‘It’s Lights Out, and Away We Go’ Towards a Sustainable Motorsport Future.

The 325,000 spectators gathered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late May for the iconic Indy 500 alluded to motorsports’ surging popularity. In 2020, the motorsport industry alone attracted a cumulative global TV audience of 1.5bn, making it one of the strongest growing sports in the digital arena [1].

Despite this, the industry has long come under scrutiny for its environmental disregard, with pressure intensifying in recent years as questions arise over its compatibility with a world focused on clean energy. However, with the introduction of the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework in 2018, the potential for motorsport to contribute to sustainable development was formally recognised. This has since been reflected by motorsports’ global governing body, the FIA, who in their sustainability strategy simultaneously aim to reduce motorsports’ climate impact, and to “reinforce motorsports’ role as the catalyst for sustainable development and innovation” [1]. This point was reiterated by retired Formula One driver and now eco-entrepreneur Nico Rosberg, who in an interview with Reuters in 2021, highlighted, through a race-to-road transfer of progress, the key role of motorsport in inducing a paradigm shift within the mobility industry. Amongst other innovations, Rosberg envisions the future deployment of “synthetic fuels in planes which Formula One will help develop” [2].

Whilst a damning indictment of the progress of climate change, the IPCC in their 2021 report optimistically proclaimed that “human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of the climate” [1]. Thus, as renowned test beds for innovative mobility technologies, motorsport’s role in achieving wider transport efficiency goals should be emphasised. The 2022 Sustainable Motorsport Index, a performance system which assesses motorsport series’ sustainability against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, found that industry leaders all took a holistic approach to sustainability [1].

For instance, environmental responsibility has featured at the forefront of Formula One’s decision-making in recent years, setting the pace for other motorsports. Formula One have committed to achieving a net zero-carbon footprint by 2030, with a renewably powered headquarters, and the trial of a carbon-neutral broadcast centre at the 2021 British Grand Prix evidence of this [1]. The sport has also operated with hybrid engines since 2014, substantially reducing fuel requirements [1]. Moto GP has also taken steps to minimise its environmental impact through the installation of recycling and waste facilities to ensure the correct disposal of tyres and fluids at each event [1].

According to the Sustainable Motorsport Index, it is hoped that through full disclosure, sustainable practices and innovative expertise can be shared, elevating the sustainable performance of other motorsport series.

The Indy 500 has an over 100-year old history, with Joe Dawson (pictured) winning the first race in 1912.

The recent Indy 500 is testament to this, providing optimism that greater environmental responsibility is attainable even for those traditionally resistant to changes in the motorsport landscape. Despite featuring in the bottom tier of the Sustainable Motorsport Index’s sustainability performance, Mark Miles, CEO of Penske Entertainment, coined the recent Indy 500 as “the most sustainable in our 100-plus year history”, evidencing the filtering down effect of sustainable practises as leading series began tackling their environmental impact [3].

Representing the most comprehensive elements of “The Penske Initiative”, Penske Entertainment’s long-term strategy which aims to hold carbon-neutral races by 2050, steps were announced at this year’s event which significantly reduced the carbon footprint of the IndyCar series. First, utilising its technological and innovative expertise, IndyCar declared its intention to become the first North American racing series to use renewable fuel in its race cars [4]. In partnership with Shell, plans have been drawn to switch to a low-carbon fuel from 2023. The renewable fuel, which will be composed entirely of ethanol derived from renewable feedstocks, according to Shell will decrease greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 60% compared to the fossil-based gasoline currently in employment [4].

The second of IndyCar’s lofty sustainability goals comes in the form of renewable tyres. The tyre, which has been under development by Firestone since 2012, is constructed from guayule, a cheaper, sustainable, and far less water intensive alternative to rubber [4]. The guayule tyre made its debut in the Pit Stop Challenge in the recent Indy 500, preceding its full deployment in a full race setting at Nashville’s Music City Grand Prix later this year. Whilst potentially reducing IndyCar’s carbon footprint, the guayule tyre has additional implications for conventional automobile markets, as the technology filters from ‘race-to-road’. Currently, approximately 90% of rubber is sourced from Hevea Brasiliensis, native to southeast Asia, the harvesting and transportation of which for use in global markets, is highly carbon intensive [4].

However, it is well-documented that race cars are just minor contributors to motorsports’ carbon footprint; Formula One’s 2019 Sustainability Strategy attributed just 0.7% of its total emissions to the operation of race cars [1]. Thus, the reductions to IndyCar’s carbon footprint of the announced technological solutions may be limited. To achieve carbon neutrality, the series must tackle the emissions derived from travel and logistics. Promisingly, the holistic approach to sustainability used in leading motorsport series has resonated with Penske Entertainment. Penske Truck Leasing, IndyCar’s transport partner, delivered all tyres used at the Indy 500 through the company’s Freightliner eCascadia, its fleet of fully electric vehicles [4]. To facilitate this, a rapid charging station was installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in cooperation with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Whilst constituting a significant step towards cleaner energy consumption, Indiana Governor Eric J. Holcomb claimed it would advance Indiana’s reputation as a renewable energy leader by “putting it on display during the largest sporting event in the world” [3].

This year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway also made ground on tackling the carbon footprint of the event, elevating the environmental awareness of IndyCar’s fans. According to Mark Miles, the travel of fans to the Indy 500 is the “single biggest source” of the event’s carbon footprint [4]. In a series of measures that the facility hopes will secure its status as the world’s first Responsible Sport Certified venue, they pledged that all electricity consumed throughout the site would be purchased via fully renewable energy credits [4]. The track also announced that it offset its entire carbon footprint during May through its contribution to GreenTrees, whilst the facility teamed up with CHOOSE, a climate technology company, to develop a programme allowing fans to offset their own travel footprint through contributions to GreenTrees [4]. The event further reduced the carbon footprint of its fans by implementing facility upgrades targeting energy and water-use efficiency, whilst enhancing its “Bike to the 500” programme [3].

The high octane, gas-guzzling spectacle of motorsports, with its surrounding glamour, is not immediately synonymous with sustainability. However, the concerted efforts of leading motorsport series towards carbon neutrality reveals the possibility of both reducing motorsports’ carbon footprint and providing innovative mobility solutions to an increasingly clean energy conscious world, all whilst maintaining the sport’s popularity. As such, sustainable practices have gradually infiltrated into motorsports’ staunch defenders of tradition. Whilst being slow off the start line, the lofty ambitions manifested at this year’s Indy 500 are symbolic of this, providing renewed optimism that motorsports can rise to the challenges of today.


[1] Sustainable Motorsport Index, “Racing towards a sustainable future: a review of the global sustainability performance of motorsport championships”. February 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.sustainablemotorsportindex.com/sustainable-motorsport-index. [Accessed 30 May 2022].

[2] Reuters, “Rosberg says motorsport can help tackle climate change”. 27 October 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/rosberg-says-motorsport-can-help-tackle-climate-change-2021-10-27/. [Accessed 29 May 2022].

[3] IndyCar, “Next phase of transformational sustainability initiatives unveiled”. 22 April 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.indycar.com/news/2022/04/04-22-sustainability. [Accessed 31 May 2022].

[4] Associated Press, “Indy 500 waves green flag on sustainability with lofty goals”. 28 May 2022. [Online]. Available: https://apnews.com/article/indianapolis-500-technology-sports-59c1e854f2b6f9943e2596fc2ad37308. [Accessed 29 May 2022].