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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Motown Sadness

Growing up, I’d never have imagined that one day a Honda would be the best selling automobile in America. Certainly I’d have never guessed that one day Toyota would be competing with GM for title of the world’s largest automaker. And none of us ever would have believed that within our lifetimes Chrysler would file bankruptcy and apparently GM will do so soon.

Sadly, this has all come to pass. GM and Chrysler are currently kept alive by government bailout loans. Ford is enjoying a bit of a renaissance now and it would seem their decision to forgo government aid, at least for now, has helped spur their sales. I don’t want to debate the wisdom of the government bailing out two of the Big Three – to an extent the notion irritates me – but I realize there are a huge amount of jobs at stake not only at Chrysler and GM, but also in satellite industries ranging from parts suppliers to corner diners near assembly plants. Just letting free market economics take their course leading to massive American job losses in this already harsh economy doesn’t seem wise either. Yeah, I can hear some of you saying those “Union bastards have priced themselves right out of a job….” But now those unions and their members are making some painful concessions to keep the businesses they work for open. If I had the perfect solution for this mess, I’d be running for Congress… but I don’t. I write about stock car racing and, given the reality of what’s happening with the Big Three, I want to focus on what this crises could mean for our sport.

The amount of money the United States has invested in the car companies is a considerable. And that money comes with more strings than the Bristol International Kite Flying Festival. In return for their investment, the government wants a say in how Chrysler and GM spend that money. Marketing costs make up a significant portion of annual budgets of those car companies. NASCAR involvement makes up a relatively small portion of that marketing budget but it is a highly visible and, to a degree, polarizing part of the marketing program. As the folks in Washington are fond of saying, “You start with a million here, and a million there and all of a sudden it adds up to real money!”

The Big Three carmakers continue to say that their NASCAR marketing campaigns are successful and cost effective. NASCAR fans are far more likely to own American cars than the general population. Toyota jumped into the pool with both feet in an attempt to lure some of those customers away and Toyota doesn’t have a bad track record in making marketing decisions.

But after last summer’s historic spike in gas prices (and they seem to be rising at an alarming rate again right now) and with a new focus on the environment that borders on hysteria, all of a sudden, in some circles, the automobile has gone from American sweetheart and a proud example of this countries manufacturing might to Public Enemy Number One and a four-wheeled environmental terrorist. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are suddenly calling for dramatically increased fuel efficiency, reduced emissions and alternative powerplants. That worries me a lot. It seems to me last time that politicians, and I don’t know one of them with an automotive design background, meddled in car-making, insisting on new standards in economy, safety and pollution, that triggered the tailspin the American auto industry has fallen into.

Despite my reservations, I accept reality. Some politicians are going to see spending millions of U.S. taxpayers’ money by the automakers to support programs that center on fast loud cars with V8 engines, terrible fuel economy and no pollution control devices as a boondoggle. The money saved isn’t going to suddenly fix everything that’s wrong with GM or Chrysler, but it’s a high profile bit of grandstanding politicians can do to show taxpayers who aren’t race fans they’re keeping a tight leash on wasteful spending. (Insert your punch line here.)

So my guess is that within five years, maybe sooner, two if not three of the automakers currently supporting the sport will be gone. That raises the obvious question, can NASCAR racing survive without the auto manufacturers.

My guess is they can. In fact, NASCAR has done it before. The Big Three got out of automobile racing in the late ’50s and again in the early ’70s. GM officially was on the sidelines for close to two decades.

The loss of marketing dollars from the auto manufacturers is going to cause some pain. Some teams will probably not survive. The surviving teams are going to have to find some ways to curtail their spending to make up for the lost dollars because there are few, if any, sponsors left who can or will re-up their deals to make up for the shortfall.

Thus it behooves NASCAR to face the new reality barreling up the road like a Buick Roadmaster with a stuck throttle and no brakes. They need to find meaningful ways to make the racing less expensive, but at the same time more competitive. Originally this whole Car of Tomorrow nonsense was supposed to save the teams money but all I’m hearing is how many millions of dollars it has cost team owners. A trimmed down schedule, shorter races, more single-day shows would be good first steps. A rule like the one in the Nationwide Series forcing teams to use their engines for more than one event without an overhaul would help as well. Meaningful and enforceable spending limits would be tough to device, but there needs to be a sense of urgency and cooperation here among the team owners and NASCAR, a coming together to admit we’re all going to either sink or sail on together.

Drivers are going to have to accept the new reality as well. It could be the days of a rookie driver becoming a millionaire without even posting a top-10 finish are fading. There’s a limit to what track owners can charge spectators to attend events in a tight economy and it already seems some of those race promoters have shot north of the mark given attendance at some tracks this year. Reduced income is going to have to be reflected in race purses.

Perhaps most importantly both NASCAR and the track owners are going to have make the distribution of TV revenue more equitable. After all you can have a slate of events but unless there is a full field of competitive cars and drivers the fans want to see compete, NASCAR can’t survive. Ultimately, it is the high-wire walkers, the lion tamers, the trapeze artists and the guys getting shot out of cannons that fans of the circus come to see, not the clowns and the ringmasters.

A less expensive, more competitive, more exciting form of NASCAR racing can survive even in the new economic realities we are faced with. It’s time for NASCAR to be proactive on these issues rather than waiting for the carpet to get pulled out from under their feet. First staged in 1911, that first event was run when the American auto industry was still in its infancy. Ironically, that same industry may now be on its deathbed.

The disastrous split between CART and the IRL greatly diminished interest in the Indy 500 and there were some years the back half of the field was simply pitiful. That rift is now healed, but Indy and the entire series are still trying to get some traction back to capture the imaginations of auto racing fans. Having most of their races held on a TV network few people have even heard of hasn’t helped any. (As per usual the Indy 500 will be on ABC.) It’s too bad that more race fans haven’t taken the time to sample IRL racing since the split healed. They’ve got a bunch of remarkably talented and likable drivers, even if most of them are foreigners. I just can’t help but like guys like Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, though I’d love to see Alex Zanardi come back and try the Indy 500 one more time.

New series rules have homogenized the field at Indy where experimentation was once a hallmark of the race. Over the years the Indy 500 has featured stock block cars, four cylinders, turbines, diesels and even six-wheeled cars. And it sure would be nice to see more than one brand of powerplant in the series.

Yes, the Indy 500 has been greatly diminished but there’s still something special about the race itself. The massive release of balloons, the three wide/11-row deep formation as the cars come to the green flag, and the sense of history of the joint still make it a must see event for me. The speed, the screams of the cars and the imminent danger that lurks on every lap keep me glued to the TV. Perhaps the fact I once got to sit in Mark Donahue’s Indy-winning car shortly after that race made me a fan for life.

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