MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- "Going green" is auto racing jargon for the start of an event, the ceremonious moment a waving green flag signals to the drivers and fans that the race is on. Recently retired Nextel Cup owner Robert Yates is ready for NASCAR to go a different sort of green -- the environmentally sensitive variety.
"I get very depressed when I look at the future of our country, and I don't think it has to be that way," Yates said. "I think the things we could do can improve it, but we have to change the culture."
Yates is doing his part. He sits at a desk in his office deep within his team's shop, hands folded. He is fidgety, uncertain exactly how to express his feelings. What he is about to share goes against his lifeblood.
The office lights are off. So are the hallway lights leading to his office. The break room lights and the bathroom lights are off, and the computer behind him is powered down. The blinds are open to let the sunshine in.
This man who has so greatly prospered, who has achieved financial wealth and personal and professional acclaim beyond his wildest dreams because he produced more power than the next guy, is gravely concerned about that which gave him so much -- energy.
And energy is merely the epicenter of his worries. From his concern for energy springs a wildly cyclical hypothesis that over a two-hour discussion spreads to drugs, education, firecrackers, obesity and war. And how NASCAR, of all things, can be a catalyst for change.
Robert Yates wants to change the world one light bulb at a time. One engine at a time. One race at a time.
"For the past five or six years I've been complaining about energy, especially fossil fuel," Yates said with a steely glare. "And it's my livelihood. It's my business. But that's why I think I could speak on it, because I've lived that life."
He shares a history lesson to offer perspective. The year was 1969. Muscle cars with fuel-sucking carburetors were all the rage, and 26-year-old Robert Yates worked at Holman-Moody building Ford racing engines. He was killing it, making $4.50 an hour in an era when folks like him made $1.35 working on bulldozers or sweating in a mill. His house was paid off in four years. Times were good.
But an energy crisis loomed. The oil wells were drying up, and folks couldn't get fuel. Everyone played his part to offset the shortage. People got fuel on alternate days. The lines were lengthy. NASCAR shortened races and limited practice time. Folks drove around with barrels of fuel in the backs of their trucks.
Yates recalls a trip to Talladega that tells well how precious fuel was at the time.
He was near Atlanta, toting the race engines for the coming weekend's event, when he ran out of gas and was forced to walk. He came upon a man who had just been released from jail, and asked the man if he knew where he could get some fuel. The man had an old dump truck and told Yates he could take some fuel from there. Yates gave the man a $20 bill and scurried to his apartment to get the fuel.
BLAST! The man's wife shot at him -- and missed -- but made her point.
Don't touch my fuel, boy.
Yates doesn't want it to come to that again.
Time for a change
Concerned for the environment, Yates has complained over the past several years (a lot, it seems) to anyone who would listen to his theories. Edsel Ford has heard it. Fellow Ford team owner Jack Roush and NASCAR president Mike Helton, too. Doug Yates, Robert's son and heir to the family business, refuses to listen any longer. And Robert's wife, Carolyn, is worn out on it, as well.
Robert Yates wants to do away with carburetors and replace them with computer systems that produce better air-fuel ratios. He says it's quite simple.
"It's cheap technology, great technology, and it's there for everybody, but we're not using it," Yates said. "NASCAR is the one that could have the best headlines. It's there but they won't use it. But I've been trying to preach to them that the new engine has to be handled without carburetion."
Yates said he has already developed computer assistance for the current Nextel Cup Series engine, saying it bolts onto the current engine in 30 minutes. He developed similar technology for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, for no other reason than to prove to himself it works. And it does, he said.
"I know it works," Yates said. "We use it on Grand Am engines. It works."
Float levels on carbureted engines are set based on an estimation of air temperature and altitude. Float pressure is created by the engine's pumping motion, which pulls in air and fuel. The ideal ratio, Yates said, is 13-to-7, which possibly runs as clean as fuel injection.
But add the banking of a racetrack into the equation, and the ratio changes to fuel-rich in one cylinder, fuel-lean in the next. Therefore, the engine compensates with extra fuel. The ratio remains unbalanced, making for inefficient use of fuel and air.
According to Yates, the computer technology constantly adjusts the levels to create the best ratio, therefore generating optimum power and efficiency that, he said, results in 25 percent cleaner emissions.
In 1986, when DiGard Racing -- a NASCAR organization for which Yates built engines that won 43 races in 15 seasons with the likes of Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip at the wheel -- went out of business, Yates began work on E-85 ethanol biomass fuel. He spent time in Washington, D.C., with different branches of the government to develop a strategy for replacing fossil fuel.
As it turned out, demand didn't increase and the project was shuffled to the back burner.
"But I did learn some things from that," he said directly. "The mechanical side of it, not the chemistry side. But I was around the chemists and I have somewhat of a [hypothesis] of: What if it were as bad as I think it is? What if it is what I think it is, and what can you do about it?"
He then stops, recollects his thoughts and points back to the computer technology and how it pertains to NASCAR.
"It's time to use what we have available," he continued. "It's real simple, easy technology and it's simple to police. For somebody who's not computer literate, it's easier to control. So it's not a policing issue."
