ESPN the Magazine once described me as “an Oxymoron: the tree hugging racecar driver.”
So I know you are thinking: How can a racecar driver be an environmental activist? Before I was a driver, I was a biology graduate from the University of California in San Diego, and I am really just your typical composting, rainwater collecting, vegan hippie chick. I just happen to racecars. I am an uncommon messenger in the environmental world I know, but I recently came across a quote that helped make some sense of it, Earl Bakken said:
“By all reckoning, the bumblebee is aerodynamically unsound and shouldn’t be able to fly. Yet, the little bee gets those wings going like a turbo-jet and flies to every plant its chubby little body can land on to collect all the nectar it can hold. Bumblebees are the most persistent creatures. They don’t know they can’t fly, so they just keep buzzing around.”
Much like the chubby bumblebee, I am a racecar driver that doesn’t know I can’t be an environmental activist. So I just keep buzzing around.
After graduating from the University of California in San Diego with a degree in biology, I moved to North Carolina to become a NASCAR driver (seems like a typical move for a biology graduate, no?) and I have been working my way up the racing ladder ever since.
Over the years I have become increasingly concerned about the damage being done to our environment. In 2006 I took my personal concerns public when I added a section on my website dedicated to environmental news and in 2007 I announced my commitment to adopt and protect an acre of rainforest for every race I run to offset my carbon footprint. Offsetting is not a solution, but I had to do something about my unavoidable emissions.
The more I learned about our environmental challenges, the more my racing website became covered in eco facts. I became more of an activist than a driver. In 2008 I became politically active and started lobbying for clean energy on Capitol Hill. I’ve traveled twice to the Gulf oil spill and have made three trips over the past two years to Taiji, Japan—the little town with the really big secret that was exposed in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove.
In 2010 at Daytona I drove the first ever completely eco-sponsored racecar, with six environmental companies coming together to get my car on the track. One of those sponsors, NativeEnergy, was criticized for supporting a race driver. NativeEnergy’s Thomas H. Rawls responded on the company website by saying:
“How does NativeEnergy reach people who are not already converts on the issue of climate change? Anyone who is engaged in any broad effort to speak to the public faces this question: Do I talk only to friendly audiences, or do I face the doubters and the hostiles? If we only address those who already agree with us, nothing changes. And if we work only with people who already believe in what we do, who is going to change the minds of those who don’t?”
Auto racing is the number one spectator sport in America. It is number two on television, second only to the NFL. More people tune into watch racing than basketball, baseball and hockey combined. And 17 of the top 20 attended sporting events in the United States are NASCAR races. This is a huge sport and it is not going to go away, but it will evolve. This year NASCAR started using 15% biofuel in our cars and Pocono International Raceway is the largest solar powered sports facility in the world.
I am on a mission to green my sport and the fans. This past February at Daytona International Speedway, I launched my 200 mph eco awareness program when I debuted in my “The Cove” racecar—the first ever ocean awareness racecar. The goal of my program is to educate and engage 75 million race fans in the US and inspire them to rethink their day to day choices for our planet. Each race, my car will carry a different environmental message and call to action. I am in the process of gathering a coalition of eco conscious companies to support this effort. As an environmentalist, I know it is actually at the racetrack where I can make the most difference: it’s where I have my biggest audience and where I am not preaching to the choir.
My racecar gives me a voice to talk to millions of race fans. If I didn’t have a racecar, they would never hear my message. Keep in mind, if I stopped racing, I would not take a racecar off the grid. I would just be replaced by another driver and lose my ability to talk to 75 million race fans about these issues.
So far, it’s working. A couple examples: I had a lifelong NASCAR fan ask me how I go about adopting rainforest because he didn’t know what to buy his wife for her birthday and thought protecting an acre of rainforest in her name would make a nice gift. In February when I raced my ocean awareness racecar at Daytona, Louie Psihoyos and Ric O’Barry helped me give away 1000 The Cove DVDs to race fans.
I hope my awareness program will encourage the racing sanctioning bodies to increase their environmental initiatives. I will not stop until I see every racetrack powered by clean renewable energy, every sponsor taking responsibility for their effect on the environment, every racing tire recycled, and every racecar running on clean renewable biofuels.
This is my mission. Some people think I am crazy, and I know this because they send me emails. But when I get discouraged, I remember these words from an old Apple Computer commercial:
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes…. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as crazy, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
I pledge to you to use my voice as a racecar driver to spread environmental awareness and encourage change as much as I can. I must warn you that the odds are stacked against me. As a woman, I am actually more likely to be sent into space than I am to ever race in the top level of NASCAR. But like the chubby bumblebee that doesn’t know it can’t fly, I just keep buzzing around.