Did You Notice? The start-and-park charade hitting a crescendo this weekend? No less than 23 drivers in NASCAR’s top-three divisions pulled it in early, including a record 11 in the financially troubled Camping World Truck Series. But while the topic of field-filling has been hotly debated, for weeks those arguments have centered around a great unknown: do these teams mailing it in make money at the end of the weekend?
After a conversation today with an owner in one of NASCAR’s top-three divisions, I can tell you with certainty that answer is yes.
Now, as I mentioned in my Sports Illustrated article on Thursday, even the lowest-tier team in the Cup Series claims it needs about $100,000 per race to go the full distance. That’s primarily because of the engine cost, which I had been told from marketing reps of various organizations along with other owners makes up 30-40% of their overall expenses. But after talking with this owner in particular – someone who’s responsible for that balance sheet on a daily basis and has price shopped among the top teams for an engine deal – I can tell you that percentage can even run higher for teams that go the distance. A start-and-park team’s engine cost was directly quoted at $60,000, and expenses for renting more competitive motors for just one race go even higher.
If you look at that cost, you sit and wonder how in the world start-and-park teams make money. It’s simple: they don’t rent an engine every week. Instead, they use one motor for every five or six races, running just 20 or 30 laps each week in order to keep it “fresh” and conserve cost.
And with the engines out of the equation, you’re suddenly in position to make serious cash. This balance sheet was quoted to me in terms of overall expenses for a bare bones Nationwide Series weekend, assuming you have a car chassis purchased and ready to go:
Tire Bill: $10,500
Crew Payments: $3,000-$4,000 (includes hotel expenses)
Engine Rental Cost: $15,000
Miscellaneous Expenses (Entry Fees, Food, Parts And Pieces, Hauler Gas, Etc.): $3,000
Adding all those costs up would put you in a tough spot to make money, as 43rd-place Stanton Barrett made only $17,583 for one lap’s worth of work. But check this out: if you’re starting and parking, you can scrimp and save on half of these costs. Instead of bringing a full pit crew to the track, you can only throw a handful of guys in the hauler to help service the car over a race weekend – several of whom may volunteer or take next to no money for the experience. You’re also not going to pay for a full seven sets of tires from Goodyear – after all, why would you need them? You’re only going to end up running a handful of laps anyway. Ditto the engine cost: if you’re leasing an engine and spreading that cost out over five or six races, that $15,000 you’re paying suddenly gets a whole lot less expensive.
With that in mind, let’s calculate the new cost of doing business for the start-and-park crowd:
Crew Costs: $2,000
Engine Rental: $2,500 (remember, it’s over six races)
Miscellaneous Expenses: $2,500
All of that adds up to about $11,000 in total cost for the weekend – giving you an overall profit of $6,500 if you were Barrett’s entry. Not bad for a day’s work, huh? And if you’re a guy like Todd Braun – whose Nationwide Series No. 10 car finished in the Top 30 in owner points last year – you get a $6,400 bonus each race the car cracks the starting lineup. It’s yet another incentive to bring the car to the track; but without any sponsorship support, it’s impossible for the team to have enough money to compete.
Looking at the numbers, it’s the engine costs that keep teams from being able to take that step. It’s the area where the big teams like Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske and Childress can extend their monopoly, asking for tens of thousands of dollars in order for teams to get the horsepower they need. It makes it unaffordable for cars to go the full distance… so they don’t. And the profit margin makes it really attractive for a team in the red every week – spending so much money to rent an engine and then up to another $15,000 to get it rebuilt after a full race’s worth of work – to give up and simply do the same. If they try and get by on a junk engine every week, the speeds leave them so uncompetitive it’s just not worth it financially to run their equipment into the ground.
“The other teams have it all – the technology, the horsepower, the engineers,” says Mr. Anonymous. “So, for these small teams it’s impossible to compete unless they buy from them. And even then, you can’t buy a race motor. Each organization has an “A” Motor, a “B” Motor, and a “C” Motor, etc. that cost different prices. They’ll say to the public they make all the same motors… but it’s not true.”
