What If I Told You* that one of the greenest sports venues in the US, if not the world, was an auto racing track in the Pocono Mountains of Northeast Pennsylvania? Skeptical, right? You won’t be after meeting Brandon Igdalsky, President and CEO of Pocono Raceway in today’s GSB Interview.
GreenSportsBlog: The story of how Pocono Raceway became one of the greenest sports venues in the US has to be a fascinating one! So Brandon, how did it begin?
Brandon Igdalsky: It started with my grandparents, Doctors Joe and Rose Mattioli. They were professionals in Philadelphia—Joe, also simply known as “Doc”, was a dentist, Rose a podiatrist. They invested in the Poconos back then and, in so doing, got involved as investors in the raceway. By the mid 60s, they’d taken control.
GSB: A dentist and a podiatrist running a raceway. Who’da thunk it? Did your mom or dad take over?
Brandon: Nope. It mostly skipped a generation— My mother and my aunt are both involved in various aspects of the company and also serve on our board. But my brother Nick, now the EVP and Chief Operating Officer, and I got the bug from a young age, working there during the summers. In fact I remember clearly the date—June 17, 1989. My grandpa said “you’re working with us.” I was 13. So I picked garbage, worked in the sewer plant, cutting the grass…
GSB: …All of the glamour jobs!
GSB: So did you go straight into the business after high school or college?
Brandon: No, I tried a bunch of things, especially in the restaurant business, working both in Philly and the Poconos. But, ultimately, I came back to the raceway and to work with my grandfather.
GSB: Were you an auto racing fan growing up?
Brandon: Oh yeah, I loved auto racing, especially from being around it up close.
GSB: Where did the green piece of the story come in?
Brandon: Again, it goes back to when I was a kid. We had recycling bins, going way back in our neighborhood growing up.
GSB: …Pocono Raceway was ahead of the green game even back in the 70s!
Brandon: More like the 90’s. Of course I didn’t look at it that way; I just thought recycling bins were cool. And then, in my late teens, early 20s, I became more of an environmentalist. It came from being out in the Poconos. It’s just so beautiful and, well, green. And I’m an avid fisherman. So, put it altogether, I felt that we absolutely had to keep the Poconos pristine and healthy. There was no other option.
GSB: So once you had moved into management, was “going green” at Pocono Raceway your initiative and was it a natural extension of your personal passion for the environment once you got involved with running the place?
Brandon: Well, Doc also was very much behind our move to go green and it certainly was in the back of my head as I started to move up in the organization. Back in the early-to-mid 2000s, we partnered with Pepsi and Waste Management with our initial recycling program. But we wanted to go bigger than recycling and the way we looked at it, the way to do that was to go big with solar power.
GSB: On-site solar? At a raceway?
GSB: When and why did you come to solar as a solution?
Brandon: Great questions. In 2008, Pennsylvania started to deregulate the power market with the effects being felt in 2009-2010; the result being that electric bills were going to go way up; 30-45 percent in some cases.
GSB: I would’ve thought deregulation would mean lower prices. I guess I would’ve been wrong!
Brandon: You would’ve been. Anyway, back in the mid 2000s, I had been out in California, noticed that solar and wind were growing out there, also geo-thermal. By 2008, I could see that wind and solar were coming into their own. So, that October, I was down getting a cheesesteak in Philly…
GSB: …At Geno’s?
Brandon: No, Mama’s in Belmont.
This was the day of the Phillies championship parade after they won the World Series—I’m a big Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers fan. I’m there and I over hear a guy at a table close by talking about solar. Turns out he was developing a 10 megawatt (mW) site not far from the raceway. We met with him a couple of times. Then out of the blue I catch up with a guy I knew growing up who had been in the racing business. He mentioned that his brother was developing solar projects. So I had a meeting with them. I asked him a ton of questions and I got the answers we needed. And off we went into the solar business.
GSB: Was Doc still in the picture at that time? If so, what did he think of all this And what did “going off into solar” entail?
Brandon: Yes, Doc was very much involved and in favor of going solar. We started with the idea of a 350 kW system on the garage area’s roofs. Then Doc asked how big can we go if we used some of the old parking lots that we didn’t need any longer. So almost 3 mW it was!
GSB: That actually is a pretty big start. How many event days do you have per year?
BI: Our biggest events are two NASCAR and one INDYCAR (open wheel) event weekends. Then we have smaller events going on almost every day between April and October, with 250-300 track days in that time period.
