Frontstretch Special Report · Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday November 19, 2009
Q: Who’s the richest man in a NASCAR garage?
A: The last place driver in a Cup race.
That old adage has been around NASCAR’s garages since the 1970s, and has held true every time that start and park teams take to the track. For as long as anyone following racing can remember, there have been teams that have taken to the track with no intent of competing, but instead to collect a check. However, 2009 has seen the practice escalate from relative obscurity in the back of the field to a growing staple at all levels of NASCAR racing.
There are plenty out there that simply don’t care about it, or that dismiss the recent rash of start and park as a product of a down economy. NASCAR’s own Robin Pemberton goes even further, having stated back in March that he saw such teams as seizing an opportunity, programs not up to speed that realize “this is the way to get started.”
But here we are, eight months later, and it’s clear Pemberton’s words are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Start and park as it is being seen today is not a product of a down economy. It’s not a means for the underdogs to carve their names out and get started. And it’s not something NASCAR is in any way concerning itself about … just a side business inside a sport that’s increasingly about dollars and cents more than anything else.
So, as the 2009 season concludes, we’re instead faced with an unpleasant reality: start and park is not only thriving, but here for the long haul. And as the number of S&P teams expand, not contract, they’re driving teams that are already here and trying to race right out of the sport. That leaves NASCAR entirely at fault for letting its top three touring series have up to a third of their fields parking early at any given race track.
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For some of the start-and-park teams out there, such as MSRP Motorsports in the Nationwide Series or PRISM Motorsports in the Cup ranks, the intent of their efforts is simply to cash a check and get out. For most others, such as JD Motorsports, Jay Robinson Racing, and more recently Specialty Racing, it’s a means of survival. But staying afloat doesn’t offer you a free ticket to the promised land; in fact, not a single start and park team since the practice emerged in the early 2000s has landed a sponsorship to allow them to race successfully full-time over the long-term.
I’m sure if one looked hard enough, they could nitpick the viability of start and park to get a team on track all day long, as a handful of cars experienced limited, short-term success with part-time deals. But what is indisputable is that no matter the motivation, S&P is a business… and business is good. While the average number of S&P entries in the Truck Series has remained steady throughout the season (though that series has had up to 33% of its field park early in some instances), the number of such cars has doubled in the Cup Series, as well as increased 91% in the Nationwide Series through 2009. It’s further indisputable that the practice makes money. Sources in the Nationwide garage tell Frontstretch that as a result of his MSRP Motorsports operation, owners Phil Parsons and Randy Humphrey are banking over $7,000 per race in cold, hard cash, with their “race efforts” and driver bills fully paid for.
And it’s further indisputable that even if/when the economy does turn around and sponsors once again start looking to NASCAR, that’s no guarantee that the S&P teams are going to disappear, like they largely did back in 2005. For one, some of these race teams wouldn’t be able to race even if a sponsor did come calling. Speaking to an anonymous Nationwide Series driver, Frontstretch was informed that MSRP Motorsports’ cars are so built in to a qualifying setup, so built into running 10-20 laps before calling it quits, that even if a sponsor was to approach them at the track and offer to foot the bill for a race, it’d be mechanically impossible for their cars to last a full NNS event.
What’s more, sponsors have found a way to get the bang for their buck, even if the car they put their name on doesn’t last but a few laps. A recent MSNBC feature on Tommy Baldwin Racing chronicled how sponsor Wave Energy Drink, despite never having seen their car on track at the end of a Cup race, have benefited from their sponsorship as much as a smaller team running a full race.
“We’ve watched our emails skyrocket,” says Wave owner David Tomecello. “It’s a lot more [exposure for us].”
And Tomecello is right. Even with Tommy Baldwin Racing being a crapshoot week in and week out as to whether or not they’ll qualify for a race, Wave Energy Drink still gets to flash plenty of pictures of their bright blue No. 36 car. They still get driver appearances to work with. They get everything that a smaller sponsor could hope, while the most expensive, and important part, gets marginalized… the car driving on the track.
But Wave is not the only company to have figured this out. Following the Fall race at Charlotte, Frontstretch contacted Anderson’s Maple Syrup, a smaller company that has on several occasions in 2009 sponsored the No. 49 car of Jay Robinson Racing in the Nationwide Series, fully aware that the car would be starting and parking. Here’s what they had to say:
“We decided that the cost of sponsoring a start and park was not much more than getting hot passes off of Ebay.”
