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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

NASCAR's Lead Foot

Air Date: Week of

Jeff Gordon celebrates his victory in the Advance Auto Parts 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Jeff Young goes to the race track to track down one of the last uses of leaded gasoline: NASCAR racing. Lead in gas is linked to brain damage and at least one environmentalist is pushing the racers to switch to unleaded. NASCAR says they're trying but it's not an easy task.


GELLERMAN: When Formula One race car drivers start their engines at the Indianapolis 500 this Memorial day, they'll be using a mix of ethanol fuel. A trend toward more environmentally friendly racing? Well, maybe. When NASCAR racers put pedal to the medal, it’s with a lead foot, and leaded gasoline, raising health concerns from some fans and environmentalists. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on efforts to get the lead out of NASCAR.

[SOUND OF CROWD AND CARS, whoo-hoo, Vrooom- vroom]

YOUNG: For most of its 53 years, NASCAR was confined to the rural southeast. Then sometime in the early 90s, stock car racing grew quicker than kudzu, spreading out like that weedy vine to some 75 million fans around the country. Now, you’ll find NASCAR races from New England to California and, starting this year, in Mexico City. Those are also some of the last places you’ll still find cars burning leaded gasoline. Engine tuner Claude Queen says lead keeps the specialized engines of his Miller Lite team running smoothly. And he remembers the one time they tried to use unleaded.

QUEEN: Broke a lot of parts. Valves mostly. Sure did. It acts as a lubricant, the valves and valve seats, they wear out if you don’t have the lead in em.

YOUNG: Lead’s a great lubricant but it’s also terribly toxic. That’s why Congress banned leaded gas decades ago for nearly all uses—except aviation and racing, which were exempted from the law. Frank O’Donnell with the Washington-based environmental group Clean Air Watch says it might be legal for NASCAR to use lead but that doesn’t make it safe.

ODONNELL: Breathing in lead will actually harm your brain. It will reduce your IQ level. One way of putting it is breathing in too much lead will make you stupider.

YOUNG: The Environmental Protection Agency says the form of lead used in gasoline, alkyl lead, can cause neurological damage, mood swings and memory loss at very low levels. Children are especially vulnerable. A report EPA drafted five years ago says lead particles could remain airborne around race tracks and spectators and residents nearby might be at risk. When O’Donnell read that he started a campaign to pressure NASCAR to get the lead out.

O’DONNELL: It has been banned throughout the world even in far flung places like Kazakhstan. If Kazakhstan can get rid of lead in gasoline, why can’t NASCAR?

YOUNG: NASCAR Spokesperson Ramsey Poston says they’re already trying to do that but it will take time.

POSTON: It’s not as simple a process as you might think but it is one that we’re working on and it is absolutely a high priority and that is why we are continuing to work with EPA to find the solution.

YOUNG: NASCAR has a verbal agreement with EPA to continue research into a suitable unleaded fuel. EPA’s Paul Matthia says he’s satisfied with NASCAR’s pledge to make the switch in three to five years.

MATTHAI: And the last I talked to them they seemed to be on target. I’m not sure where it’s at exactly because they haven’t given me a lot of information but they say they’re on target to do it and I believe them.

YOUNG: That’s not good enough for O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. He says other race series have switched fuels and thinks NASCAR is just dragging its lead feet. He hopes public pressure will speed things up but some of the e-mails O’Donnell’s getting indicate he’s not winning many fans in NASCAR nation.

O’DONNELL: Here’s one of them: Frank, first off you damn communist, do you have a clear understanding who you just messed with? You people will never be satisfied until we all live in your little perfect greenie-weenie utopia. I would love to be swearing…

YOUNG: We’d hear more but the FCC would probably object. So, is that really representative of what NASCAR fans think? To find out, I went to the speedway in Martinsville, Virginia, on a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon. Thousands of race fans walk along the highway toward the track passing vendors with NASCAR T-shirts and bumper stickers. At Tommy "Mississippi" Jones’ stand you can even get a confederate flag with your favorite driver’s face on it. Jones doesn't think the fuel issue is very important.

Jeff Gordon celebrates his victory in the Advance Auto Parts 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

JONES: Oh, we got a lot worse things in this world to worry about than what kind of gas somebody’s using or how much pollution it’s gonna do. It might bother other people but to me it don’t make any difference.

YOUNG: One of Jones’s customers disagrees.

FAN 1: It should be unleaded. I mean something should be changed on that I think. It is a hazard.

YOUNG: Now, this is no scientific survey but my random chats with fans found them pretty evenly split on whether a switch to unleaded would be good or bad. Some worry about the effect on the sport.

FAN 2: People like speed so whatever it takes to get it that speed I think is important.

FAN 3: I mean it was a good idea to ban lead for the millions and well billions of cars that are out there on the highway but for a sport like this? I don’t think it’s, it’s not significant.

YOUNG: Fans with children at the race all agreed: "unleaded" is the way to go.

DAD: I’m all for keeping the little guy healthy.

YOUNG: Who’s this?

DAD: This is Dylan. When you mention that, that definitely throws up a red flag so that would cause concern for me. Especially having a child this young, bringing him to races you don’t want to think he’s being exposed to something he shouldn’t be.

YOUNG: And Dylan, your thoughts on this?

DAD: Say hey.

DYLAN: Hey! (laughter)


YOUNG: NASCAR estimates it uses 100,000 gallons of leaded fuel in a racing season. EPA says budget constraints prevent monitoring to determine the potential health risks that amount of leaded fuel might pose.


YOUNG: After the race, Claude Queen, the engine tuner, catches a smoke break in the shade of a tool cart before going under the hood of driver Rusty Wallace’s Number two car. He thinks a bit about how carefully calibrated that engine is and what it would take to change its fuel.

QUEEN: I mean, we’re going to unleaded, we have no choice, but it’s gonna take a little work. Whole lot of work actually.

YOUNG: Would you have, I guess it’s a little early at this stage, but a ballpark guess what it wold cost to make that switch?

QUEEN: I’d say probably two to three million a team maybe.

YOUNG: Now, I think I’m starting to understand why people are reluctant to jump into this.

QUEEN: Yes, money’s tight. We get a lot of money from sponsors but we use it, too. I guess unleaded gas ain’t good for you but it ain’t killed me yet, ain’t dead yet, heh heh. Yes, that’s about the bottom line.

YOUNG: Queen lights up another Salem and sets about the business of getting his team’s battered car ready for the next race. In Martinsville, Virginia, I’m Jeff Young for Living on Earth.





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