At Daytona in February, Mark Martin made his debut for Ginn Racing by winning the Daytona 500…but losing the Daytona 505 by little more than one foot. Many argue that he got worked out of it by NASCAR’s controversial decision to not throw the yellow flag for a crash off turn four until after the checkered flew. Not one to dwell on the past, Martin took the momentum from that run and put it to work, reeling off a series of impressive runs in what used to be Joe Nemechek's car. Nemechek was now driving the No. 13, a team that was hastily assembled following Martin's arrival to expand Ginn Racing into a three car arsenal for 2007. It was a move that should have led to on-track success…if only there were the money to fund it.
At first, expansion and success for Ginn this season brought a basic form of respect along with it. What once was a decent 2nd-tier Cup operation was suddenly contending for wins and possibly even championships after only a few short months under Bobby Ginn's ownership. While Martin balked at the notion of making yet another title run, his co-pilot Regan Smith had quietly ascended as far as fifth in Busch Series points, one of only a handful of true Busch drivers and teams in the Top 10 of the series standings. All three of Ginn’s Nextel Cup teams found themselves locked solidly within the Top 35 in owner points, making qualifying each weekend a breeze rather than a hair-raising experience. No doubt, it appeared this was an organization that looked to be on the upswing.
Now comes word this week that things aren't as rosy as they were even a couple of months ago.
Panasonic was on Marlin's car for the California race as the primary sponsor, and has also made appearances at a handful of other events this year… but they won’t be appearing anymore. What looked like a solid sponsorship deal has suddenly fizzled, along with Nemechek’s association with Haier, a Chinese sponsor. A rough outing Saturday night in Daytona left Nemechek in 30th, leaving his best run this season a struggling ninth-place finish at the Daytona 500. After failing to qualify for Bristol in April, Nemechek still sits within the Top 35 in owner points, but, at 33rd, his team’s coming tantalizingly close to falling out.
In the meantime, the green No. 14 car currently driven by Sterling Marlin is sitting 28th in points but has only mustered a best finish this year of 13th at Darlington. Rumors swirl that Marlin will be abdicating that ride to drive as a teammate to Kenny Wallace next year in a 2nd Furniture Row entry, cutting back to a limited schedule. With the regularity that Kenny Wallace does not qualify for races in the No. 78, that schedule could become really limited should Marlin make the move; nonetheless, it’s becoming increasingly clear his full-time days of driving with Ginn may be numbered.
Smith's No. 4 entry, who for the majority of the year has been carrying sponsorship of the owner's resorts in the Busch Series, sounds as if it isn't long for the racing world as well; as of Monday, Ginn Racing had suspended operations with the team. As one of the few true Busch teams left out there, that is truly heartbreaking, a blow to both the spirit and integrity of the series. It also serves to deny Smith some much needed seat time, time he needs as he prepares to undertake a full-time Cup ride in the not-too-distant future.
Even with the shortcomings of the No. 13 and No. 14 Cup teams at times, it is truly hard to understand how this bunch is struggling to find sponsorship. From the outside, this operation has all of the groundwork laid to make the transition from feel-good story of the year to perennial contender.
Just take a look at the basic personnel. Jay Frye is one of the most savvy executives in motorsports, adept enough to put together a package attractive enough for Martin to bid farewell to both Roush and Ford. You have three experienced Cup drivers who, combined, have over 50 years of experience at the top level. Marlin has two Daytona 500 wins to his rÃ©sumÃ© and was in line to win the Winston Cup in 2002 until a broken neck with seven races to go sidelined him. Martin's career and championship exploits in NEXTEL Cup are well known and much lamented, while Joe Nemechek has been a fixture in the series for over a decade. Factor in two brilliant crew chiefs in Ryan Pemberton and Peter Sospenzo, coupled with Hendrick horsepower, and the whole organization looks mighty stout.
Even after missing five races due to his semi-retirement, Martin is still mathematically capable of qualifying for the Chase in the flagship No. 01 Army car, which is still ranked solidly in the Top 10 in owner's points. While that might not do much to help comfort Marlin and Nemechek, it does point out that this group has what it takes to put it all together.
They just need some money.
As much as NASCAR has become part of the American lexicon and culture, the fact is that many of the decision-makers that sign the checks, STILL don't know Jack S..err…Roushâ€¦about motorsports. As Robert Yates was meeting with potential investors for his race teams in New York a few months ago, the thing that struck him the most was "these people don't know anything about racing." Following that eye-opener, Yates has since abandoned any notion of taking on a partner.
Roush Fenway President Geoff Smith came to the same conclusion while entertaining other investors recently who have come calling, saying, "I didn't really see how they were going to be able to benefit us in any way."
In a series that has stood to rival the NFL in viewership and dominates all other sports as far as attendance and fan loyalty are concerned, you'd think there would be more than say, FOUR people in the collective marketing departments of these corporate enclaves, who follow NASCAR, understand the sport, and can pick a team who has all the ingredients to become an unqualified success. These are, after all, some of the brightest people in advertising, right?
Having previously been associated with a manufacturing firm, it always struck me why at the time they never sponsored a top-tier race team with national network television exposure. For an organization that made no bones about their efforts to cater to women, you would think that they may have used the opportunity to reach out to a fan base of that enjoys a demographic of over 40% of the tender gender. Instead, they opted to focus on bicycle racing.
As compelling as biker shorts and helmets that resemble gigantic athletic supporters are, perhaps the NASCAR alternative would have been a better avenue in which to market their products. Especially while Carl Edwards was desperately seeking sponsorship. Unfortunately, the company didn’t agree; and they’re not the only ones avoiding NASCAR sponsorship like the plague.
While NEXTEL Cup ratings have begun to cool as of late and the attendance for Busch and Truck races resemble the crowds at a Hall & Oates reunion tour, the absence of sponsors for the Ginn Racing teams could not have come at a worse time. In my opinion, Bobby Ginn's operation will be wildly successful if they can just acquire some much needed capital from somewhere other than Ginn's back pocket or his AmEx Black Card. I have always maintained that the parallels between he and Rick Hendrick stretch far beyond their engine leasing agreement, and am confident that time will prove me right.
However, there are also a few other old racing adages that sound trite and out of date, but still ring true: Race cars that are green or carry number 13 are doomed to failure, and race cars run on money, not gasoline. For the sake of Joe Nemechek, Regan Smith, and the employees at Ginn Racing, let's hope the former two are proved wrong, and that they thread their way through what has become a harsh economic reality…before it’s too late.
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