My, how times have changed. Earlier this year, NASCAR seemed poised to propose allowing teams almost unlimited testing dates for next season. Then, the economy hit the skids, and a week and a half ago a new policy was announced instead that will ban all Cup teams from testing at all – at least, on tracks that hold NASCAR-sanctioned races. Effective January 1st, 2009, the really stunning part of this announcement was that the traditional preseason tests in preparation for the Daytona 500 are also included on the list. It wasn’t that many years ago that NASCAR was trying to market those weeks as a “Must See” fan event, with driver meet and greets intended to eliminate the T. Wayne Roberts charity event at Charlotte where fans lined up to get a look at the new season’s cars in their race livery and gather a few autographs.
As one of NASCAR’s harshest critics (or at least one of its harshest critics in the media), I have to give credit where credit is due. In this instance, I think the powers that be made a decision with the best of intentions. There’s no doubting that all of us, from the fans right on up to the top team owners, are living in tough economic times right now. I’m not smart enough to know if the U.S. economy is in recession or on the brink of depression, but I know from the stock market to the supermarket the average American is frightened right now, possessing a rather gloomy view of the future ahead. I know the Big Three automakers are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; and in a worst case scenario, if all three were to fail, one in 10 Americans would be added to the rolls of the unemployed. A lot of big-name race teams are at risk of going out of business – especially with sponsorship money so hard to find right now and so many teams looking for backing. It doesn’t help that the spending on the Cup side of the garage area has gone insane, because reality is finally intruding its ugly little head into matters.
On the face of it all, you’d think eliminating testing will save teams millions of dollars a year and help them get by with limited or reduced spending – and that’s a good thing. But as I reflect further on the testing ban, I have my concerns. First and foremost, I am aware it’s going to put an awful lot of hard-working men and women who work for Cup teams out of a job. Last Monday was termed “Black Monday” in Mooresville, as a lot of employees of even the top teams learned that despite their best efforts, the end of the 2008 season also meant the end of their employment. I am mindful that these are real men and women who have been receiving decent paychecks and using them to raise families, pay mortgages and make car payments. Now, through no fault of their own they are suddenly out of work, and with the current unemployment rate and almost all teams cutting back, they have limited opportunities to find employment at the Cup level or even working for a Nationwide or Truck series team.
Most of these smart, skilled and hard-working folks shown the door were people who chased their dreams relentlessly to make it to the top level of this sport. You or I might not know their names, but we see their accomplishments in an era where small block engines akin (except in the case of Toyotas) to what we drove on the streets in the ’70s can routinely rev to 9,500 rpm and hurtle boxy stock cars to speeds over 200 mph. Maybe some of them will find work as mechanics at local repair shops and dealerships, but only at greatly diminished rates of pay. At least those fortunate ones will have jobs…
Of course, things have gotten out of hand when the big teams have “testing teams” never intended to field entries in the Cup Series, but solely to develop and experiment with new cars and ideas for the real Cup teams. Testing is hideously expensive, and it’s time even guys like Roush and Hendrick sober up and realize spending at the Cup level has gotten totally out of hand. But that doesn’t change my concern for a fellow who worked hard and did a good job suddenly having to walk into his home he has a 30-year mortgage on after parking his heavily-financed pickup truck to tell his pregnant wife he is unexpectedly unemployed and not sure what to do next. I’ve been there. Despite doing my best, I lost a once good-paying job when the internet bubble burst, and it sucked. I feel nothing but empathy for the newly unemployed. And as a side note here, I want to remind those of you reading this that sudden and unexpected unemployment isn’t solely a NASCAR issue. It’s an issue hitting folks in our neighborhoods hard as well. Among those suddenly “unemployed” are our brave soldiers returning from a war fought on two fronts, many with dehabilitating injuries that have changed their lives forever. If you are fortunate enough to still have a job, you need to consider tightening your belt another notch to give to charities that support our wounded GIs, as well as those that will give the less fortunate a decent Thanksgiving dinner or a few toys for children who might not otherwise have gifts this Christmas.
