Will unleaded fuel make its way into drag racing?

Regardless of your political persuasion it’s impossible to ignore the mounting scientific evidence about global warming.  We’ll skip right over the very real danger the planet is in and go right to how global warming could have a deleterious impact on not just drag racing, but all forms of motorsports.

For those of you too young to remember, the early 70s featured escalating gas prices, long lines at the stations and an eventual retreat from motorsports by Detroit’s Big 3.  As has been proven time and time again, without corporate support motorsports suffers and declines.

When Pintos, Omnis and Chevettes took the place of Mustangs, Chargers and Camaros in the major enthusiast publications, and a “performance” car became nothing more than a stripped down Pony car with a tape treatment, racing’s growth slowed, stopped and only recovered after a years-long struggle.



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At the insistence of Congress Detroit was faced with building more fuel efficient cars, the national speed limit was lowered to 55 mph (a nightmare for everyone), and there were even some calls to ban racing completely.

This time around things will be far worse.  Mark my words, despite the recent strong sales reports on massive fuel-guzzling SUVs and performance cars, if things continue as they are alternative fuels vehicles are going to command an ever great proportion of all vehicle sales.  Spurring that move will be efforts by Congress to once again paint Detroit as at least partially responsible  for our outrageous use of fossil fuels.  If Detroit doesn’t cooperate they’re likely to be forced to do so by law.  If that happens performance cars and racing as we know it may be erased forever.

In preparation for this potential eventuality NASCAR, which is exempt from the 1970 Clean Air Act requiring all automobiles to run on unleaded fuel, has announced that some late-season Busch and Craftsman Truck Series will likely be run with unleaded gasoline.  This is in preparation for the entire NASCAR program, including Nextel Cup, to go unleaded possibly as early as next year, eve though they’d previously announced that such a switch wouldn’t take place until 2008.  In other words, NASCAR is taking action well before they may be forced to do so.  By making this move they’re demonstrating their proactive stance on environmental issues.

If NHRA has similar plans in mind they’ve certainly been circumspect about it, indicating that once again NASCAR leads the way while drag racing meekly (and without media coverage) follows.  If the NHRA is contemplating a changeover to unleaded fuels they should be shouting that news from the tops of the highest trees – or at least via the pages of National Dragster or through the broadcasts of NHRA2Day.

NASCAR isn’t the only group making fuel changes for environmental reasons.  The extremely popular V-8 Supercar Series in Australia recently began utilizing a cleaner burning yet more environmentally friendly gasoline supplied by Shell.  The gas is reported to produce more power than conventional gasoline, making it a winner all the way around.  If Shell can do it Down Under, we’re forced to wonder why drag racing’s current gasoline suppliers can’t do the same thing here.

Like it or not, we’d better be prepared for the worst.  There is an awful lot about drag racing that’s almost indefensible in terms of pollution, yet no one in a position of authority seems able or even willing to address these painful subjects.  The real problem is that if we don’t address these issues, someone else will address them for us, and woe be unto drag racing if that happens.  From the way we handle nitromethane and leaded gasoline to the very burnouts that turn us inside out with excitement, drag racing has serious problems that must be addressed, and now, not later.

Think I’m being the harbinger of doom?  Check this out.  I think you’d agree that Formula 1 racing is a very strong product in Europe, and certainly no more so than in Italy, home of the all-conquering Ferraris.  A ”noise pollution” case was brought by the small village of Biassono against the running of the F-1 race in nearby Monza.  Back in November the judge ruled that the cars could no longer race without silencers.  Of even greater concern was his statement that motorsports was “a superfluous, dangerous and socially useless activity that has a major impact on the environment.” 

It gets worse.  An appeals court upheld the trial judge’s opinion and ruling.  The only reason the Italian Grand Prix continues is because the regional government passed legislation that exempted the track from such restrictions for 30 days per year.

Now, when similar action is taken against, say, Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado, will the state legislature act on behalf of the track?  If you know Bandimere., without question one of the finest and most spectator-friendly facilities in the nation, you know that residential housing has been encroaching upon the track’s environs in a steady march for the last two decades.  Simply put, Denver is exploding, and Bandimere is perceived by some residents as an increasing noise pollution problem standing in the way of more housing.

Money talks, and developers and environmental groups can probably raise more of it to fight motorsports than can some individual tracks and possibly even sanctioning bodies.  Politicians, be they local, regional or national, are always seeking headline-grabbing issues, issues that can produce monetary contributions, votes and increasing power.  Don’t be at all surprised when a prominent member of Congress or the Senate introduces a bill to ban or severely curtail all forms of motorsports in the United States as being “a superfluous, dangerous and socially useless activity that has a major impact on the environment.” 

Is motorsports ready for this battle?  Remember, in the worst case scenario Detroit may not be in a position to help because they may be fighting restrictive legislation of their own.  When it comes to saving their own skins and those of their stock holders, they’ll drop racing with the alacrity of a raw recruit dropping a live grenade.

Stock car racing has 10 and probably 20 times the clout that drag racing would like to have.  If there’s a legislative attack on motorsports, be it from the environmental, fuel use or any other direction, NASCAR is far more likely to survive than is NHRA drag racing.  If the NHRA is thinking ahead as we’d like to think they are – although all historical evidence indicates the contrary – they should be announcing round table discussions with the racers, aftermarket and media to address these topics now, before drag racing once again gets the short end of the stick.  But, just as they have on so many other important subjects, those in Glendora continue to appear deaf and dumb to the sport’s real problems.


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