GSB: Were you looking to generate all of your electricity via solar or, as most sports facilities with on site solar do, generate only a portion and use the grid for the rest?
Brandon: Remember, I said we wanted to go big; we planned to generate all of our electricity on site, with solar. We have a 2.997 mW system that powers the whole operation at Pocono Raceway. In fact, we haven’t seen a power bill since 2010.
GSB: Holy COW! That’s incredible and fantastic! It reflects, intentionally or not, the ethos of the 100% Sport initiative (#Go100Percent) that encourages sports venues and teams, and through them, the fans, to take positive environmental actions, including installing renewable energy.
How does this work financially? If you haven’t paid a power bill since 2010, you couldn’t have done a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA, the most common form of solar financing nowadays in which the residential or commercial customer pays nothing up front but agrees to buy the electricity that comes from the solar system for a 20- or 30-year period at an agreed upon price, with modest levels of inflation built in). Did you buy the system? That must’ve cost a fortune!
Brandon: We could’ve done a PPA but we chose to build and own it—that was what ‘Doc’ wanted. It was a $15.6 million project, all in. This generated not only power but also local jobs. And, whenever possible, we’ve used US-made components: solar panels from Ohio, steel and aluminum from California, and wood from sustainable forests in the northwest. The project was started in April 2010 and we were up in running by August.
We also sell power back to the grid but, unfortunately, the Solar Renewable Energy Credit, or SREC market is in the dumps right now in Pennsylvania. The SREC price used to be $350; now it’s down to $12. The Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) is not great. We have open borders (meaning out-of-state solar producers can sell SRECS in Pennsylvania,) with low demand and lots of supply. We are working with our legislature to try to right the ship and look long term.
GSB: So solar has not been a money maker for Pocono Raceway as yet
Brandon: Not yet; we still haven’t reached break even financially. It’s not about the financial gains for us. Both Doc and I felt it was the right thing to do and I would do it again. And the PR value has been phenomenal.
GSB: Talk about the PR—how have your fans reacted?
Brandon: It’s very positive with the fans. They talk about it all the time. And now, over by the panels, we’ve got sheep roaming during the summer. No need to cut the grass in there, 50 sheep do it all summer for us. It’s really changed the environment around the racetrack and for the better. Also our fans, by seeing the way we do things, are greener than they ever were. When RVs and campers come into the parking lot, they get recycling bags in their welcome packs and they use them.
GSB: What kind of waste diversion rates do you have?
Brandon: We are just starting to really track it this year; our goal is to be at 75 percent diversion by the end of 2018. We are sitting close to 15 percent now and growing every year.
GSB: To get to that level, you’re going to have to compost. Have you started?
Brandon: We’re composting starting this year and expect to ramp up next year. We also donate more than 5,000 lbs. of unused food annually. And we have a long term plan to buy from local food growers right down the road so we’re going local whenever we can.
GSB: This is all FANTASTIC. Really. But I’m feeling a bit of a disconnect. And that is this: NASCAR is going green. Pocono Raceway is über-green. And I’ve seen the stats that NASCAR fans are greener than the average American.
But my gut tells me something different; that NASCAR fans are Donald Trump voters (the most recent polling I’ve seen on this goes back to September, 2015, before the primaries began but it was Trump 44 percent, Hillary Clinton 10.4, Ben Carson 7 and Bernie Sanders at 4) and Trump says climate change is a hoax. And Brian France, NASCAR’s CEO, personally endorsed Trump. Please help me out here…
Brandon: …Well, there’s a lot to unpack.
On the ground, at the track NASCAR has done a great job greening its operations. Recycling motor oil, tires, etc. They were doing that before NASCAR Green started in 2008. NASCAR Green has taken things to the next level.
Now, on Trump, I’m not going to get into it that deeply on the national scene. But I will tell you, I do a fair amount lobbying at the state level in Harrisburg on behalf of renewable energy and a strong Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) and I see a shift, among the Ds (democrats) who were slow on this issue and even among Rs (republicans) who have mainly been opposed. The staunchness of the opposition is lessening, I can feel it, especially among the younger legislators. So I’m upbeat.
GSB: Sounds like your Grandpa! I hope other track operators follow your and Doc’s lead. Thank you so much, Brandon!
* I always wanted to use the “What if I told you…” line from ads for the ESPN 30-for-30 sports documentary series line in a GreenSportsBlog post!
Photo at top: Brandon Igdalsky, President and CEO of Pocono Raceway. (Photo credit: Sports Business Journal)