The Future of an American Icon
I had a friend once say to me that I loved racing so much I’d watch 8 kids racing on tricycles. I wish, however, that my love of NASCAR was as true because I’m an American that loves racing. But I’m also an American guy that is not white. In doing the research for this topic I happened to read this sentiment about a Japanese manufacturer joining NASCAR which was hardly surprising:
“Race-car impresario Jack Roush, when asked about Toyota's being invited to join NASCAR, said the U.S. would be better off if stock-car racing remained all-American. "When the Japanese go racing, it's like going to war," he was quoted as saying. Jimmy Spencer, NASCAR's Yankee redneck, wasn't afraid to snarl publicly about the "SOBs" who bombed Pearl Harbor, and expressed hope that "Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge kick their ass." And when Dodge found out one of its stock-car owners, Bill Davis, was lending Toyota's NASCAR effort a hand, it terminated his contract and sued him.” (1)
The roots of NASCAR run deep in Southern culture. The South may be known for its hospitality except for people like myself, it’s hard to feel welcome sometimes. But I do know that what is valid for physics can be equally evident within the foundation that helped to create NASCAR in that for every action is an equal and opposite reaction as Toyota’s presence did have a positive effect:
Chevy, which had offered scant truck support in the past, despite having the most trucks (about 17 of some 40 trucks in the series), is suddenly fielding four factory trucks in 2004. Three of those are also sponsored by GM—fully paid for out of the home office's budget. It has created a research and development team dedicated solely to trucks, offered its teams more wind-tunnel testing time, and hired a shock-absorber engineer, among other upgrades.
Ford, whose F-series trucks have been the top-selling motor vehicles in the U.S. for 22 consecutive years, has convinced Roush and Robert Yates to pool their engine-building resources for the good of all Fords. The corporation is also working more closely and sharing more information with its teams.
As for Dodge's commitment, lead driver Bobby Hamilton cites "my 19 wind-tunnel dates last year" as evidence of the company's determination about truck racing and says it would be "hard to get any more support."
I’m aware now that NASCAR seeks to be less exclusive with the implementation of the Drive for Diversity program to help with changing the stigma of catering to an all-white male majority. Curiously, The Drive for Diversity was conceived in 2004 around the time Toyota joined NASCAR and should be just the tip of the iceberg in how change within NASCAR can help to ensure its own survival.
It should be known that I’m also part of a demographic of Americans who are pro-cannabis, which now represents at least 50% of the United States, and continues to grow. (2)
And reading how NASCAR seemingly did little to help one of its own drivers, Ronnie Hults, regarding his legal use of medicinal marijuana was slightly disenfranchising of his efforts to promote the industry. (3)
As tragic as death has happened to some of the very best and least known NASCAR drivers since it was founded, the truth of the matter is that cannabis has been linked to zero deaths by overdose, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. (4)
The same cannot be said of a sport where speeds can often be in excess of 200 mph by drivers who are completely sober except for the adrenaline coursing through their veins. Death is not an unexpected aspect of racing and the drivers are by no means delusional about this fact:
"Racers are different than most people. We don't have much fear. Even when things happen like this, we try to look at the positives that come from it and see what we can learn from it and make things safer for other people."
That's what happened in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. The world of motorsports mourned, then immediately went to work on innovations such as SAFER barriers, the HANS (Head and Neck Restraint) device, carbon-fiber seats, a wider cockpit and other things to make the competition safer. (5)
I would like NASCAR to consider then, just for a moment, the equal and opposite of effect of how embracing the cannabis culture could bring about positive change using the objectives of its Drive for Diversity program (6):
- Engage industry stakeholders in efforts to broaden the audience of the sport
- Increase minority & female on-track participation
- Introduce career opportunities in the motorsports industry
- Outreach to multicultural target markets
For starters, the race fuel provided to NASCAR race teams, comes primarily from Sunoco:
“We’re not just a sponsor of the sport, we were truly partners in this endeavor,” says Drew Kabakoff, brand manager for Sunoco. “We worked to develop the new Sunoco Green E15 fuel as a team, and started from scratch to create a brand new fuel that is specifically able to handle 15 percent Ethanol made in our plant in New York State. The Sunoco fuel is loaded each week onto a dedicated fleet of Sunoco tanker trucks, and then pumped directly into the team’s fuel cans.” (7)
When it comes to industry stakeholders, NASCAR could benefit from recent legislation allowing the cultivation of hemp in states like Kentucky which will soon see hemp and cannabis-based projects where the plant has been banned since 1970:
The projects are part of a larger effort to boost farming in the Appalachia region of Eastern Kentucky, which was decimated throughout the 20th century as people turned to coal mining and other factory jobs in the area.
