VCU team seeking to help Richmond International Raceway improve sustainability

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Despite a steady rain on Saturday afternoon, Virginia Commonwealth University engineering students circulated among thousands of NASCAR fans at Richmond International Raceway to talk about the importance of sustainability and to help race fans calculate their carbon footprints.

"I try to recycle and be as green as possible, and I think it's important to always try to learn more," said Emily Faridi, a sophomore chemical engineering major in the School of Engineering. "I'm not exactly a diehard 'go green' person, so this is a good opportunity to learn how I can promote going green but without being … well, I don't want to say a hippie, but yeah – without being a hippie."

Faridi and the other VCU engineering students mingled with the race fans, carrying iPads to demonstrate how to use NASCAR's newly launched carbon calculator tool. The outreach effort was part of NASCAR's Race to Green initiative, which aims to reduce the sport's environmental footprint by doing such things as recycling tires and oil, planting trees to offset the carbon footprint, and by encouraging fans to live more sustainably.

"I have an interest in NASCAR anyway. I love watching the sport on TV. So when I heard of this opportunity at the school, I was really excited about it," said Joshua Petteway, a sophomore chemical engineering major. "Plus, I've done some research into biofuels and sustainability, so this really piqued my interest."

The emphasis on sustainability at Richmond International Raceway is going beyond just the weekend's race, however. Earlier this year, officials with RIR approached Stephen Fong, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, to discuss ways in which the raceway that holds more than 70,000 fans could become more sustainable.

Fong gathered together a small team, which also included Erin Stanforth, VCU's director of sustainability, and Bill Godfrey, an adjunct faculty member who teaches courses on sustainability, to brainstorm ways in which VCU could support RIR's efforts to go green.

"Ideally, we'd like to do an overall sustainability audit for the entire facility, and to highlight a couple things off of that audit that the raceway could start to implement both in the short term and the long term," Fong said.

The team is gathering data to put together a sustainability plan for RIR to coincide with the raceway's next NASCAR race in September.

"Part of the biggest challenge, superficially, is that when you think about NASCAR, you don't automatically think, 'Oh, that's a great environmentally sound, sustainable organization.' That's just not the natural association. Part of that, obviously, has to do with the nature of the sport – there's a lot of gasoline consumption, there's a lot of CO2 produced, there's a lot of food consumption and everything else," Fong said.

"But, to be honest, NASCAR does a lot of things [that are environmentally friendly]," he added. "They have a huge recycling program – they are the biggest recycling organization in the sports realm. But people don't realize that."

On Saturday, Fong said, the students' goal was to "raise visibility and informational awareness" about all of the sustainable things NASCAR and RIR already do, with the idea that it might inspire race fans to take similar measures themselves.

"There is a real focus on trying to get [race fans] aware of what RIR and NASCAR are doing, enough so that we can start to influence their own personal behavioral patterns. You want to instill enough informational awareness that might influence their own habits," he said. "[NASCAR and their partners] recycle a lot of their food waste stuff, they have a huge oil recycling for all the cars, tire recycling programs."

The average race fan does not see all of the green initiatives occurring behind the scenes, so education is key.

The average race fan does not see all of the green initiatives occurring behind the scenes, he said, so education is key.

"We want to use the race as a way to educate the fans," he said. "If you have 100,000 fans coming, if they each do something small, then that can have an enormous impact outside the race."

Aimee Turner, director of communications at RIR, said the raceway is interested in doing everything it can to be as sustainable as possible. For example, she said, the raceway last week announced a new partnership to compost and recycle food waste on race weekends.

RIR is interested in hearing from Fong's team, she said, because it will help the raceway gain a better understanding of ways to be more sustainable in the future, as well as ways to educate fans and neighbors about what they can do at home.

"We're constantly looking at ways to upgrade our facility, better our facility," she said. "What will the RIR of the future look like? When you start thinking about that, one of the key pieces is sustainability. What processes can we put in place that make sense moving into the future, that will make us a more sustainable facility?"

For some of the VCU student volunteers, the outreach effort at RIR was a chance to make a difference for sustainability.

"I'm interested in seeing this sport go in a sustainable direction," said Luke Bolten, a senior chemical engineering major. "It's pretty obvious that if it stays as it was in the past, then there's not a long-term future. But with technology and engineering advances, the sport can advance and become more sustainable. That's the direction I'd like to see it go."

For others, such as Faridi, Saturday's project was also a great chance to see NASCAR.

"If engineering doesn't work out, I'm going to become a NASCAR driver," she said. "That's my fallback plan."

Feature image at top: Arzan Dotivala, a VCU engineering student, talks about sustainability with NASCAR fans at Richmond International Raceway.


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