The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Motown Sadness by Matt McLaughlin -- Friday May 22, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Motown Sadness

Matt McLaughlin · Friday May 22, 2009

 

Growing up, I’d never have imagined that one day a Honda would be the best selling automobile in America. Certainly I’d have never guessed that one day Toyota would be competing with GM for title of the world’s largest automaker. And none of us ever would have believed that within our lifetimes Chrysler would file bankruptcy and apparently GM will do so soon.

Sadly, this has all come to pass. GM and Chrysler are currently kept alive by government bailout loans. Ford is enjoying a bit of a renaissance now and it would seem their decision to forgo government aid, at least for now, has helped spur their sales. I don’t want to debate the wisdom of the government bailing out two of the Big Three—to an extent the notion irritates me—but I realize there are a huge amount of jobs at stake not only at Chrysler and GM, but also in satellite industries ranging from parts suppliers to corner diners near assembly plants. Just letting free market economics take their course leading to massive American job losses in this already harsh economy doesn’t seem wise either. Yeah, I can hear some of you saying those “Union bastards have priced themselves right out of a job….” But now those Unions and their members are making some painful concessions to keep the businesses they work for open. If I had the perfect solution for this mess, I’d be running for Congress…but I don’t. I write about stock car racing and, given the reality of what’s happening with the Big Three, I want to focus on what this crises could mean for our sport.

The amount of money the United States has invested in the car companies is a considerable. And that money comes with more strings than the Bristol International Kite Flying Festival. In return for their investment, the government wants a say in how Chrysler and GM spend that money. Marketing costs make up a significant portion of annual budgets of those car companies. NASCAR involvement makes up a relatively small portion of that marketing budget but it is a highly visible and, to a degree, polarizing part of the marketing program. As the folks in Washington are fond of saying, “You start with a million here, and a million there and all of a sudden it adds up to real money!”

The Big Three carmakers continue to say that their NASCAR marketing campaigns are successful and cost effective. NASCAR fans are far more likely to own American cars than the general population. Toyota jumped into the pool with both feet in an attempt to lure some of those customers away and Toyota doesn’t have a bad track record in making marketing decisions.

With the future uncertain for two of the Big Three automakers, Ford could soon be the only American manufacturer left in the Cup series.

But after last summer’s historic spike in gas prices (and they seem to be rising at an alarming rate again right now) and with a new focus on the environment that borders on hysteria, all of a sudden, in some circles, the automobile has gone from American Sweetheart and a proud example of this countries manufacturing might to Public Enemy Number One and a four wheeled environmental terrorist. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are suddenly calling for dramatically increased fuel efficiency, reduced emissions and alternative powerplants. That worries me a lot. It seems to me last time that politicians, and I don’t know one of them with an automotive design background, meddled in car-making, insisting on new standards in economy, safety and pollution, that triggered the tailspin the American auto industry has fallen into.

Despite my reservations, I accept reality. Some politicians are going to see spending millions of US taxpayers’ money by the automakers to support programs that center on fast loud cars with V8 engines, terrible fuel economy and no pollution control devices as a boondoggle. The money saved isn’t going to suddenly fix everything that’s wrong with GM or Chrysler, but it’s a high profile bit of grandstanding politicians can do to show taxpayers who aren’t race fans they’re keeping a tight leash on wasteful spending. (Insert your punch line here.)

So my guess is that within five years, maybe sooner, two if not three of the automakers currently supporting the sport will be gone. That raises the obvious question, can NASCAR racing survive without the auto manufacturers.

My guess is they can. In fact, NASCAR has done it before. The Big Three got out of automobile racing in the late 50s and again in the early 70s. GM officially was on the sidelines for close to two decades.

The loss of marketing dollars from the auto manufacturers is going to cause some pain. Some teams will probably not survive. The surviving teams are going to have to find some ways to curtail their spending to make up for the lost dollars because there are few, if any, sponsors left who can or will re-up their deals to make up for the shortfall.

Thus it behooves NASCAR to face the new reality barreling up the road like a Buick Roadmaster with a stuck throttle and no brakes. They need to find meaningful ways to make the racing less expensive, but at the same time more competitive. Originally this whole Car of Tomorrow nonsense was supposed to save the teams money but all I’m hearing is how many millions of dollars it has cost team owners. A trimmed down schedule, shorter races, more single day shows would be good first steps. A rule like the one in the Nationwide series forcing teams to use their engines for more than one event without an overhaul would help as well. Meaningful and enforceable spending limits would be tough to device but there needs to be a sense of urgency and cooperation here among the team owners and NASCAR, a coming together to admit we’re all going to either sink or sail on together.