Policing cheating is always a concern for NASCAR, and if you ask the garage, it's one reason for the institution of the Car of Tomorrow. Put the teams in a smaller, more manageable box, and they're easier to police.
Yates considers NASCAR to be the perfect platform to serve as a catalyst for change.
"This is just one small community in the world, and our little bit of fuel probably won't make a dent in what we use," he said. "However, it's got a great statement. NASCAR could be a leader."
NASCAR installed unleaded fuel into the Nextel Cup Series for the first time in 2007, and officials say there are no plans to change that anytime soon. The switch to unleaded fuel required extensive trial and error to formulate a mixture that was compatible with NASCAR engines. It caused NASCAR and its teams, and fuel supplier Sunoco, considerable headaches.
According to NASCAR, its use of racing fuel has no impact on the availability or price of passenger fuel. The gas used in racing is not compatible with passenger cars, confirmed Sunoco spokesman Chris Buitron, and the quantity used is minute when compared to the amount of consumption on highways by passenger cars each year.
NASCAR said it is committed to finding ways to become more environmentally friendly.
"We are working together with our fuel supplier, Sunoco, at the large range of alternative fuels," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said in an e-mail. "It's a long-term process, but one that is important nationally to help achieve energy independence and a healthier environment."
Poston offered an array of examples as to how NASCAR is working to protect the environment. NASCAR's tire supplier, Goodyear, recycles most used race tires. They are shredded in Charlotte, N.C., and the recycled material is sold to various industries, including power plants and cement kilns. The recycled tires are also used as composite material for playgrounds and asphalt mixtures.
Safety-Kleen provides oil recycling and refining services at racetracks around the country. It is estimated that they re-refine 167 million gallons of used motor oil annually from NASCAR competition. Also, Sprint, the title sponsor for NASCAR's premier series, actively recycles used cell phones, which keeps "millions" of used wireless receivers out of landfills. Sprint estimates having collected more than 14 million phones to date through its Project Connect program.
Waste Management, the nation's largest recycler, is one of the NASCAR industry's strongest partners in protecting the environment by providing exclusive waste and recycling services to all Nextel Cup and Busch Series racetracks.
From Yates' perspective, it's up the manufacturers to make his motor initiative happen. He said he has spoken with NASCAR and pleaded for change, to no avail.
"I've laid on the floor, I've screamed and yelled, but I realize they're not in the engine business," Yates said. "Their mission is to make a good, competitive race and not have anybody have an advantage. I always felt like the manufacturers needed to be the ones driving it.
"NASCAR is in the promoting business. They should be prompting competitive manufacturers, and working with them to tell [NASCAR] what engine to put in the car."
Yates said if he were running NASCAR, he'd implement rules that required participating manufacturers to have input into the future engine. And that engine must have value in the marketplace as it did in the past.
I get very depressed when I look at the future of our country, and I don't think it has to be that way.
-- Robert Yates
"Originally, racing was built off of manufacturers and racers refining the engines," Yates said. "It's time to reverse that role back to promoting the engines from the manufacturers -- not a hand-built $100,000 engine [like we have today]. Put it in the car -- a factory engine with great efficiencies and that's what you race."
The alternative? IROC.
"To me, NASCAR is going to back themselves into an IROC series," Yates said. "Then they're not going to be promoting them. They'll be trying to get one spec engine and one spec car.
"I'm very backwards from the way they'd like to see it. They're afraid some manufacturer is going to tell them to do something and then they walk off and leave. They shouldn't be afraid of that."
Yates points to Audi's effort in the Panoz Racing Series as a good model to follow.
"They've got every engineer at Audi there," he said. "That [technology] needs to be what's in our sports cars. And the base of it needs to be what's in our minivans. That has a value back to the big population -- not the 43 cars and 200,000 people in the parking lot.
"It has a huge impact. I love NASCAR. It's been great to me. As I walk out the door, I don't want to be mad at them, but I want to freely say what's on my heart, and they probably don't like it."
Asked for Ford Motor Co.'s thoughts on the matter, spokesman Kevin Kennedy said Ford is all for greener solutions for racing, depending on context. Kennedy said they're actively surveying greener possibilities in other forms of racing.
"As for NASCAR, we'd be in favor of having discussions about greener racing, as long as it made technological sense for the industry long term, if it was done in a measured rollout that didn't put a major financial burden on the teams and manufacturers, and it was something that NASCAR and its fuel partner was behind for the long term," Kennedy said.
"There's not an easy solution, but that doesn't mean that the conversation is not worth considering."
Turn off the magnet
Yates said the quickest way to fix the problem is to "turn off the magnet." In other words, simply stop offering carbureted engines.
"If a kid wants a 520-horsepower Corvette, let's not give them the opportunity. Stop making them," he said.
Yates said Harley-Davidson tried to eliminate carburetors in 2005, but lobbyists in Washington disallowed it.
"What we're telling our kids with this big-engine stuff is that to have a sports car with 9 million horsepower is cool," Yates said. "We need to change that culture. It's good to have a car that won't do 0-60 as quick, but it's a lot cleaner and healthier. It's not depressing. It's cool to have a good, energy-efficient car."
