NASCAR's sustainability race: Q&A with Mike Lynch

NASCAR image by Beelde Photography via Shutterstock.

[Editor's note: Mike Lynch, NASCAR’s managing director of green innovation, will discuss NASCAR’s environmental wins at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco on Feb. 28 as part of a sports and sustainability panel.]

NASCAR likes doing things big and its sustainability efforts are no exception.

From tire recycling to using biofuels, the car racing giant is putting itself in pole position. The NASCAR brand carries a lot of weight in the sports world and that girth has allowed it to introduce some of sports’ biggest green solutions to a largely receptive audience.

Lynch spoke with GreenBiz reporter Jennifer Inez Ward about the unique position in which NASCAR finds itself to share its green initiatives with a massive audience and the sports industry.

Jennifer Inez Ward: Why is the sports industry in a position to offer unique sustainability solutions?

Mike Lynch: What a sport can do is it can give very broad general public and business-to-business visibility to green technology and solutions that are already perhaps broadly deployed in the marketplace, or are ready to be deployed because they’ve been proven but not adopted fully yet.

If you choose any particular segment of the green landscape where a technology is proven — plug-in vehicles is one example — deploying the infrastructure is something that needs to happen. Electric cars work. Plug-in hybrids work; they get a much higher net mileage per gallon of gasoline then a purely combustible car does. Yes, you need more charging stations, but the charging stations themselves are actually a working technology.

But when you talk about a plug-in car, or use of ethanol fuel or the use of green material in the construction of the interior and exterior of a car, there is an inherent skepticism that is just a normal human reaction.

However, if you place any of those examples into the context of a sport and show how a product, solution, fuel or a technology can actually be used either in the venue, or in the supporting infrastructure, or the broadcast or in the playing of the competing sport itself, it gives the general public and even the business-to-business community a tangible way to relate the fact that whatever it is, it is good for the environment. It’ll save money, it's good for the country and it creates jobs.

If you just say that outside of a sports context you run into that natural skepticism and the inherent belief that there is a conflict of interest because whoever is saying it maybe has a reason or an incentive to adopt the technology, whether it’s the president, the government or a company.

In the case of NASCAR or a sport, none of us are going to use a product unless it works. And unless it does what they say it does, that understanding by the fans and by the business-to-business community around the sport is what gives an inherent validation platform characteristic to the fact that you can bring green technology solutions and use them and show their relevance.

Also, it just makes it tangible and real and puts it in the context that the audience cares about and thinks positively about, because it’s something they consume electively and that they love.

NASCAR image by Beelde Photography / Shutterstock.com.

JIW: Can you talk about what makes NASCAR’s sustainability efforts stand out?

ML: NASCAR has a different framework. One is that our sport, in order to compete, requires technologies and solutions that are rather profound, advanced and very high performance in order to run the race cars and support the drivers and keep them safe.

So our sport has a unique opportunity. And, in the case of NASCAR, we drive stock cars which closely resemble production cars that you can buy in a showroom.

When we put an ethanol fuel in a race car, or we’re recycling automotive fluids or we’re deploying other products or technologies into our sport, fans can directly relate to it.

If you’re a fan of a football team or a baseball team, you might like the New York Knicks or the San Francisco Giants. In NASCAR, our fans are fans of NASCAR. The average number of favorite drivers a NASCAR fan has is about six. So our fans are a very potent affinity group around the sport, around NASCAR. They have a relatively distributed favorite driver focus.

It’s something that gives a very strong reality and relevance to any product or technology or solution. It’s being put in a framework that a fan can really relate to and really think honestly about and openly about and be receptive.

This makes it very different than trying to argue about, you know, participating in your neighborhood recycling because it’s the right thing to do. That’s a good reason. But if you’re doing it because you’re seeing NASCAR (recycling) on a massive scale, (then) we can really help that adopting, help that encouragement and we’ve got the data to show that.

JIW: How did NASCAR’s green initiatives evolve?

ML: When we laid out our green strategy for NASCAR, we identified three areas of environmental impact: waste, emissions and power. Our strategic approach to those areas was that if we were to launch and take beyond the pilot or the beta test stage any green initiative it would have to be No. 1 in sports worldwide. That was our aspiration and goal for every one of our programs and every one of our programs have achieved that status.

So, we have by far the largest and most diverse recycling programs in sports. We’re recycling bottles and cans like other sports venues do and we’re doing it on a massive-volume scale that no individual sports team can match just because the sheer number of events and attendance that we have. Our recycling program is absolutely gigantic and we’re doing it in partnership with Coca-Cola Recycling and Coors Light.

We recycle our automotive fluids, about 200,000 gallons a year. We recycle our tires with Goodyear. We recycle everything we use, basically, in racing. It’s a really deep and broad recycling program.

In emissions, we have the most visible biofuels program in the world with Sunoco Green E15, which is 15 percent American-grown, American-made ethanol, in all of our televised race cars. It’s given us higher horsepower and it’s been a real seamless transition. Its profound success has also served as a way to promote innovation, ingenuity and commitment to our country and the American farmer who makes the ethanol.

We’re showing that ethanol is better for the environment. It’s created half a million jobs in the U.S. so far. If gas stations go from using 10 percent of ethanol to 15 percent, it will mean a million more jobs.

NASCAR image by Beelde Photography / Shutterstock.com.