Drivers are going to have to accept the new reality as well. It could be the days of a rookie driver becoming a millionaire without even posting a top 10 finish are fading. There’s a limit to what track owners can charge spectators to attend events in a tight economy and it already seems some of those race promoters have shot north of the mark given attendance at some tracks this year. Reduced income is going to have to be reflected in race purses.

Perhaps most importantly both NASCAR and the track owners are going to have make the distribution of TV revenue more equitable. After all you can have a slate of events but unless there is a full field of competitive cars and drivers the fans want to see compete, NASCAR can’t survive. Ultimately, it is the high wire walkers, the lion tamers, the trapeze artists, and the guys getting shot of cannons that fans of the circus come to see, not the clowns and the ringmasters.

A less expensive, more competitive, more exciting form of NASCAR racing can survive even in the new economic realities we are faced with. It’s time for NASCAR to be proactive on these issues rather than waiting for the carpet to get pulled out from under their feet. First staged in 1911, that first event was run when the American auto industry was still in its infancy. Ironically, that same industry may now be on its deathbed.

The disastrous split between CART and the IRL greatly diminished interest in the Indy 500 and there were some years the back half of the field was simply pitiful. That rift is now healed, but Indy and the entire series are still trying to get some traction back to capture the imaginations of auto racing fans. Having most of their races held on a TV network few people have even heard of hasn’t helped any. (As per usual the Indy 500 will be on ABC.) It’s too bad that more race fans haven’t taken the time to sample IRL racing since the split healed. They’ve got a bunch of remarkably talented and likeable drivers, even if most of them are foreigners. I just can’t help but like guys like Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, though I’d love to see Alex Zanardi come back and try the Indy 500 one more time.

New series rules have homogenized the field at Indy where experimentation was once a hallmark of the race. Over the years the Indy 500 has featured stock block cars, four cylinders, turbines, diesels and even six wheeled cars. And it sure would be nice to see more than one brand of powerplant in the series.

Yes, the Indy 500 has been greatly diminished but there’s still something special about the race itself. The massive release of balloons, the three wide / 11 row deep formation as the cars come to the green flag, and the sense of history of the joint still make it a must see event for me. The speed, the screams of the cars and the imminent danger that lurks on every lap keep me glued to the TV. Perhaps the fact I once got to sit in Mark Donahue’s Indy winning car shortly after that race made me a fan for life.

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Sean
05/22/2009 02:02 AM
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Zanardi never competed at Indy. He was a rookie in CART in 1996, the first year of the split, and CART teams didn’t return to Indianapolis until 2000 when Ganassi arrived with JPM and Jimmy Vasser. Zanardi probably would have raced Indy in 2002 with the Mo Nunn team had he not had his near-fatal Lausitzring crash in 2001, because Zanardi’s teammate Tony Kanaan did race at Indy in ’02 for Nunn. It bites that Zanardi and Greg Moore never got to race there…

Good article in general though…

Douglas
05/22/2009 08:02 AM
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You know?

That is one fine article you wrote.

Well rounded, very well summed up!

KUDOS!

Ed
05/22/2009 08:56 AM
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Good article. I agree that more fans should sample Indy Car. They actually race in that series. No sitting back and gathering points. Often its side by side lap after lap coming dangerously close to touching. As for NASCAR, shorter weekends would be great for fans and teams. I think they should qualify and run on race setups, all on the same day. Qualify in the morning, race in the afternoon. Start the race on qualifying tires and limit the number of tires used during the race. Throw out the awful COT and the wind tunnel. Race with the body configuration the manufacturer gives them.

Joe D'Antoni
05/22/2009 09:05 AM
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No offense Ed, but have you watched many IRL oval races in the last couple of years?

The racing you describe, and I remember from 2003-05, had devolved into mind-numbing follow the leader parades with no passing and .5 second gaps between cars. Give me NA$CAR at Darlington any day over that.

Their road course races are actually more interesting, because the lower budget teams can compete, without all of the super high $$ oval parts.

dawg
05/22/2009 09:41 AM
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If NA$CAR is still a viable marketing vehicle for US auto makers. That’s a pretty sad commentary on the consumers. If 50’ technology, in an IROC car works. Then maybe the stereotypes of NA$CAR fans are true after all. The only thing that might actually work is that fans should tend to be car guys. I remember when the IRL had multiple engine suppliers. The GM engine was so pathetically outclassed that they had to shop it out to Cosworth to get it competitive. Cosworth at the time was still a part of Ford.

