A sport known for its mechanical extravagance is very frugal when it comes to throwing things away. And while efforts to recycle should excite environmentalists, the biggest reason is it makes good business sense.
“Nothing off a race car should ever end up in a landfill,” said Louis Gordon, whose company, L. Gordon Iron and Metal Co. in Statesville, N.C., specializes in shredding damaged cars. “Everything can be reused. A car is 100-percent recyclable.”
Gordon said he’s shredded “hundreds of race cars’ and sent their remains to a mini-mill to be refined back into raw steel.
Steel is worth seven cents a pound as scrap, while aluminum can fetch 40 cents. It takes 30 seconds to smash a car flat, then rips it apart by 12 crushing hammers, Gordon said.
“We’ve had some drivers come in with their [race] cars, and they wanted them pressed into a cube they could use for a coffee table or something like that,” Gordon said.
Some cars are too difficult to throw away. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has several cars parked in the thick woods at his “Dirty Mo’ Acres” farm in Mooresville, N.C. Included in his collection at the ‘graveyard” is the Chevrolet Jeff Gordon drove to win the 1997 Daytona 500.
Most of the cars in the remote woods now are covered by tall grass and bushes.But most race cars don’t wind up withering away in a forgotten corner of a remote forest. Sheet metal can wind up on eBay as souvenirs or saved to use as patches for a future wreck, car owner Eddie Wood said. Crumpled frames and engines are sent to scrap yards like Gordon or Foil’s, Inc., in Harrisburg, N.C., where they are flattened, then ripped into hand-size pieces that will be milled back into new steel.
And some of that steel can end up back in a race shop.
Tires can be cut into door mats, or ground into the dust used as a filler on artificial turf fields or playgrounds.
Oil and grease are refined to be used by the U.S. military and Postal Service, as well as major trucking companies.
In short, every part and piece of a crashed car have an afterlife.
“We don’t get rid of a lot of cars,” said Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. “A car has to be pretty bad if we say it’s a ‘do not resuscitate.’ We send everything out to be recycled. You won’t find anything in the garbage can.”
Knaus said three cars were sent away to be recycled last year. Other damaged cars were either sold to lower-tiered teams or stripped down for parts.
Teams are more willing to take an undamaged back half of a car and attach to the front-half of an undamaged car. That not only saves money, but it keeps their proprietary technology from being available to the public – or other teams – before they meet their crushing demise.
Some cars are rebuilt and sold to collectors or placed in museums, while others simple become show cars. With only a few exceptions – like Earnhardt graveyard – cars aren’t abandoned and left to rust away.
“At our place, we tend to hang onto everything,” Wood said. “I bet we have 100 old radiators that we’ve collected over the years. They’re obsolete for [NASCAR], but they’re usable. There’s nothing wrong with them, so we keep them in case somebody needs one.”
The way teams clean up after a race is environmentally safe. If a car is washed with soap and water, the Environmental Protection Agency requires it to be done in a special bay where the waste water can be filtered. Although most teams have the required filtering system, many prefer to use compressed air to blow away rubber and dirt before it’s wiped down by hand.
“You don’t want to wash rubber into the drains,” Knaus said. “You want to think about the environment. You want to be smart.”
Motor oil is a huge part of the recycling program. Each team uses about 250 gallons of oil a year, Ford’s lead engine builder, Doug Yates, said. And nearly every drop winds up in one of Safety-Kleen’s bins, either at the track or at the race shop.
“Oil only gets dirty, it doesn’t go away,” said Safety-Kleen’s Drew Patey. “We collect about 175,000 gallons of oil from NASCAR every year, and every bit of that gets put back into circulation.
“We’ve been doing this since the late-1980s. We were green long before anybody thought it was cool.”
There are three collection areas at the Daytona International Speedway. Teams can dispose of oil – each car uses six gallons – Yates said – as well as gear grease and rags used to wipe up spills. Safety-Kleen goes to each shop also collects fluorescent light bulbs and metal shavings from the machines that cut and bend metal into race cars.
“There’s no reason to get rid of it,” Patey said. “It can be re-used and re-used and re-used.”