And the company certainly reaped the rewards of getting even the 30 laps or so of exposure they did. In addition to receiving daily requests for hero cards of their No. 49 entry, the company as of October was close to signing a deal with a major grocery chain that would result “completely because of the sponsorship with Jay Robinson Racing.”
Now, this article is not to put down companies for successfully using NASCAR to market their products, nor is it to criticize teams for accepting sponsor dollars despite still being unable to truly compete on the track. What it does illustrate, however, is that even when and if the economy does turn around, where’s the motivation for teams and sponsors to get back into racing? If a company can spend enough to get to the track without the exorbitant costs of actually competing, why will they stop?
It’s not just sponsors that are making serious cash for start and park efforts, either. As previously mentioned, MSRP Motorsports’ owners are hauling in thousands of dollars every weekend that’s going straight to the bank (and in their case, out of racing for good… MSRP is not building for the future). NEMCO Motorsports, which Joe Nemechek and Scott Speed have run the distance for in only a handful of 2009 races, has been estimated to turn as much as $1.8 million in profit thus far in 2009 (though those numbers are disputed). And in the Nationwide Series, start and park clearly is making a profit, as owners including Johnny Davis, the Keselowski family and Jay Robinson have not only managed to keep their distance-running entries on track with minimal sponsorship, they’ve kept running S&P entries as well.
The drivers themselves outrunning these entries aren’t doing so shabby, either. Kenny Hendrick ran a start and park campaign for a number of teams in 2008, and started 2009 as a result with a full-time Nationwide Series ride despite having not completed a race since 2004. As written on this site back in August, Kelly Bires landed tremendous exposure running a number of start and parks for Phil Parsons, efforts that led to him being named Brad Keselowski’s replacement at JR Motorsports for 2010. For other drivers, the money hasn’t been so bad, either. Sources in the Nationwide garage informed Frontstretch that for his efforts in the No. 49 car, Mark Green is pulling down $3,000 a race. Not too shabby for a guy who’d spent the past few seasons driving part-time for a small team.
Green’s not the only driver making solid money in next to no track time. Terry Cook managed to accentuate his Truck Series salary tremendously in 2009, banking $2,500 for every race he’s run with MSRP Motorsports. By comparison, sources claim fellow MSRP driver Johnny Chapman is only making $1,000 per race for his efforts with the team, but seriously… would Chapman have a chance at making money driving race cars any other place, any other way?
So drivers are bringing in decent-sized checks, owners are making money, and sponsors are happy. The only problem is, that’s not putting cars on the track, just filling the field… on the stat sheet only.
But anyone that knows NASCAR knows all too well they don’t give a damn what’s going on at the back of the pack. Instead, they’re actively encouraging start and park to continue. As Frontstretch reported back in March, NASCAR was actively recruiting Truck Series drivers to come out to Fontana to run S&P efforts to ensure a full field. Further, the sanctioning body is paying no mind to the fleet of race cars pulling back into their respective garages early in the running of races week in and week out. Frontstretch had writers in the Nationwide garage at Charlotte this past Fall observing the “inspection process” of cars that, on the score sheet anyway, had suffered debilitating mechanical failures.
The term “inspection process” is used as loosely as possible…because NASCAR’s officials weren’t inspecting. They were doing nothing more than watching an assembly line at work. Each of the start and park cars pulled right up to the NASCAR hauler, forming a straight line. Crews were in no frantic hurry to figure out what was wrong with their cars… because they weren’t going back out there. In fact, some of the teams already had crew members stationed at or near the NASCAR hauler anticipating their car to pull in (MSRP Motorsports had several crew members standing right alongside me as I waited for the inevitable.) Everyone knew what was happening … and nobody cared to do much about it.
That’s surprising, considering Robin Pemberton’s assertion back in March that “we [NASCAR] owe it to the garage area [to make sure everybody is on the up and up.”
To steal a line from Joe Wilson: “You lie!”
What’s more, NASCAR’s convoluted qualifying rules have also encouraged even more teams… teams not even at the back of the field… to start and park. Look at the cases of JTG/Daugherty Racing, K Automotive, NEMCO Motorsports, and Specialty Racing in the Nationwide Series. All lacking sponsorship, but having to attempt every race to stay locked in the top 30, those teams woke up and realized that given the points spread, they can start and park the rest of the season, save on overhead, and still be locked in for Daytona 2010. That’s great business sense for these teams with no sponsor dollars… but is that good for the sport?
