SONOMA, CALIFORNIA — Could those actually be solar panels, at a NASCAR track? Indeed they are, and they're glaring in my face here in northern California as the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350 burns up below me. The 1,652 Panasonic/Sanyo panels scattered at five places around Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) are providing 353 kilowatts of solar and powering 41 percent of the track.
From my perch on the roof, I can also see a flock of sheep grazing near the entry to the track. There are 3,000 of them, and they're cheaper, greener and easier to maintain than lawnmowers, track officials say. There are 15 owl boxes, too, as well as recycled paper in the viewing suites, water-free urinals, and a "clean air" program that plants 10 trees every time the green flag drops.
It's going to be a while before NASCAR features electric car races. As 1985 Indy winner Danny Sullivan told me, the cars are fast but don't make enough noise for red-blooded Americans to get excited. Another issue is range — as the name implies, the Save Mart 350 is 350 miles long, and EVs can't yet go the distance. But a new Europe-based series, the EV Cup, is coming to California this year for some races uniquely suited to the EV's capabilities.
The track owners seem sincere about going green. The Sprint Cup Series cars that nearly destroyed my hearing run on E15 ethanol, and seem no less thunderous for it. NASCAR actually claims a three percent horsepower gain. And solar racetracks are a growth industry. Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania has installed a 25-acre, $16 million solar farm that will generate three to four million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, powering all race operations and even sell power back to the grid (Infineon will do that, too).
"The solar launch has been terrific on a professional and personal level," Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon, said at a track press conference before the race. "The sustainable initiatives we've been taking at the raceway may seem counter-productive to some people, but this is Northern California and the environment is a big issue here. It's important for us to demonstrate that there are sustainable options."
Some people are surprised that Panasonic (which recently acquired Sanyo) is even in the sustainability business, since it's primarily known in the U.S. for making television sets and cameras. But Panasonic also makes the battery cells for the Toyota Prius and the Tesla Roadster.
Obviously they still go through a lot of fossil fuel at Infineon, but the solar installation is supposed to save 34,000 barrels of the stuff over 30 years. Later in the summer, Infineon will host an Accelerating Sustainable Performance Summit at Sonoma, which spotlights biodiesel. Zero-emission electric motorcycle races have also been hosted at Infineon as part of the TTXGP U.S. Championships.
It is still entirely possible, even probable, that you will come to Infineon or other NASCAR tracks for that high-octane thrill, spend the day, and not even notice the green stuff. Frankly, it's subtle. The solar installation at the track's Turn 10 doesn't exactly leap out at you. Maybe it needs a big sign. "This Track Powered by Solar!"