AmericaSpeaks TheVoiceOfJoyce If the Portland Racetrack uses leaded gas and it’s known to cause developmental problems to neighboring kids, why is it allowed? Why are Portland’s citizen’s concerns being ignored? Can’t another facility be built? Or tweak the engines? Spark plugs? to accept other gas? Health first!

Based on the research, the Guardian calculated that third graders – students aged eight or nine – who have grown up within two miles of Portland International Raceway could experience more than a six-percentage point decline in their standardized test scores.

“That is pretty startling,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, who reviewed the Guardian’s findings. He described lead exposure at Portland International Raceway as “one of the more serious concerns that would affect the environmental health of Portlanders”.

Part of what makes Portland International Raceway a serious concern is simply the location. Unlike most other tracks in the country, the raceway abuts a dense urban neighborhood in North Portland.

Unlike Portland, other racetracks that allow leaded gasoline are located in rural areas

Portland International Raceway abuts a densely populated neighborhood in North Portland

Portland, Oregon

Portland International Raceway

2 miles



Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Road America

Alton, Virginia

Virginia International Raceway

Sebring, Florida

Sebring International Raceway

Guardian graphic. Source: Google Earth.

The researchers who developed the methodology – Alex Hollingsworth, an associate professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, and Ivan Rudik, an assistant professor in the school of applied economics and management at Cornell University – say that students living as much as 25 miles from a given racetrack can be affected by its lead emissions.

When Hollingsworth was asked what he would do if he lived in one of the many houses bordering the Portland raceway, his answer was simple:

“I would move.”

The city of Portland – which owns and operates the track – does not share this conclusion. It has rebuffed years of calls by residents to address the lead emissions. In response to the Guardian’s findings, it said: “Portland Parks & Recreation’s highest priority is public safety by following the guidance of public health and environmental protection agencies.”

Residents say the decision to allow leaded gas at the racetrack is especially confounding given Portland’s reputation as one of the greenest enclaves in the country. Portland recently announced a goal to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. “Philosophically, it just doesn’t seem right that this is something that’s owned and operated by the city for recreational purposes,” said Lanciotti.

Spectators watch as vehicles head the starting line at the Portland International Raceway during a drag racing event on April 15, 2023, in Portland, OR.

Lead began to be used in gasoline in the 1920s as a means of improving engine performance. However, in the 1950s, researchers discovered that when a child is exposed to lead – even in small amounts which would be safe for an adult – it can have devastating consequences. It travels from their blood into their brain and other organs. It can lower their IQ and cause other neurological problems. Later in life, lead exposure is linked to early death from stroke and certain heart diseases.

In 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the sale of leaded fuel for passenger cars as part of the Clean Air Act. However, an exemption was made for “off-road” vehicles, such as farm machinery, marine engines and race cars. Because of the risk of lead exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continued to pressure the racing industry to stop using leaded fuel. In response, Nascar, one of the top motorsports organizations in the world, stopped using leaded fuel in 2007.

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Leaded racing in the US


Leaded racing in the US

Leaded fuel is still regularly being used at racetracks around the US in a variety of sports car road races, and vintage car and motorcycle racing. Eric Prill, the vice-president of Road Racing at the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America), one of the largest amateur racing organizations in the country, says that roughly 15-18% of the fuel used at major events is leaded. The Guardian reached out to over a dozen of the largest tracks, asking for sales numbers of leaded fuel. Most of the track organizations either did not respond or declined to provide information.

The only exceptions were the two publicly-owned tracks, Portland International Raceway and Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, owned by Monterey county, California. Laguna Seca management reported that the track sold 11,000 gallons of leaded fuel from April 2021 through April 2022. Portland International Raceway publishes leaded fuel sales numbers on its website, and sold about 1,500 gallons of fuel in 2021, about 50% of its total fuel sales.

To compile this list of tracks, the Guardian identified tracks that hosted SCCA and SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) events.

Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma, California

Thunderhill Raceway, Willows, California

WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Monterey, California

Lime Rock Park, Lakeville, Connecticut

Homestead Miami Speedway, Miami, Florida

Sebring International Raceway, Sebring, Florida

Road Atlanta, Braselton, Georgia

Nola Motorsports Park, Avondale, Louisiana

Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, New York

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio

Portland International Raceway, Portland, Oregon

Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas

Virginia International Raceway, Alton, Virginia

Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

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But leaded racing fuel has continued to be used in vintage automobile races and to enhance performance in certain race cars. Sunoco, one of the largest distributors of racing fuels, sells at least ten leaded racing fuels with names like Surge and Cyclone 17, which retail for more than $20 a gallon.

There are more than a dozen major race tracks around the US where leaded gasoline is in use in certain races. One of these tracks, Sebring International Raceway, outside of a small community in central Florida, says that its track is active nearly 300 days a year. In response to the Guardian’s inquiry about the amount of leaded gasoline used at their races, Sebring said it “would not have any information that would be helpful”.