Yet with a myriad of other problems to take care of, NASCAR has — both out of indifference and to a degree, necessity — turned a blind eye to the start and park epidemic that has gripped all of the national touring series. But in this case, ignorance is far from bliss — and it certainly won’t allow the problem to take care of itself. Fact is, start and park and what it has evolved into is something that NASCAR should very much care about… because it’s not doing the sport’s future any favors.
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So why should NASCAR care that a bunch of cars in the back of the field are making a mockery of competition, not bothering to compete in the sport to stay there, or that some of its most influential broadcasters are padding their pockets by exploiting the sport they’re supposed to cover?
For one, regardless of what indifferent race fans, Cup drivers, etc. say, start and park teams have had a huge impact on the fields in all three national touring series in 2009. This season, across Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup, S&P entries have taken 91 spots in starting lineups from cars that showed up to attempt a full race. Assuming those teams took home last place money in each of those 91 starts, that a total $3,349,320 in winnings that actual race teams were deprived of. And that’s not taking into account the value of the exposure that 200, 300, 500 miles of racing would have garnered the teams sent home in favor of those who chose not to take part in the sport.
And though it has been discussed on this site before, it can’t be restated enough that S&P teams do not qualify on an equal playing field. How in the world is any team not named Joe Gibbs Racing or equipped with millions in sponsor dollars supposed to compete with cars that have 25 additional horsepower in their motors (while running tapered spacers) and that are built solely to last 20 miles, not 200?
As Morgan Shepherd told Frontstretch back in September, “people stay agitated long enough and they’ll leave” when having to compete with S&P teams to make races. Shepherd’s right… that time has come. Sources have confirmed with Frontstretch that a number of longtime Nationwide owners are doing just that, throwing their hands up in the air, ready to cut back or even cease running Nationwide Series entries. Why?
They’ve acquired Cup CoT cars. And they’re prepared to move to the Cup Series, to compete as an S&P for part of that much more lucrative pie. The teams of K Automotive and Jay Robinson Racing have figured that if they’re going to have to compete as David vs. Goliath (while the refs stroke Goliath’s back), they may as well do it where the real money is.
And who can blame them? As it stands right now, there is absolutely no financial incentive for race teams out there to go the distance, run up tire and engine bills, and risk damage to their cars. Dexter Bean ran the distance at Pocono in June, only to make $725 more in purse money than Joe Nemechek, who start and parked. That’s not even enough money to buy one half set of Goodyears. Nemechek’s been on the other side of that equation himself, running the distance to score only $1,553 in winnings more than start and parker Dave Blaney at Richmond in September.
The harsh economic reality that running better doesn’t pay has done plenty to proliferate start and park, as many teams out there that have tried to race just can’t afford to do it and keep up with the start and parkers. Specialty Racing’s No. 61 car and Wayne Day’s No. 05 are just a few examples of cars that have been relegated to start and parking…largely in part because everyone else is doing it, not because they actually want to.
So in short, this is what NASCAR is up against. Start and park teams are taking spots from teams trying to race… and the money that goes with it. They’re parking earlier and more often, because there’s no financial incentive at all to actually run a race distance. Owners are ready to pack up their race cars to S&P for more money elsewhere. And sponsors are finding ways to make money off the sport and their involvement in it… without the sport and its all-important competition benefiting.
That financial windfall alone tells us things won’t improve simply because the economy gets better. Where’s the incentive for a sponsor to push for their team to race farther and spend more money when they’re still getting driver appearances and promotional materials with race cars? And how are better-funded cars going to drive these teams away when start and parkers — ranging from MSRP Motorsports’ entries to Jay Robinson’s No. 49 car — have proven consistently able to challenge for top 10 qualifying efforts? If these teams can outrun even Cup machinery, why stop a profitable venture simply because the economy gets better around you?
So tell me again why race fans, or NASCAR, should consider start and park, as NASCAR.com’s Dave Rodman put it, “a non-competitive non-issue?”
Sorry, Dave, but start and park is doing far more than putting a black eye on the sport. It’s harming its longevity, establishing itself with a permanence that shows no signs of slowing until NASCAR puts it foot down. And for race fans out there that actually do give a damn about the teams that don’t have $20 million sponsors, that’s cause for concern.
And for NASCAR, all I’ll say is this. You’ve been warned.
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