Comer announced a variety of projects Monday that will support veterans who turn to farming, research hemp for fiber and its ability to remove environmental toxins, and grow cannabinoids for medical research. (8)
In 2010, it was estimated that the Kentucky Speedway hosting a NASCAR race helped the state to generate $150 million in revenue in 2010. (9)
The effect of change in a formerly prohibitive law would then have the impact of financially helping farmers and residents of Kentucky grow hemp as a renewable resource in addition to receiving revenue from the Kentucky Speedway. As a benchmark:
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates for every one billion gallons of ethanol produced, 10,000 to 20,000 jobs are added to our domestic economy. (10)
According to Richard Parnas, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Connecticut and a founding partner of RPM Sustainable Technologies (http://rpmst.com/Mission.html), an acre of hemp would yield, under ideal conditions, 30 gallons of biodiesel. The Kentucky Speedway was built on 1,000 acres of land which could, theoretically, generate 30,000 gallons of locally-sourced biodiesel! Mr. Parnas noted that it would only require about 18 weeks to set-up a facility to convert hemp to biodiesel. This is not including the amount of biodiesel which could also be created from used FOG (fats, oil, greases) from the on-site food service facilities.
A typical race of 40 or so cars may consume approximately 6,000 gallons of racing fuel. (11)
Granted, that racing fuel is methanol, and requires different processing to make from hemp, however, the race teams’ large trucks used to transport the race cars, team equipment, and basically the trucking industry in general, use copious amounts of diesel fuel. Thus, it is also the trucking industry which could benefit from NASCAR being fully engaged with investing in hemp to make biodiesel that could be used in most diesel engines today with very minor modifications. The timing of this coincides with President Obama’s deadline to set new fuel economy standards aimed directly at medium and heavy-duty commercial trucks.
"Strong heavy truck efficiency standards will not only cut carbon pollution that fuels climate change," but also save money for consumers and truckers, said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which lobbies for environmental protection. (12)
The hemp not used to make biodiesel, could be used in other processes to make body parts for the race cars which can include any number of plastic components. Dodge is already a stakeholder with industrial practices that adopt hemp to manufacture parts for their Vipers. (13)
Hemp is so diverse, it can also be used to make all kinds of paper, the fabric used for team uniforms, and even as a carbon-reducing building material known as Hemcrete should NASCAR decide to add office spaces or grow facilities on-site at their racetracks. (14)
The value of adding hemp to NASCAR is equally important to the relationships created with more than just private industry but would also benefit the US military that hemp oil can also be used as a renewable resource to make plastic similar to what is used in making disposable windshield protectors:
"General Kern learned of our qualification efforts with the windshield tear-offs, like those used in NASCAR, on UH-60s, and he directed RAM&SA to leverage other technologies from racing. The RAM division formed a partnership with the Roush-Fenway Racing Team to cheaply test and prove out new materials, coatings, processes and nanotechnology," said Kris Walker, RAM & SA Team Lead, Attack & Unmanned Aerial Systems.