Spectators walk past the Lead Gas warning signs near the podiums of Portland International Raceway during a drag racing event in Portland on 15 April 2023. Photograph: Mason Trinca

Laguna Seca, a renowned track in central California, reported that the track sold 11,000 gallons of leaded fuel from April 2021 through April 2022, which is over four times the amount sold at the Portland track annually. It is in a relatively remote area, though there are several schools within a distance of 3 miles. The remaining tracks did not respond or declined to comment.

Portland racetrack that allows leaded gasoline is near dense neighborhoods

Guardian analysis showed children within 2 miles of Portland International Raceway could perform 6 percentage points worse on standardized tests

Elementary school






Guardian graphic. Source: Guardian analysis.

It’s not just the urban proximity that sets Portland International Raceway apart from these other tracks.

Even more striking is that the racetrack is technically a city park, a fact that neighborhood advocates say makes the lead exposure even more egregious. “It’s a city park run by the City of Portland, that has all these initiatives to ban diesel and lower emissions while also saying we’re fine with using leaded gas in one of our parks and exposing our citizens to it.” says Ryan Pittel, a longtime resident of North Portland and a board member of the Kenton Neighborhood Association.

At Portland International Raceway, about 40% of the events use leaded gasoline. Over the past five years, the racetrack has sold anywhere from 1,300 gallons to 3,000 gallons of leaded gasoline annually.

Although the CDC, EPA and WHO – along with the city of Portland – state that there is no safe level of lead for children, Portland’s bureau of parks and recreation maintains that lead emissions from the track do not pose a health risk. This stance is based on a 2017 study that tested levels of lead during a race event. The Oregon department of environmental quality (DEQ) used those numbers to estimate emissions in nearby areas and said, in a memo to the neighborhood association, that “levels of lead emissions modeled did not pose immediate health risks to residential areas around the track”.

At the heart of the issue is the tension between what would cause “immediate health risks”, judged by the DEQ to be a lead exposure level of 0.15 micrograms averaged over 24 hours, and the less-immediate but lifelong impacts to children from chronic exposure to lower levels of lead.

The Kenton neighborhood near the Portland International Raceway. Photograph: Mason Trinca

“I get the frustration,” said Perry Cabot, a public health officer for Multnomah county, which includes the city of Portland. “People living in these neighborhoods, they see that we’re saying there is no safe level [for children], but that we are allowing this release of lead and they are asking, ‘How do we make sense of that?’”

Lanciotti, the nurse living near the raceway, dismissed the idea that low levels of lead emissions wouldn’t be harmful to children living nearby. “We know enough about lead to know that that’s not true.”

And pollution experts such as Shandas, of Portland State University, argue that in any event the national and local regulators are underestimating how much lead is in the air. “The ways in which DEQ and OHA [Oregon health authority] and even the EPA go about addressing air quality has been so well recognized as woefully inadequate,” he said.

Now, with this new research showing that the levels at the Portland racetrack may be significant enough to cause developmental issues in children, local residents are asking why the city isn’t taking their concerns more seriously. Ella Newell, a mother of a third grader who has lived near the racetrack for the past eight years, said the 6 percentage points outcome was even worse than she feared. “It’s like we don’t matter enough. Our homes, our taxes, our kids, don’t matter enough to address this.”

Peninsular elementary in the Kenton neighborhood near the Portland International Raceway.

Residents of North Portland have been fighting with the city to ban the use of lead at the raceway for over seven years. While Portland has the title “Whitest City in America”, the neighborhoods closest to the raceway – Portsmouth, Kenton and Piedmont – are historically diverse neighborhoods. As of 2020, 30%-50% of the population of these areas identified as a race other than white.

Terrance Moses, the chairman of the neighborhood association, argued that low-income and marginalized communities aren’t prioritized by the city of Portland. “We aren’t [heard], we never have been, and it’s still an ongoing process,” Moses said. “The low-income white folks that are living here feel the same way because they’re just being ignored also.”

In October 2022, residents of North Portland appeared before the Portland city council, asking them to ban the use of leaded gasoline at Portland International Raceway. In January, the Kenton Neighborhood Association met with Dan Ryan, the new commissioner in charge of the parks bureau. When the Guardian reached out to Ryan for comment, his office said: “The city takes public safety very seriously and works diligently to comply with all public health and environmental protection regulations, and we will continue to do so.”

Terrance Moses photographed at the Kenton Historic Fire House in Portland.

In March 2023, Portland Parks & Recreation indicated to the Guardian that it would continue to allow racers to use leaded fuel at the racetrack, but the city itself would no longer sell it at the track.

For Ryan Pittel, who was one of the residents who spoke in front of the city council last October, this is a frustrating development, since the city of Portland will no longer be required to report the gallons sold. “That’s not what we asked for. We’re gonna keep fighting until it’s gone.”

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