I am also concerned the testing ban is going to have unintended consequences on and off the racetrack. This season has been dominated by three super-teams that are still sitting flush with solid sponsorships, proven race-winning cars and large budgets. As such, I fear the testing ban could allow the Big Three (Gibbs, Roush and Hendrick) to exploit their financial strength to further distance themselves from the “best of the rest” or perhaps, given the current economic climate, “the best of what’s left.” Roush and Hendrick have previously considered and proposed building test tracks for their organizations, and can still afford to do so. Zoning considerations might keep them from developing such test tracks at their current locations, but there’s nothing stopping them from building them somewhere out in the wilderness of Wyoming -especially considering they can afford to truck test cars and fly test personnel out there. If the Big Three don’t control their spending, this could be a classic example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Even lacking private test tracks, the big organizations have a decided advantage over the smaller teams with their seven-post shaker rigs, computer simulations, and wind-tunnel time that aren’t limited under the testing ban. The big multi-car teams also already have the advantage of sharing notes between several teams. I’d hate to see this sport dominated by three teams and their satellite organizations, even while storied teams like Petty Engineering and the Wood Brothers fall by the wayside – leaving unemployed workers in their wake and traditional fans like me heartsick. But it’s a distinct possibility.
I also have concerns for the next crop of rookie drivers. Unlike the old days, when freshmen earned their stripes running for lesser funded teams and even had a couple of years to get up to speed once they signed on with a big organization, nowadays, rookies are expected to run competitively from the get-go. And to be able to run with the big dogs, rookies have traditionally been able to do more testing to get themselves acclimated to the new cars and tracks where they will be competing. The testing ban is going to hamper that effort, and if I was Joey Logano right now, I’d be sweating bullets. The same goes for the new teams of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who have to enter next year’s Daytona 500 with limited track time. Teams and drivers need time to get acclimated to each other, and the less opportunity they have to spend together before the season starts paying points makes it a steeper mountain to climb if they experience early trouble.
I also have concerns on how the testing ban is going to affect the quality of racing we as fans see next year. None of the Big Three teams, much less the smaller outfits, seem to have their arms completely around the Car of Sorrow quite yet. Instead, everybody is still trying to sort out what these cars need to run competitively side-by-side and nose to tail. A ban on testing with no points on the table limits the teams’ abilities to sort these new cars out, so we, as fans, can see good racing again after a season notably lacking in many good races. The economic meltdown has hit the sport at a vulnerable time. Were it to have happened a year ago, NASCAR might have put the new car program on hold this year as they did with the Nationwide Series. But with team owners having spent millions to convert their fleets to the Car of Horror already, there’s no turning back now. That leaves track owners having to promote less competitive and exciting races to fans facing harsh economic realities themselves – and thus unwilling to buy all those high-priced seats. Given enough testing, perhaps the team engineers could find a way to make these new cars able to run in close quarters and side by side. But given the current economic reality and testing ban, that’s almost certainly not going to happen. And if the quality of the racing doesn’t improve, then almost certainly there will be less fans in the grandstands next year. If that trend is allowed to run its course, I can certainly envision the sport imploding into itself – at least, NASCAR racing as we’ve come to accept it – and possibly cease to exist.
The testing ban was doubtless a difficult decision, but it was still the right one given the severity of the hard times we’re all facing. Unfortunately, there are far reaching and unfortunate implications already. ISC is going to lose money not having their traditional preseason Daytona test, and there will be a ripple effect from that which spreads to local restaurants and hotels, right down to the waiters and waitresses, hotel maids and local gas station attendants. I hate that it has to be the case; but in this instance, it’s a matter of sharing the pain.
Realizing the genuine hardship that some people will suffer – from highly compensated engineers to barely getting by cabbies – it is the responsibility of those with enough financial resources to easily weather this storm to act responsibly. Right now, there’s a Cold War going on between the Big Three: Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs. Each one has pledged lip-service to the testing ban, but all are keeping a wary eye on the other organizations. At the first sign one of them is trying to circumvent the testing rules to gain an advantage, the other two will respond in kind, and it will spiral out of control from there – just as it has under other testing limitations NASCAR has tried to impose on the teams. So, it’s time for the Big Three to realize they have reaped a lot of wealth from this sport, and they need to act in its long-term best interests. I’d suggest a private summit, perhaps at the upcoming NYC banquet, where the Big Three team owners – and maybe Richard Childress and Roger Penske – sit down together behind closed doors and discuss these issues in private. For example, Rick Hendrick could tell Jack Roush, yes, my teams and I are going to live to the letter and intent of this new policy. And if you feel someone in my employ is violating the spirit of these rules, call me personally and we’ll talk things out.
There’s thousands of things that could go wrong here – but only one reason they must not. The future of the sport is on the line, as are the livelihoods of people who either directly or indirectly draw their paychecks at least in part from the sport of NASCAR racing. From millionaire drivers to waitresses who work extra shifts when the NASCAR circus is in town, there’s a lot of folks depending on this ban working out long-term.