The RAM and Roush partners are now sharing testing and test data on windshield multi-layer tear-offs and diamond coatings for wear resistance.” (15)
The medical industry would not be excluded as a stakeholder to how hemp and cannabis would contribute to NASCAR’s growth potential and fanbase. Again, the medical benefits of cannabis have been well documented but much like alcohol, is not exempt from abuses. However, the fact of the matter remains and that if a company which makes alcoholic beverages (linked to 88,000 deaths from alcohol poisoning each year in the United States alone (16)) can be a major NASCAR sponsor then so, too, should cannabis and hemp-related companies. In Kentucky, the opportunity for cannabis oil producers to obtain legal status is practically a signature away as the Governor of the state will be presented a bill giving cannabis oil legitimate medical status and is a drug responsible for zero deaths by overdose. (17)
Some would say hemp is a God-given plant born for diversity. The challenges of using it in NASCAR would most certainly create many wide-ranging career opportunities that would first benefit the agriculture industry where the growth of corn currently earmarked for ethanol production could be planted in rotation with hemp thus helping to dispel any food vs. fuel debates where the burden on corn to produce both fuel AND food could be alleviated by hemp:
Crop rotation promotes soil fertility, can contain the spread of plant disease, help prevent weed infestation, and lessen the impact of insect infestations; thus lessening the need for costly and environmentally unfriendly pesticides. For organic farmers, who are unable to use chemical alternatives, crop rotation is a must for healthy crops and profits. (18)
When it comes to the history of hemp and marijuana, as with any history where prohibition is concerned, the picture is not one that conjures an image in which minorities were favorably treated. In fact, minorities were unfairly targeted as the basis of marijuana’s criminalization efforts by Harry Anslinger during his tenure as the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which later became the DEA). There is no denying this ugly past but by embracing the cannabis culture, NASCAR could indeed be on the right side of history, instead of shunning it, as it already has the support of one particular group of minorities:
Research by NASCAR shows one demographic still in love with cars is Hispanics. That’s why the sport launched a Spanish-language version of NASCAR.com and brought a NASCAR Toyota Mexico Series race to Phoenix this year.
Hispanic viewership of races broadcast on Fox was up 30 percent compared with last year, officials said. (19)
The color of a person’s skin shouldn’t matter with any of our endeavors. Sadly, though, this is not always the case in the history of America and how people are perceived. Some of America’s greatest entertainers, like Miles Davis at the time of NASCAR’s founding, were treated like royalty traveling abroad in Europe. In his home country, however, he still had to enter venues through the back door. One of his greatest works, “The Birth of the Cool”, was in contrast to the extreme heat of racial tension at that time in America.
Much has changed since then but racial diversity has yet to happen in the driving ranks of NASCAR where it has already taken place in Formula One with a driver named Lewis Hamilton who was the 30th F1 Champion and, at the time, also its youngest ever:
"To be honest, it just doesn't register and never has," he said. "We're very aware of the ability of Lewis' colour to be used as a headline.
"But for us, it's just immaterial. We don't hide from the fact he's from a mixed-race background, but it just doesn't matter.
"The Tiger Woods label makes you smile and you could argue it's a compliment, but it's just not relevant to our objectives.
"He's in the team because he's earned it and not because of his colour." (20)
The issue of race is not the only reason NASCAR should welcome diversity as female gender roles within NASCAR can be equally attributable to its success. To its credit, females had an early presence in NASCAR where other series like Indy racing waited to allow women enter the ranks. To this day, women play an important role all throughout NASCAR’s corporate structure:
“While many view NASCAR as a man’s sport, the fact is that women have been taking a number of high-profile positions in racing over the years. With roles in officiating the sport, team ownership, and driving and operating the companies within the sport, women are influencing the shape and direction of NASCAR more now than ever.” (21)
Whether NASCAR embracing hemp as a material or local source of biofuel, or tolerating cannabis as a legitimate medicine will lure more females or minorities to its fanbase remains to be seen. But if the Drive for Diversity in NASCAR can reflect more of what America looks like, to include the 50% of Americans who are pro-cannabis people like myself, then it’s safe to say that it would be a welcome change to the sport.
And as an American that loves racing, I would love NASCAR for it.
The future of NASCAR cannot look back but must look forward to an America free from prejudice and energy dependence. These are problems that can be solved by working together with everyone in the American community to provide positive systemic change.