Douglas
05/22/2009 12:54 PM
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Hey Joe D’Antoni,

WOW! Where did you come from, a cave or something?

For the past several years, it is actually FRIGHTENING to watch the Indy Cars on ovals!

Wheel to wheel, at times touching, nose to tail sometimes touching, 3 wide (where three wide is actually DANGEROUS), and two, three, four cars ALL racing for the lead, all race long!

I have seen it in person, I have watched it on TV!

And my friend it is FRIGHTENING!

And I am not talking racing those big stupid hunks of metal called the CoT!

I am talking REAL RACE CARS, OPEN WHEEL RACE CARS, AND FAST RACE CARS!

Not that watered down version of Stock Car Racing called NA$CRAP!

Indy Cars! REAL RACE CARS, REAL DRIVERS, REAL DANGER, REAL COMPETITION!

Oh, and at an Indy car race, the FASTEST CARS qualify, not some knee jerk system where LAST YEARS POINTS entitle you to a starting position ahead of FASTER CARS that have been sent home!

What a friggin joke!

keith
05/22/2009 04:19 PM
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Na$car and the goverment could solve most of the problems with mandating that cars run on Hydroxy which is water. This would solve alot of problems first it would stop alot of pollution so Al Gore can stop crying about global warming. It would stop us from buying foreign oil so the $$$ would stop flowing out of the country and help the trade defict. It would help make the middle east counties go broke which means they can’t afford to fund terrorists. Which means we can bring our troops home and let them starve over there. Then you tell the car companies that their profits will be tax free for 20 years if they build the cars in the USA this will save the automakers and give us our jobs back. Since Hydroxy is more 3X more powerful than gasoline you will use less but it don’t matter its just water. Also you would not have to redesign the car engines the ones we have now will work just fine with it. If you don’t belive it just Google the word Hydroxy and see for yourself.

Sean
05/22/2009 04:47 PM
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Douglas,

Conquest Racing pulling Bruno Junqueira for Alex Tagliani was understandable due to sponsorship issues, even though Junqueira is the better driver, but it is still as lame as any NASCAR move (like people buying their way into the field literally). So no, really it isn’t quite the fastest 33 cars, at least this year. I am however in more of an IndyCar mood than a NASCAR mood of late…

Carl D.
05/23/2009 08:06 AM
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Good article. I’ve been a Nascar fan for most of my 50 years, and I haven’t watched an Indy race since the days of Rick Mears. However, I’m gonna take your adice and watch the Indy 500 tomorrow. Then I’m gonna watch the Coca-Cola 500. The lady of the house is gonna really be pissed at me spending the day on the sofa, though…

Douglas
05/23/2009 04:23 PM
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Hey Shaun, good point, but that was a team move, not an orgaization move. And a minor hiccup here and there has happened since the IRL really got rolling.

BUT the IRL has none of the SOAP OPERA DRAMA, WEEK IN, AND WEEK OUT, such as NA$CRAP!

There are many things the IRL does not do correctly, but they are minor in scope when compared to the total of the whole!

How about the BIG one when NA$CRAP GAVE JR. the win at Talledega one year, all because NA$CRAP
didn’t want to “upset the Jr. fans in the stands”, per NA$CRAP’S admission a day later!

Sean
05/24/2009 01:52 AM
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Yeah, NASCAR’s had two or three controversial finishes the past five years or so where you can argue the wrong guy won (Junior’s “win” at Michigan and Stewart’s “win” at Talladega were certainly both jokes). The only controversial call in the last five years in the IRL was last year at Detroit when Castroneves was ordered to pull over for Wilson, and that was probably in response to the non-call from the year before when the IRL didn’t penalize Kanaan at Sears Point in ’07 when he was blocking for Franchitti to give him the championship…again, though, that’s just typical AGR antics, not really a problem with the officiating…

I’m disappointed that too many mediocre drivers are on the premier teams (especially AGR), and I’d rather see Road America and Cleveland and Michigan and Phoenix instead of St. Pete and Toronto and Kansas and Homestead, but those are all problems with the merger that will be fixed with time. IRL obviously has nothing to do with AGR’s hires, and they could only pick up the Champ Car races that were on IRL off weekends at first; I do understand that. I know I just have to be patient…