Yates recently rode across America on his Harley. What he saw were dried-up oil wells and, as a result, dried-up towns around them.
"We're at the bottom of the barrel on energy," he said. "Yet 80 percent of our fossil fuels come from countries that own the fuel -- not big oil companies, countries. If they decide they're going to sell all their oil to China, what do we do?
"You can run a tractor on corn. You can't run an F-18 on corn. It don't have to be doom and gloom, but we better wake up. You can turn on C-SPAN at 3 o'clock in the morning, and nobody's listening, but they're giving the real facts. I'm not assuming this stuff."
From there, the conversation weaves from hybrid efficiencies to other global concerns. Yates has opinions on them all.
Drugs: "The only way to get rid of drugs is education. I have another way to get rid of the drugs, but nobody would like that. A lot of people would get hurt."
Education: "The best way to educate our kids [is] to pay the teachers better than any attorney makes. Take a dollar out of every gallon of gasoline and ensure it gets right into the teachers' pay.
"This will make teaching what it used to be, back in the day when they put the kids in [teachers'] hands. Let them administrate what they need to be. With all these single-parent [families], teachers are the last resort."
Curriculum: "Teachers looked down their nose at me like a grease monkey. And my parents a little bit. When I went to college the teacher told the class I wouldn't amount to anything because all I wanted to do was work on a tractor.
"When the president says no child left behind, no, make a curriculum for every group of kids. Here everybody's trying to be an attorney or a marketing guy, and we have no manufacturing. They have people to do that? Who? They're in countries that won't pay them, so they come over here.
"That's not what we need to be educating our kids to do. We need a curriculum for people that don't have the IQ or the ability or the desire to do that [job]. They left me behind because I wouldn't keep up. I couldn't keep up. My sisters all made straight A's. I couldn't, so I picked something I could [do] well and it was shunned.
Lottery: "There are all kinds of kids that would love to work -- instead they're going to join a gang. And the gang's going to steal the lottery ticket money at the 7-11 because the lottery ticket money came from a false hope [project]. So my solution to the lottery -- I used to bitch about it but it's probably a good thing -- the money needs to get to the teachers."
Gambling: "I'm against gambling, not against gaming. If you can afford to get to Vegas, have fun. But don't bet something you don't have, and that's what we're doing [with the lottery]. We're betting our education on false hope. We're sucking this thing lower and lower and lower. It's a bad deal."
Fireworks: "We shouldn't be allowed to set off fireworks anywhere in this country. We don't need that dirty air."
Attention deficit disorder: "We don't need a teething tool for a kid. A stainless steel pot is better. Attention deficit comes from having too many toys to play with. We're trying to buy our kids happiness and we're buying stuff that's not necessary. Not every Christmas did we get a toy, but when we did, we appreciated it. What's wrong with that?"
The presidency: "We need a manager in this country that understands business management -- not politician management. Somebody has to go to Washington that's run a business, not understanding politics and lobbyists.
"We need somebody that got there without anybody paying their ticket, that's a good manager. People that understand management and don't hire their cronies. [Lee] Iacocca was right -- if you go into business, you better not hire your cronies. [Ronald] Reagan was probably the best manager. He said if you're a good employee, do it.
"I always relate [the presidency] to a choir director. The best choir director is the guy that can't sing well but understands how to teach people to sing well. A good manager is somebody that can help direct a country, not be the best solo singer.
"Management doesn't work from one person. I like George Bush, but I wish he'd hire some people that would beat him in the head and tell him what to do."
War: "You can't be the policemen of the world. You're thinking way out of your ability if you think that. Nobody's ever won a war they didn't know who to shoot. We're fighting for the wrong things.
"The best ways to make other countries want to be democratic is to go do a good job ourselves and set a good example. That's the only way to do it. We're funding the war against us from both sides. We can turn that around, and it starts with a good manager of our country."
Obesity: "We should really go out of our way for bicycle riders. Look at light rail. Light rail costs crazy money. When I ride a motorcycle, I'm just as fat this year as I was last year. If I rode a bicycle some, I'd have a lighter tail and wouldn't have to use light rail.
"The kids waddle. I watch them. They waddle out of their mom's car that's been sitting there idling for 30 minutes, they crawl up on a school bus, and they sit on that bus and probably go buy a soft drink and a pack of M&M's when they get to school, and we wonder why they got an obesity problem."
Yates ultimately just wants a better world. He said when he was younger, he'd hear folks discuss the future. He vowed he would never do so. But here he is, saying the very same things he used to not want people to hear.
"I'm probably all mad, pissed off, screwed up," he said. "But I've got to get this off my chest. The world was built on competition. The Creator certainly has competition, no matter what you believe. I don't think anybody on this earth believes this thing just fell out [of nowhere].
"There was creation and it was very competitive. Anytime there's no competition, it's bad. Whether you're a preacher, a writer, a driver, you're driven by competition. Competition is very healthy. Our sport is very healthy because it's competitive. We need to appreciate what we have and take care of it."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.