Like most of you, I’m sure, I’m tired of hearing about the economy. I know the American economy is a mess right now and a lot of people are hurting. I ain’t smart enough to know what to do to fix it; but hopefully, our President-elect is smart enough to sort it out. For right now, I’m just along for the ride. After years of reliable and sometimes even spectacular growth, my 401K plan is in shambles. I don’t even open the statements anymore; I burn ’em in the wood pellet stove. Hopefully, in a year or two, I’ll open one and the news will be better – because I’ve lost too much to bail out now.
Things have gotten grim enough that the economy is beginning to have severe effects on NASCAR racing, the once self-proclaimed “fastest growing sport in America.” The veracity of that boast can be debated, but things were indeed looking pretty good there for a while. Every year seemed to bring new teams and sponsors into all of the three top touring series, and car manufacturers were spending more and more on their NASCAR racing programs. New tracks were being built and new dates were added to the schedule. Folks like me who noted a lot of longtime sponsors were heading for the door were simply labeled alarmists. But the ante was up at the table, and those with smaller pockets were being displaced by those with deeper pockets. They said it was the same with the race dates. Older, rural tracks with less amenities were being replaced by palaces of speed as NASCAR tried to appeal to better healed fans rather than its longtime fans. Judging by the number of empty seats and declining TV ratings, my guess is NASCAR would dearly love to have some of those lost longtime fans back, even if they do still express their incomes in “dollars per hour.”
As most of us learned at our mama’s knees, “What goes up must come down” and “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” The NASCAR behemoth has stumbled badly this year “on account o’ the economy,” to borrow a phase from the Boss. And I don’t think the tumble is going to get any prettier anytime soon. When the working men and women of this country are struggling to stay current on their mortgages and not allow their cars to be repossessed while being drowned in a tsunami of credit card debt, they’re not exactly hoping to upgrade their seats for next year’s Daytona 500. In fact, such luxury and entertainment spending is often the first thing chopped from a family’s budget. And since track owners force fans to send in the funds right now if they want to attend races next year, it makes me feel that there’s going to be a lot of empty seats in the grandstands in ’09, even if Divine Intervention were to fix the economy overnight.
With the credit crunch and even companies that are on relatively solid footing financially reacting warily to spending increases, sponsorship is tough enough to get in the Cup garage. Several notable Cup teams including DEI, Yates Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and the Wood Brothers are in trouble, desperately seeking sponsors for next year late in the game. I mean, come on! The Wood Brothers? They were racing back before there was a NASCAR. Even some of the stronger teams that had been planning to add new teams next year have scaled back their plans.
Some insiders claim that only 35 teams might show up for some Cup races next year; others argue that it could be as few as 30 full-time teams. The notion of less than full fields in the Cup series when routinely five to 10 teams were sent home after qualifying a few years back is worrisome.
If things are grim in the Cup garage, things in the Nationwide garage border on apocalyptic. The litany of bad news arriving from that side of the fence makes recent issues of the Wall Street Journal look like Mad magazine. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is cutting back from two cars to one full-time effort and a part time team due to lack of sponsorship. His driver, Brad Keselowski, is currently highest in the Nationwide Series among full-time competitors. If the biggest name in NASCAR can’t secure sponsorship, that doesn’t leave a lot of hope for the smaller teams.
Bobby Hamilton Jr. recently spent $380,000 of his own money to keep Team Rensi afloat for the final three races of the season in an effort to save the team. If they are not successful, with a couple of good results, he has a chance to earn a ride somewhere else next season. Roush Racing was unable to find sponsorship to run a full-time Nationwide Series effort with current CTS pilot Erik Darnell, so Darnell and David Ragan will each run part-time for a Roush Nationwide team next year. Rusty Wallace Inc. will cut back from two teams to one next year. Ford has already announced they’ll cut back their involvement with the Nationwide series next year. GM, faced with a 45% fall in sales last month (45%! It wasn’t that many years ago a Harvard Business School student writing that in their opinion GM could lose 45% in monthly sales in a year wouldn’t have just failed, he’d have been expelled!) will likely do the same soon. Fitz Motorsports has been sued this year by a couple former drivers who say they are owed back wages. Their hauler was seized as an asset towards those lawsuits. The news is so relentlessly terrible and downbeat from that side of the garage area one has to wonder if the Nationwide Series can run as a viable entity next year, or whether it will be on life support as a Saturday hobby for the Cup drivers and team owners.
