Vito Pugliese · Wednesday April 15, 2009
Everything old is new again.
A tired and trite saying, to be sure, but it could be applied to NASCAR lately. Since we are coming off of Easter weekend, maybe now is a good time to get all biblical on you. Relax, I am not here to judge or preach; after all, what do I know? If you don’t want to hear it from me, heed the words of King Solomon who wrote:
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new?”
It has been already in the ages before us. Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 – Verses 1-10.
Case in point, the perilous predicament of two US auto manufacturers’ involvement with NASCAR. A few weeks ago I foretold the possible forfeiture of half of the field should General Motors and Chrysler not right a ship that is listing to the point of capsizing. Truth be told, General Motors and Mother Mopar are not doing much worse comparatively to the general media’s favorite manufacturer, Toyota. While GM sales are down 45% for the month of March from a year ago, Chrysler faired a bit better at 39% – since they are giving away trucks at 50% off. And the Dodge Challenger looks totally bad ass. Almighty Toyota isn’t fairing much better, with a 37% drop in sales form a year ago. However, they have a bit more breathing room than two of the Big Three US automakers.
Haven’t we seen this before though?
Case in point for Chrysler, the late 1970s and early 80s. Back then, manufacturer involvement was tepid at best. It was the end of the large-car era, and there were gasoline shortages, price spikes, sky-high taxes, and rising unemployment. The US auto industry was in about as good of shape as a Somali pirate with a .308 trained on his melon…and a Navy SEAL on the other end of it. Fast forward about 30 years and here we go again. The cars are big and ugly, and Chrysler is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy and insolvency. At least that abomination known as the Dodge Magnum had not reared its ugly misshapen head on racetracks as it did in the late 1970s; what a slug that thing was. This time however, the prospects for recovery are even dimmer than before during the dark days of disco, Dallas, and Dukes of Hazzard.
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. Chapter 1 – Verse 15
Chrysler is out of options as a company in its position for the most part. They have until the end of the month to be merged with Italian automaker Fiat (Fix It Again Tony), or liquidate its assets in bankruptcy. Unlike General Motors, Chrysler lacks the leverage to reorganize with its remaining pieces as GM claims it can. Being in the precarious position it is, funneling millions of dollars to pay for racecars that bear next to zero resemblance to what are languishing on dealer lots will most likely be frowned upon by the new Italian investor or the bankruptcy courts.
Good thing NASCAR opted to ignore manufacturers’ fears of lack of brand identity with the Car of Tomorrow. That seems to have worked out well.
Aesthetics aside, the cold hard fact remains the same at the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series levels as it does at your local short track or dirt oval. If there is no money to support these efforts – no matter how aggressively it is argued as a viable marketing tool – the engines will fall silent at some point for the Dodge teams, just eight short years after a triumphant return to the pinnacle of motorsports.
The Chevrolet teams face a similar fate. While there is no other investor looking to buy into the world-wide symbol of capitalism and American manufacturing might, the United States Treasury Department has as of just this past week, instructed General Motors to prepare for a bankruptcy filling for the time being, should their plan for economic recover be rebuffed. That doesn’t exactly sound like a vote of confidence. That is akin to Jack Roush telling David Ragan to have a large cardboard box ready just in case he doesn’t win a race by the end of the year. Whether you are a fan of Shivvys or not, the prospect of NASCAR without representation from General Motors just seems wrong.
More than that, it might not function the same either. Say what you will, but The General pumps a lot of money into the sport and helps it to operate and thrive in the manner in which we have been accustomed to.
One could make the argument that much of this has happened before. In 1972, gas prices were sky high, we were involved in a war 10,000 miles away that we had been embroiled in for over seven years, a general malaise had begun to set in around the country, and manufacturer involvement in NASCAR had been reduced to a bare minimum. Back then it was due to the nature of the auto industry – big horsepower Detroit iron was felled by fuel costs, rising insurance and emission controls. Pouring millions into a sport to market cars that may foster socially unacceptable behavior was rejected, and a bit of air had seeped form the excitement balloon.
But the show did go on. The difference this time is there might not be any coming back from it.
This is a much different sport than it was in 1972 or the early 1980s. There is much more money involved, more companies involved, and the future of the country is at stake. Take a look around – half of the nation’s automotive and manufacturing capacity hangs in the balance. When you consider the millions of jobs that stand to disappear overnight, along with the associated suppliers, vendors, transportation services, as well as one state in particular (the one that I happen to live in) that will be devastated by such an event, considering how a bunch of cars going around in a circle may be affected pales in comparison, and seems almost silly to consider.
However, the two are now very much intertwined – even more so than back in the heyday of factory involvement and support. NASCAR has become part of the American conscious; this is no longer an underground niche sport celebrated by a few rabid fans who like to swill beer and camp in the mud all weekend. This is a corporation that has built its foundation on the back of the American car market.
NASCAR is no longer just a sport; it is a multi-billion dollar industry that thousands depend on for a livelihood – not just entertainment.
Moreover, if Dodge and Chevrolet aren’t there to compete, how long will Toyota or Ford remain committed to NASCAR? Toyota is often cited as having an “open check book” when it comes to auto racing, but with sales plunging nearly 40% in the midst of a global economic downturn, where is their motivation to continue in a series where they have been branded the “bad guy” for the most part? Ford turned down the government’s offer for bailout money a couple of months back and for good reason. Hey, I’m Italian; I’ve seen The Godfather movies – why hang yourself with own rope?
If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. Chapter 11 – Verses 3-4
What is different this time around is that for those directly involved with NASCAR as well as their respective arms of Chrysler and General Motors, there is nothing more they can do about it or could have done differently that would have made a difference. They have done all they can at this point, and are at the mercy of the United States government. Some may see that as a boon – the Treasury Secretary has evaded taxes and the IRS announced Tuesday that Washington would be sympathetic to those who cannot pay their taxes this year.
Others can only shake their head in disbelief: This is really what it has come to – the very fabric of America may soon be up for auction, like so many shocks, springs, gears, and transmissions after a race team shuts their doors and scuttles the operation to the highest bidder.
Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. Chapter 11 – Verses 7-8
NASCAR without the involvement or presence of both General Motors and Chrysler may soon become meaningless as well. God help us.
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