haven’t. We have the most visible biofuels program in the world with Sunoco Green E15, high performance race fuel that’s 15% American-grown, American-made ethanol blended with high performance unleaded racing gasoline by Sunoco. When we first were doing our due diligence, so when this was all top secret and we were trying to figure out what blend level would we want to use and are we [even] going to introduce ethanol in the blend with Sunoco or not, our engine shops and the race teams noticed in the initial testing that the blended fuel was making more horsepower. And that’s something that really has proved out. So we’re getting anywhere from 9 to 15 more horsepower across the board and with no hitches, wrinkles, or problems whatsoever. Nine to 15 horsepower in our world, I mean, that starts to get you lapping the other cars.

Do you envision moving to 100% ethanol at any time in the future?

That’s a great question. That’s something we’re asked a lot, you know, 100% or what about 85%, which is the sort of benchmark standard for a flex fuel vehicle — 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. So slipping the ratio around of gasoline to ethanol. Our viewpoint on that has got a couple of pieces to it.

Sunoco’s point of view from a race fuel formulation and optimization standpoint is they’ve told is us they really like the 15% blend because it gives you that additional horsepower yet keeps the blend level at a point where — and we’ve said this before — where nothing needs to be different about the car. So we didn’t need to change anything about the engine, about the car itself, anything, in order to go from Sunoco high performance unleaded gasoline, the 260 GTX fuel that we were running before, to Sunoco Green E15, which is 15% ethanol. We didn’t need to change anything.

You start getting to really high blend levels [like] 85% — I mean, everybody knows that a flex fuel vehicle has different sort of parts characteristics to it than a 15% ethanol or a 10% ethanol level of use. That much ethanol being in the fuel — literally 85% ethanol and 15% gas — you have to accommodate for that difference in terms of some of the [car] materials that are used. So that’s why a flex fuel car, when you buy it from Chevy (GM), Ford (F), or Toyota (TM), it’s a flex fuel model. And then 100% [ethanol] is yet another model and that’s actually in the consumer marketplace. I mean, E85, the flex fuel level, is not widely available. 100% [ethanol] is a pretty exotic fuel that’s really just used for specialty racing.

What about solar power? Do you ever think that NASCAR could exist racing cars that are driven by solar?

Well, you know, then you’re kind of getting into the concept of a very exotic sort of solar car or charging an electric car or plug-in hybrid batteries with solar power. Is that something that we have on our advanced concept radar screen? Is this something that we’re actively analyzing? Is this something we’re paying real professional attention to? The answer is absolutely yes. Just like with the introduction of Sunoco Green E15 and all the other things that we’ve been doing, we have — like any other organization — very long lead times of analysis and prudent consideration before we’re going to pilot or introduce something, especially when you’re talking about something in a core racing series.

Cars are full of material that would be harmful in a landfill: oil, rubber, metal, things like that. What is NASCAR doing to help recycle a lot of these old racecars and a lot of the material used on a daily basis that can’t simply be thrown away?

So all of our tires get recycled, all of our automotive fluids get recycled, including the oil, all the batteries. So kind of the disposables having to do with the race cars, those are all centrally recycled by partners: the fluids by Safety-Kleen, tires by Liberty Tire Recycling, batteries by Exide or the team’s battery sponsor. That’s all covered.

Then basically a racecar otherwise is mostly sheet metal and some other components. And probably the best example of a program in terms of retired race car recycling is Roush Fenway Racing, where they’re able — through their process that they’ve got vendors working on with them — they’re able to recycle about 96% of the car.

You routinely have over 100,000 fans at your larger races. Can you quantify how much waste is generated at a typical weekend event? What are you guys doing to handle all of that waste?

Using a couple of our track weekends as an example — and this number’s a bit [imprecise] because it doesn’t account for contamination and food waste that might have gotten in there and all that sort of thing — but plus or minus 20%, [we have] 75 to 100 tons of bottles, cans and cardboard. Recyclables. The way that’s dealt with, there’s a range: everything from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which literally has a single-stream dump-it-all-in recycle plant right next door, like literally almost in the same property where everything goes. Another is the Daytona 500 with Coca-Cola Recycling (KO). A lot of their expertise is orchestrating the different service providers and vendors and streams that stuff needs to go into to make sure that bottles go into the bottle recycling plant and the aluminum goes to the aluminum and the cardboard goes to the cardboard.

We even have curbside recycling programs in our campgrounds every weekend. The stat folks will tell you that on any given weekend, the largest campground in the United States, with a few exceptions, is the NASCAR race. Texas Motor Speedway is a great example. I think we have about 12,000 slots at Texas Motor Speedway. There’ll be a lot of campers out there.

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