The economy in the United States, and for that matter around the world, has taken a drastic downturn during the past NASCAR Cup season. The resulting struggles of teams trying to acquire sponsorship have already been well documented. The massive layoffs that many predicted to befall the Cup garage this past Monday did not fully materialize, but there are certainly a large number of team members who are looking for work today. From Hall of Fame racing to Hendrick Motorsports, teams are being forced to reduce their workforces during these lean times. While it is certainly painful for the people now unemployed and the persons making the decisions to let them go, it very well might be the kind of sensibility check that will make the sport better in the long run.
NASCAR has been riding high on the hog for better than 20 years, and has been immune to the most recent downturns in the economy that have caused many others to have to tighten their belts. While production jobs have been eliminated from auto manufacturers and others involved with the automotive industry over that time, the teams in the Cup garage have expanded and been continuing to spend extravagantly on all of the bells and whistles that may not be all that necessary to make a race car go fast. This downturn however is different. The big money sponsors that have been so anxious to get on the hood of Cup cars are not as numerous as they have been in the past. Teams that were able to pick and choose which company they wanted on the front of the car, are now showing up, hat in hand, to try and cobble together the money that they feel they need to run a top level organization.
There is no doubt that running a car in the top levels of stock car racing is a very expensive prospect, but teams are now going to be forced to work smarter, and not necessarily harder, to get their cars to the front. Teams would be well served to look at Yates racing to see how to make a lot with a little. Yates racing fielded two cars for the entire Cup season, often without the benefit of sponsorship, with a staff that hovered around 70 employees for the whole year. 70 people were putting two cars on the track every week and sometimes running near the front of the pack. They weren’t competing for wins, but they were both solidly in the Top 35 for the majority of the season.
In sharp contrast, the Wood Brothers have nearly 300 employees in their shop. They do run a Truck Series team, and they helped JTG Daugherty Racing with their Nationwide Series cars, but they only fielded one Cup car. With more than four times the number of employees that Yates had fielding two cars. Similarly, Hendrick Motorsports has more than 500 employees fielding their four cars in the Cup series. That’s over 125 people per car, 55 more than Yates is using to field two cars. Certainly there is a price for success, and Hendrick has been the benchmark organization in the Cup series for years. But even Hendrick has not been immune and have announced that at least a handful of employees were let go after the end of the season.
NASCAR racing has become big business, although at this point it may have become too big for its own britches. Teams traveling on company owned jets, pit crews flying in the day of the race, drivers and crew chiefs staying in multi-million dollar motorhomes at the track, all of those things are a long way from the roots of the sport that used to see people drive their car to the track, race it, and then drive it home. Progress is a good thing, and prosperity is without a doubt a benefit of doing something right that people enjoy and are willing to pay for. However, the number of people willing to pay to see it, and also the number of people willing to assist in putting on the show, are now shrinking. The teams in the garage are going to be forced to adjust their ways, or risk spending themselves out of the sport.
Does every team need a seven-post rig? Probably not, although the new ban on testing is going to make those machines even more important. Should crew members be making six-figure salaries? Maybe, maybe not. The sport of stock car racing is like all other economic entities, and it is all based on supply and demand. The people who are the best at what they do will be in demand and that limited supply of talent can draw the biggest salaries in the sport. Unfortunately for the people who are the best at what they do, the amount of money that people are willing to pay for that talent is going to be less than it used to be. The $120,000 front-tire changer from 2008 may very well only be able to bring home $90,000 in 2009. That is still a hell of a lot of money for 38 weekends of work a year. Yes those people practice every day, work out like professional athletes, and have to sacrifice time away from their families to be in the sport they love. Unfortunately, they’re going to have to decide if the job is still worth it making 25% less than they were last year.
Even in today’s tough economy, the people who are going to be working in NASCAR are going to be well paid to do what they do, just not as well paid as they were. When push comes to shove, they’re a select few who are doing jobs that thousands of other people would gladly sacrifice to get the chance to do, for a lot less money. Owners of Cup teams are going to have to look long and hard at all of their expenditures during the off season, and make some tough decisions about what is really necessary to run in the Cup series. When its all said and done, we very well may see 35 cars on the track some race weekends, and some people who used to work in Cup taking jobs changing tires at the local Goodyear retailer because the time commitment to be part of a Cup team doesn’t justify the amount of money that can be made.