The Frontstretch: "Red" Alert: The Death Of NASCAR’s Middle Class by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday June 21, 2011

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"Red" Alert: The Death Of NASCAR’s Middle Class

Thomas Bowles · Tuesday June 21, 2011


Behind closed doors, one can only imagine what Jay Frye must be feeling. The Vice President / General Manager of Red Bull Racing has spent over a dozen years as the benchmark of NASCAR’s middle class; building winning organizations from scratch, he’s living proof of how to succeed with half the resources and double the challenges. Riding the crest of a wave that peaked a few years back, his former team, Ginn Racing, once shocked the world by leading the points four races into the 2007 season with driver Mark Martin; in the process, they led the Daytona 500 until the final turn. No doubt, he’s capable of building a team that challenges for Victory Lane.

It’s just a matter of if he’ll have anything left to build.

Frye, along with former driver Martin are in the process of trying to survive for 2012, looking to acquire the assets of RBR after the company announced last weekend they’re leaving the sport. The news, while a surprise to some wasn’t to several insiders; Brian Vickers’ future with the organization had been in serious doubt, according to multiple sources (he’s a pending free agent) and there was no clear successor to Kasey Kahne for next season. Yes, Cole Whitt was in the development ranks, succeeding in the Truck Series but RBR had been there, done that in terms of bringing a young driver up too soon (see Allmendinger, A.J. and Speed, Scott). Sure, the team was in serious negotiations with Clint Bowyer, according to but others have said that’s not the superstar level they coveted; only Carl Edwards, a bona fide championship contender the second he signed on the dotted line could have whetted the appetite for a team whose Formula One driver, Sebastian Vettel holds a 161-101 lead in the driver standings. The stock car side, in comparison has fallen short, in position to miss the Chase for the fourth time in its five-year existence unless Kahne mounts a surprising summer rally.

But are things really so bad? Kahne has led 183 laps, good for 10th-best on the Cup circuit and earned a pole at Darlington. Vickers, coming off life-threatening blood clots that kept him out of a car for six months has five top-5 finishes in 14 starts. Not only have both cars contended in several races this year, but at tracks like Charlotte, Michigan, even Richmond they could sneak away with a victory. It’s clear, steady progress for an organization that spent their rookie season (2007) failing to qualify virtually every other race.

In the past, those small steps, even maintaining at slightly above average used to be perfect for Frye and Co., middle class organizations comfortable with a victory and enough top-10 finishes to keep their sponsors happy and healthily exposed. Knowing they’re not title contenders – after all, only so many can be within a field of 43 cars – simply picking their spots and working hard to move into the country club elite one day, building the team brick by brick was once the goal. All over the map, we saw two or three-car teams like RBR not just survive, but thrive once upon a time; Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Bill Davis Racing, Petty Enterprises. The list goes on.

But in 2011, the business model has changed, NASCAR: The Chase Era where simply having a B- season isn’t good enough. Teams are judged, then publicized by the bottom line, the number of “playoff appearances” they have and whether that justified the ballooning expense for these primary sponsors to keep appearing on the hood. And for the middle class, even with 12 positions available that’s just not an option they’re able to achieve all that often. For every year like 2009, RBR’s lone Chase appearance with Brian Vickers there’s seasons like this one, where the current 12-man field is comprised of just six organizations: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (with heavy Hendrick influence – they run Hendrick chassis and engines), and Penske Racing. With the exception of SHR’s fledgling two-car operation, you could title these remaining five the “upper class” – combined, they’ve taken 17 of the last 18 titles, 7 of the last 8 Brickyard 400s, and occupy roughly 40 percent of the 43-car grid.

So that leaves people like Frye faced with a double whammy; RBR, which builds its own chassis and gets engines from Toyota Racing Development is a step behind the country club elite and can’t nose into what’s become an overwhelming focus of the media, broadcasts, and general storyline: the Chase. During the final 10 races, missing out means the entire race team pulls a magic trick and becomes invisible; that makes executives none too happy, even a self-sponsored organization and all of a sudden, the middle class becomes dirt poor.

That gap in parity, once thought to only affect the single-car teams is now inching its way up the ladder. Even Stewart-Haas Racing, with its Chase acumen has zero victories this season and the No. 39, run by Ryan Newman is rumored to need some financial help for 2012. Richard Petty Motorsports, despite a successful comeback season from the brink ran Medallion Financial, the very company who saved it on the side of the No. 43 Ford at Pocono. JTG-Daugherty Racing, paired with veteran Bobby Labonte was once rumored to be expanding to two cars; now, come next season they’ll be lucky to still have just one.

It’s a troubling trend, the roots dying underneath the tree trunk while view at the top continues to click the word “ignore.” Perhaps that’s because, to an extent the desperation of the middle class means better business for them; if Red Bull is saved by the Frye/Martin duo, the Hendrick connections almost certainly mean a switch to Chevy and chassis/engine combinations delivered by HMS. That would leave them with an eight-car base, Chevy’s No. 1 behemoth with Roush Fenway’s Ford chassis/engine shop sitting at six. If you’re a new owner, looking to come in and build a program how in the world would you justify competing with that network? Even two cars could be crushed by the onslaught of information on the other side; that’s like trying to fight a nuclear bomb with a slingshot.