Well, NASCAR needs the Nationwide Series not only to survive, but to flourish as a developmental stepping stone for talented new drivers not yet ready to break into the Cup Series. Over recent years, the Busch/Nationwide Series might have become a Saturday playground for Cup drivers looking to earn some spare coin, but in its heyday, it fostered and developed drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
This year, the crowds at some Nationwide races have been downright pathetic, smaller than the crowds that used to attend some Cup qualifying sessions before the Top-35 rule rendered qualifying to a footnote. I can understand this trend. There are still some diehard NASCAR fans (God bless you all… seriously… your loyalty is keeping the lights on in NASCAR’s Daytona Beach headquarters), but even the diehards have to make some tough financial calls. A long race weekend with expensive hotel rooms, gas prices and restaurant meals has inflated beyond the budgets of a lot of fans. The true diehards may have decided they’re still going to attend a race or two but, rather than making a full weekend of it, they’ll only do the Cup race at the nearest local track. They’ll be up before dawn, stop for breakfast at Burger King, then head to the track with their lunches and beverages in a cooler. They’ll sit in less expensive seats and drive straight on home after the race to make work on Monday morning. My niece, working to pay for college as a waitress at a nice diner not far from the Pocono track, tells me that the diner’s race weekend traffic is less than half of what it used to be, but the line at the eat it and beat it drive-thru across the street often stretches around the block. Those who do have a sitdown meal are tipping markedly less.
If ratings and attendance continue to decline for the Nationwide Series, sponsorship will become still harder to find for the Saturday Series. That will lead to even less competitive teams and lighter fields which continues the downward spiral. While this year’s Nationwide Series fields are seemingly full, there a lot of drivers and teams who start the races and park after a few laps claiming that they’re having handling or ignition problems. Those teams have found they can haul an uncompetitive car to the track, be guaranteed a spot in the field due to lack of entrants, run a few laps then park and make more in purse money than they spent to be there. Some of those teams don’t even bring a pit crew to the races, knowing they’ll never run long enough to pit. That, dear readers, is not a good sign for the future of the series.
If there is a bright note it is even the dimbulbs at NASCAR still have enough left on the ball they’ve realized this is not the time to introduce the new “Car of Sorrow – The Nationwide Edition” to the sport. If they were to try, they’d be lucky to have a dozen teams shows up at the races next year.
There are positive changes NASCAR could make to the Nationwide Series to help it endure tough times. Race purses in the series need to be increased dramatically so a successful team wouldn’t be as dependent on a big corporate sponsor. The schedule needs to be shortened, and the plate races need to be dropped – the cost of a separate plate program and the likelihood of having all their “one trick pony” plate cars destroyed in a wreck are far too high. And more races need to be scheduled nearer to the team’s Southeastern homebase. If long distance travel is required to a track like California or Las Vegas, the race purse has to be increased to cover those travel expenses. Teams fielding Cup drivers currently in the top 25 on the Cup side should not be awarded points or purse money to benefit the true full-time teams.
Finally, and most importantly, it’s time for NASCAR to stop competing with the teams for corporate backing. We don’t need an official corn dog of NASCAR. Hell, we don’t even need an official beer of NASCAR. If those sponsors want to be involved with the sport, they can sponsor a racecar rather than lining NASCAR’s corporate pockets. And as for these “exclusivity” deal with series sponsors (Sprint, Nationwide, and Camping World starting next year), as we say here in Philly, “Fogeddaboudit.” It’s painful to see sponsors like AT&T, Alltel and GEICO forced out of the sport despite their willingness to back teams just because NASCAR signed some deal to their own benefit.
I truly feel the Nationwide Series is worth saving. Every race isn’t a classic, but the ratio of classics to clinkers is better in the Saturday series than in the Cup Series, most likely because the Saturday cars are the spiritual heirs of the “Car of Yesterday.” But if the series is survive the current economy, it’s time for NASCAR to pull its corporate head out of the sand and adjust to the new realities that challenge it.