NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Manufacturer Involvement in NASCAR – Hanging On By a Thread

Should Brian France ever relinquish his title of Grand Poobah of NASCAR, he would probably have a successful career as a modern day politician.

He has managed the delicate task of alienating both the base – the core NASCAR fan who had been tuning in since Brett Bodine was behind the wheel of Kenny Bernstein’s Buick and not the pace car – as well as putting off and confusing potential new fans and supporters – the casual fan who flips back and forth between whatever NFL games are on to watch the last few laps of a stock car race. Having already successfully moved past an incident (allegedly) involving drinking and driving, he has been politicking heavily the last few months, reminding everyone why the Chase was such a brilliant concept and why it is such a good idea.

Mainly because it was his.

Meanwhile, a quick look at the current points standings will show that under the traditional system, Jimmie Johnson would hold a tenuous 56-point lead over Carl Edwards this Sunday; not the nearly insurmountable 141-point God-I-hope-it-cranks-over advantage he holds now. This has been part of his stump speech over the last 10 weeks, however he now has some damage control to do over something much more serious and important than cars going around in a circle in Florida; cars going forward down an assembly line in Michigan. Or Mexico.

Or wherever they’re making them these days.

As the Big Three automakers are coming to the nation’s capital, hat in hand, asking for desperately needed operating cash, the very real possibility looms that these titans of industry may not be able to help sustain the sport that it has a symbiotic relationship with since its post-war inception in 1948. Brian France however is confident that NASCAR will be just fine without them should the unthinkable happen. I know NASCAR has always held the stance with its drivers that, “We can live without you, but can you live without NASCAR?” but this is not one of those times. While there may be some similarities – wars taking place over 10,000 miles around the globe, political turmoil, a bevy of new high horsepower cars built amid spiking energy costs, and guys with stupid haircuts – these are not the early 1970s.

Back then, manufacturers yanked most of their support from virtually every racing series, and NASCAR was no exception. They were able to muddle through the dark malaise that was that miserable decade, but it wasn’t until the manufacturers jumped back in with both feet in the early 1980s that NASCAR made the next transition to a viable national sport. In this less than vibrant economy, putting on the year-long spectacle that is NASCAR is not cheap. Who sponsors many of these races? Ford Motor Company is sponsoring Ford Championship Weekend a few days from now in Homestead. Ever watched the Chevy Rock ‘N’ Roll 400? Heard of the Dodge Challenger 500? And guess who helps foot the bill for wind tunnel time and develops these new engines for the teams to use?

NASCAR has always prided itself that its fans are the most brand loyal bunch in all the land, purchasing from those who support their sport. Nobody supports NASCAR more than the Big Three, and no other sport is driven as much by brand identity. The manufacturer rivalries were every bit as much a part of the sport as was the jockeying for position by its drivers. No, it isn’t quite like what it used to be – now all of the cars look the same except for some headlight stickers and corporate emblem decals – but somebody still has to make that Blue Oval or Dodge Ram actually mean something that fans can identify with.

Would Dale Earnhardt have risen to the level of popularity he did driving a Nissan? Richard Petty became the King while driving a Plymouth, not a Peugeot.

France (Brian, not the country) has offered his assistance to the automakers without actually spelling out any specifics, and was equally vague about how teams would be assisted with his promised help. While the situation facing the Detroit automakers and their employees is a dire one, it’s no less perilous than that faced by you or I and millions of other Americans today. With any luck, this situation will find a way to work itself out for the best, otherwise, manufacturer involvement or even NASCAR as we know it may become little more than another causality of the worldwide economic meltdown of 2008.

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