Editor’s Note: Enjoy Frontstretch Columnist Tommy Thompson on a new day this year… starting today, his popular Turn 5 column moves to Thursdays each week in 2009.
Well, the call-to-arms has been sounded by our Editor-in-Chief to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin the business of big-time NASCAR journalism again… or something to that effect. In other words, with the Budweiser Shootout only two days away and the Great American Race — the Daytona 500 — slated to kick off the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season a week from Sunday, it is time to get busy informing, opining, and debating the most popular form of motorsports entertainment in America once more.
In years past, I would be biting at the bits to kickoff the new season of Turn 5, rejuvenated from the offseason break. Yet, as this season approaches, I would be less than honest with my readers if I said that I feel the same level of anticipation and excitement that I have always experienced during my 40 years of following stock car racing. It is a sense of malaise that has permeated not just myself, but also — from what I have observed the last several months in interacting with other stalwart fans of the sport — a significant segment of NASCAR’s base which have become more and more disheartened, as well.
The melancholy that is greeting the new race season is, in some respects, identical to the general discontent that our nation as a whole has been struggling with as our precarious economic situation increasingly dominates our thoughts. That’s not a surprising development, as NASCAR’s own well-being very much mirrors the nation’s need for a strong economic outlook to continue to grow and prosper. As corporate America goes, so does the nation… and apparently NASCAR.
Some would argue that NASCAR already was on a downward spiral, through no fault of the economy but a series of poor decisions on their part that had already alienated the fan base. Those critics would attribute such “gems” as the abandonment of historic race venues like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham or the elimination of a major race date at Darlington as noteworthy factors in fans’ discontent. Others would point to more recent decisions by the sanctioning body to build a generic racecar (CoT) that further distanced the sport from any semblance of stock car racing. Still others claim that the Chase to the Sprint Cup championship format, debuting in 2004, marked NASCAR’s slow but steady decline.
Well, there is no doubt that each of those actions — along with others not listed — have spurred a negative reaction by race fans, even to the extent of some deserting the sport in disgust. The true numbers that were lost as a result of those decisions is impossible to quantify at this point. Perhaps the cumulative effect has been greater than NASCAR believes; but the sport has still managed to post some pretty good numbers while weathering the storm, still garnering huge television contracts and paying out gargantuan amounts of prize monies to its competitors.
However, it seems that now the economy and its negative impact on seemingly everything that is NASCAR has overshadowed any and all previous gripes and grievances against the organization combined. It is difficult to read a race-related article these days that does not in some form give reference to the bleak outlook to be faced in 2009 — and possibly beyond. These are real and tangible problems that are apparent and clearly visible. Yes, it is true that the most admired and recognizable figure in NASCAR, “The King” Richard Petty, could not find adequate funding and has — for all intents and purposes — sold his team. Ditto for the organization founded by another seven-time Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt Inc., that has jumped into a sinking life raft with veteran car owner Chip Ganassi. Together, the two teams hope to pool what resources they still have in hopes of salvaging one viable stable of competitors between them.
And like the once powerful and now bankrupt financial institution Lehman Brothers Holdings, Bill Davis — a NASCAR owner for more than 20 years — was also reduced to selling off his business piecemeal. As a matter of fact, it seems that for almost every Washington Mutual or Wachovia failure, there is a Gillett Evernham, Yates, Hall of Fame, or Dale Earnhardt Inc. race team looking for a partner to hunker down with and withstand this fiscal hurricane.
In corporate America, it is not just the multi-millionaire owners that feel the pain. John Deere, General Motors, Ford Motor Company, ConocoPhilips, Pfizer and Monsanto are among many, many others who have combined to issue furloughs to tens of thousands of their hardworking, wage-dependent employees. Likewise, NASCAR teams, feeling the economic pinch, have needed to trim their workforce as well. 270+ employees were cut between DEI and Ganassi alone, with another 130 or so from Gillett Evernham and Petty Enterprises. Things are so tough, you can figure in another 60-70 much-needed jobs even at fiscally sound Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing; both have felt the need to tighten their belts as well in light of the current economic climate.
As a result, the bleak situation in the NASCAR garages is not much different than those faced on most any street in America; and as the nation’s struggles continue to dominate headlines on front pages across the country, NASCAR’s money woes occupy center stage in race reports. Any way you slice it, it is a very dreary and depressing subject that does nothing to either energize or create interest or excitement in the sport.
So, it seems that the same close relationship with corporate America that has contributed to NASCAR’s rise as a legitimate sporting enterprise over the last 15 years has now come full circle to bite them in the tailpipe. Nonetheless, the two are permanently joined at the hip at this point. They will ride the present downturn out together, and hopefully climb out of the current financial abyss together… and soon.
There is no going back! For all of the grumbling and groaning that Sprint Cup racing has become “too big” or “too much,” the masses would not settle for a leaner, less is better series now. The standard has already been set; the present predicament is that it cannot be fully funded.
This means it will be a challenging season for myself, as well as all racing journalists. The economy has become so intertwined with the on-track performances of teams and individual drivers that it will be difficult to separate the two, finding the silver lining in an increasingly tough scenario.
But my hope is that when the 28 NASCAR competitors fire up their 800+ horsepower rockets this coming Saturday night at Daytona, all is forgotten about the depressing news that is not only coming out of Washington, D.C., but NASCAR garages scattered in and around Charlotte, N.C. And when the green flag drops on the 2009 Budweiser Shootout, I would like the fans to be able to enjoy the start of a new season of competition. In fact, it is my sincerest hope that the owners, drivers, and crews — in spite of all the offseason bad news — give us one whale of a show throughout the season.
After all, wouldn’t it be nice to have something we can all smile and cheer about… for a change?
And… that’s my view from Turn 5.