How much of these trends Red Bull was able to ascertain back in Austria is unclear. The only thing we know right now is they’re the tip of the iceberg, an uncertain summer ahead for a sport faced with a serious sustainability question as sponsors come up for renewal: how in the world do they rein in costs when their New York Yankees’-level competitors are still reining in the dough? Will new owners invest in a series where reaching the top level of success seems virtually impossible? And can the parity 20 cars, run by five teams, sustain fans’ interest while the rest of the grid gets filled in by junkyard dogs?

Like it or not, we may be about to find out unless executives like Frye can work their magic one more time. But more than ever, the odds are stacked against them.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Bill B
06/21/2011 07:29 AM

Yeah, the rich get richer. Why would anyone think NASCAR wouldn’t mirror the real world.
I’m not saying it’s a good thing but it always been that way and it always will.
I think the Chase has put pressure on teams and drivers that wasn’t previously there. This was predicted to be the case by many when the chase was first announced. Prior to the chase you kind of finished where you finished in the standings, one team was honored and received lots of press, and then you moved on to the new year. No one cared who finished 8th vs 15th. Now anyone that doesn’t make the chase might as well have LOSER painted on the hood of their car for the last 10 races (not that it would be seen on tv). That stigma was never there in the old days and I don’t think it’s a good thing when the life blood of the sport depends on sponsorship money and you need to field 43 cars.

Kevin from PA
06/21/2011 08:24 AM

Great. Two more start and park cars at each race next year.

I have always rooted for the underdog but those days are long gone in NASCAR. As the cars started to become less stock and races started to be won in the Engineering department, you could see that the small and now medium teams could never keep up with the big guys.

The Chase has not helped either. It seems Sponsor X would rather be a sticker on a top 10 driver’s quarter panel than sponsor an“also ran” for even a quarter of the season.

Way too late now but NASCAR should have limited AND ENFORCED the two-car-per-owner limit.

At this point, NASCAR should just realize that the Sprint Cup series is a rich owner’s league and reduce the teams down to 25. At least that would give the other series a chance (probably not though).

Daddy Wiltone
06/21/2011 08:49 AM

There will be a new series. It’s only a matter of time. And it wont look anything like the present one.

06/21/2011 10:01 AM

It seems that nascar has been making all the same mistakes that Indy cars…CART made back in the 80’s

06/21/2011 10:56 AM

To me this is more a problem with Red Bull and Toyota as a whole. They were really dumb for trying to go Cup racing in 2007 when they had to build 2 different cars. The execs in Austria thought they could go NASCAR racing like they did F-1, throw enough money at it and you will win. Hopefully, they can pick up the pieces there or Red Bull will stay in the sport as a sponsor of some team. However, they’re entry into the sport was poorly planned and they are paying the price.

06/21/2011 11:18 AM

If Frye tries it again, the result will be the same as the Ginn deal. Red Bull will sell the points to HMS and just become a sponsor for one of the Hendrick teams. This is just another in the series of full time sponsors pulling out. Its a whole lot easier and cheaper to advertise on the net and get more exposure. Remember even the NBA final game drew a 15.0 rating, and the highest race rating has been a ?
Writings on the wall folks.

06/21/2011 11:46 AM

All I can come up with is I agree. It’s a shame Red Bull is leaving. I’ve watched Mark Melling, Travis Carter, Andy Petree, Junie Donlavey, Cal Wells, Larry McClure, Bill Davis, Robert Yates Racing & Petty Enterprises fall. It’s sad and frustrating to see great teams just fall apart.

A few new teams tried to replace the dead teams. But Front Row, TRG, Tommy Baldwin, Germain, FAS Lane, & MAXQ are back in HAVE-NOT territory. NEMCO, HP, Whitney are in CAN-NOT territory. Robby Gordon’s team isn’t new, but he now finds himself in CAN-NOT land.

Furniture Row & Phoenix have been around for a while. With help from the big boys they have the opportunity to sneak in some surprise runs.

The sport is currently revolving around Roush, Hendrick & Toyota’s money. RCR seems like a top player too. And I don’t know what the solution is. Without their support the sport would crumble. But right now nobody can build up a team from scratch and compete.

Nick Doneilo
06/21/2011 02:52 PM

I’d still root for the ‘junkyard dogs’ as I always have. I never root for the big teams, ever! NEMCO, Baldwin, Finch, TRG, etc… are what this sport was built off of. I will root for them until they are no longer there. And it will be a sad day when that happens. I will no longer watch NASCAR if that ever happens as well.

06/21/2011 03:11 PM

I Guess red bulls got the European attitude “If at first you don’t succeed then …QUIT

Carl D.
06/21/2011 04:09 PM


It’s one thing to quit when you’re not willing to make the effort and the sacrifices it takes to succeed. It’s quite another to fold when the deck is stacked against you. The cost to field a competitive team coupled with declining ratings in Nascar means that mid-level sponsors aren’t getting enough bang for their buck. Red Bull is simply cutting their losses. They are, after all, a business.

06/21/2011 06:30 PM

I read that their money is going into the new F1 race in Austin. The city is balking at the cost.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters

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