Palm Beach Post
NASCAR won't get the lead out
By Dan Moffett
Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer
Sunday, June 12, 2005
You don't need me to tell you that it's a dangerous world and the nation is facing threats today that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
You know all about the Axis of Evil and Al-Qaeda and terrorists who don't like the United States and what it stands for. This is more than enough to soak up all the worry Americans can muster. The preoccupation with threats from outside our borders makes us acutely vulnerable to threats that could be materializing unnoticed but right in front of us.
I, for one, worry about the sanity of NASCAR dads.
You don't need me to tell you that they have become one of the country's most powerful voting blocs. What the soccer moms were to the 1990s, the NASCAR dads are now. They are Wal-Mart-shopping, conservative, Christian, white family men, and they vote. The great gains Republicans have made in the South during the past two decades have been built on a platform designed to suit the NASCAR dads. But you know all this.
What I worry about is losing the country to a threat from within. What if this most influential group is compromised? What if the nation's ideological compass goes haywire? What if the NASCAR dads go mad?
Let me explain. Because of a concession Congress made to the sport during the 1970s, NASCAR is one of only a few industries still permitted to use leaded gasoline. Race-car mechanics say that the lead-based anti-knock fluid in the gas reduces friction in engines and improves performance. Drivers have experimented with unleaded gas and have tried other additives, but they say nothing works as well as the leaded fuel.
The elimination of lead in gasoline around the world is considered one of the great public-health victories of the past century. Studies have shown that even a small amount of lead in the blood — a few parts per million — can cause brain damage and hearing loss, and even contribute to criminal behavior.
You don't need me to remind you that lead poisoning played a substantial role in bringing down the Roman Empire. The Romans not only used lead pipes for their plumbing network but also used lead for cosmetics, condiments and wine preservatives. NASCAR hasn't gone this far, but it may be closer than you think.
Based on studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, it's a good estimate that the stock car races burn at least 400,000 pounds of lead fuel each year. Lead particles from the exhaust emissions hang in the air for days. Attendance at NASCAR races grew by about 300 percent during the 1990s, and this year's events will draw about 7 million people. All of them will face some exposure to toxic lead.
You have to worry about the possible impaired judgment of these fans, especially when they go to the polls. Can the nation depend on the NASCAR dads anymore? Are they still capable of sorting through complex issues such as firearms ownership, fair and unbiased reporting, intelligent design and access to smokeless tobacco? All good questions that need to be asked.
Since 1998, the EPA has been trying to persuade NASCAR to switch voluntarily to unleaded gasoline, in effect, asking race-car drivers to go a little slower and perhaps watch their engines blow out a little sooner. It's not a popular suggestion, which only makes the threat to the nation more insidious.
Environmental organizations such as the not-for-profit Clean Air Watch are pressuring the sport, too, claiming that it's the Axles of Evil. Frank O'Donnell, Clean Air Watch's president, sent a letter to NASCAR accusing it of putting millions of spectators and residents at risk.
"If Kazakhstan can eliminate lead from gasoline," Mr. O'Donnell wrote, "why can't NASCAR?"
Of course, the answer is because most of the serious racing in Kazakhstan is done with camels, which have some unpleasant emission issues of their own.
It's important that Americans realize where the real dangers are and not overlook the obvious threat from within. Be on the lookout for strange behavior among the neighborhood NASCAR dads. OK, be on the lookout for stranger behavior.
A hint of chardonnay on the breath, a casual reference to a Peter Allen song, a chicken wing eaten with a knife and fork could signal something ominous.
If the NASCAR dads go, we may all go.