So, as the rich get richer and poor get poorer, the poor have given up on running 30th and simply decided to turn racing from competition to simple business venture. Of course, that’s not always the case: some start and parkers run a second car to help buy better equipment for their “A” vehicle. But an increasingly alarming number just simply put the money in the bank, get ready to steal fans’ money the next week and smile at a job well done.
Over in the Cup Series, these profit numbers can jump up to $20,000 to $30,000 per race due to an increased purse. If you add those numbers up over 36 events, and, well… let’s just say I wish I could have a salary relatively close to that amount.
What do we do to fix this situation? My owner had a matter-of-fact answer: restrict the purse to the top-30 finishers as some sort of elimination event. That would force teams to race for the money… but that’s easier said than done. What about some team with a mechanical failure beyond their control? It’s not fair they walk away from the weekend with nothing. I think instead, what you’ve got to do here is find some way to cut engine costs and horsepower so these other, smaller organizations can justify running the full distance and a have a shot at higher than 40th, along with a financial equation that doesn’t leave them tens of thousands of dollars in the red.
Otherwise, the start-and-park craze – especially since NASCAR is unwilling to stop it – will continue to grow at an alarming rate. And we can’t afford for that to happen.
Did You Notice? One other thing… if NASCAR kicked out all the start-and-parkers, making short fields in each of its top-three series, that extra purse money gets redistributed amongst the teams that do want to race. For example, on the Truck side 11 start-and-parkers collected over $120,000 in prize money. Without them there, the 25 teams who did come to race would end up with another $4,800 apiece. That’s money sorely needed in a series struggling with fan attendance and overall sponsorship support; yet everyone is refusing to acknowledge this problem. In fact….
Did You Notice? There were stories on various television outlets that start and parkers need to be at the track each weekend so they don’t “lose touch” with what’s going on in the garage each week. Oh really? Why don’t you say that to Furniture Row Racing and the Wood Brothers over in the Cup Series, two of the most pleasant success stories this year as limited-schedule, single-car programs. Both the No. 78 and No. 21 chose to take their money and use it wisely, picking and choosing the races they go to run the full distance rather than trying to start and park in the other events or stretching their money over 36 races.
Since they’ve made those decisions, both teams have been rewarded with top 20 finishes and an increased amount of media attention. And – can you believe it – suddenly companies are interested in sponsoring at least the No. 78 for a full season in 2010! On-track success leading to off-track interest, who’d have thunk it? I’d say start-and-park teams have the same opportunity; but what sponsor is going to even take a look at you if you’re running 40th and parking the car before the first pit stop?
You’d hope FRR and the Wood Brothers can pave the way for others to follow their lead. All we can do is publicize their success and hope for the best… keep your fingers crossed.
Did You Notice? I’ve already spent 1,500 words on S&Pers, but there’s one thing from the race Sunday I want to bring up. It’s rare these days, especially with the progression of technology and engineering, that the veteran experience of a driver alone will win you races. And that’s why through the boredom of Sunday’s race, seeing Mark Martin win on fumes was so refreshing.
You saw a driver who’d been around for three decades lay back and save fuel the way he was supposed to save it, while Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson in front of him got too caught up in racing themselves. Martin understood it was going to be a fuel-mileage race, which happens in this business, and forced himself to subscribe to the old adage of, “To finish first, you must first finish.” It’s so difficult for racers – programmed to give 110% over the final laps – to dial it back that extra step to survive a race like that, especially with a battle for the lead right in front of him. But Martin kept his composure and his aggression in check, leading to his series-high third win of the season.
That puts the 50-year-old veteran within reach of some uncharted territory. Only one driver over the age of 50 has won more races than Martin in a season; Harry Gant won five, including four in a row, in 1991 en route to a fourth-place finish in the final standings (also a record for the 50-plus crowd). Gant also holds the record with eight victories over the age of 50, the last of which occurring when he was 52.
Assuming Martin stays in a Hendrick Chevy through 2010 (and the way he’s sounding lately, that could be extended another year or two), he seems like a virtual lock to shatter those marks. And the way his teammates are praising both him and crew chief Alan Gustafson, Martin appears a lock to not only make the Chase but contend for the championship by running up front with the type of consistency we haven’t seen from him since 1998 – when he was just 39.
Who would have believed back then he’d be running for the championship, full-time, in a Hendrick car right now? Certainly not me, that’s for sure….