In defense of NASCAR

Over the years, some readers have expressed opinions ranging from baffled confusion to undisguised contempt over the space, time and attention devoted in this newspaper to coverage of motorsport activities at Sonoma Raceway, which lies just south of our fair city, on the northern shore of San Pablo Bay, and which only became unclogged with NASCAR weekend traffic late on Sunday.

Why, some people have asked, do we lavish attention on a sport with such an ostensibly-high carbon footprint, such hideously-loud sound pollution and such gridlocking impact on local roads and highways?

It’s a fair question, and in the immediate aftermath of the annual NASCAR circus, we’ve decided it’s a good time to address the question that no doubt lingers on more than a few local minds.

First, a few facts, courtesy of Forbes magazine:

According to Forbes, one in three adults – 75 million people – are NASCAR fans, roughly 40 percent of whom are women. NASCAR has become the No. 1 spectator sport in the country, and 17 of the top 20 most attended sporting events in the United States are NASCAR events, which are broadcast in 150 countries. Only the NFL has more TV viewers than NASCAR. Throw in all other forms of motor racing, and you have a sport with unprecedented popularity.

Some people consider Sonoma’s slice of that economic pie to be a blessing. Others see it as a curse. But the fact is, it’s hard to ignore the economic imprint of 100,000 people spending even part of a weekend in the Sonoma Valley. And events such as NASCAR are among the contributing factors for keeping Sonoma Valley’s unemployment rate lower than most parts of California, without the troubling presence of oil refineries and industrial parks like those ringing the other side of San Francisco Bay.

NASCAR fans are, in fact, tourists. They come, they spend their money and they leave, without imposing any lasting negative impact beyond the temporary frustration of those motorists trapped in raceway traffic. And even that impact can be mostly avoided through judicious route selection during race weekends.

It’s also worth noting that Sonoma Raceway is not just a run-of-the-mill track. Motor racing experts at Car and Driver magazine ranked it second on a list of the top six racetracks in the nation.

And while motor racing is an easy target for environmental criticism – who would rationally argue it has a green footprint – Sonoma Raceway is leading the industry with sustainable initiatives. The track has recycled more than 400 tons of materials in the last decade alone, including almost 1.5 tons of cardboard each month. Every raceway urinal is waterless, each capable of saving 40,000 gallons of water a year and helping to reduce water consumption by 36 percent. The property’s landscaping is mostly managed by 3,000 sheep that eliminate the weeds and – wonder of wonders – a small herd of deer has taken up permanent, protected residence in part of the wooded infield.

While motor racing may be perceived as the atavistic fixation on speed, power and noise of immature humans, as a sport it has contributed greatly to technical improvements in the safety, efficiency and performance of automobiles. Fans of the sport consider Sonoma fortunate to have such a facility so close, and yet sufficiently far away.

We count ourselves happily among them.

– David Bolling