NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Start & Parks Deserve Sympathy & Admiration, Not Derision

You see it every week now in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide series: less than halfway through the race, a seemingly undamaged car pulls into the garage and the team packs up and heads home early. The results sheet shows an electrical or brake failure, and the owner collects a backmarker paycheck. It’s a practice known as start and park, and it’s been increasing in the sport over the last few seasons.

It’s terrible. It’s a blight on the sport and it shouldn’t be allowed. Or so say many race fans, quick to disparage the practice as a greedy team owner and/or driver trying to make a quick buck on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. They’re getting rich on the purses and not putting any of that back into the team. They don’t really want to race, they just want to make money. NASCAR really should do something about them.

Not so fast.

Starting and parking has become an ugly reality in NASCAR today, but the blame isn’t being focused in the right direction. Whether fans are overestimating hugely what anyone is making form those deals or accusing the drivers of not being real racers, they’re misinformed. Nobody is getting rich and nobody is going home satisfied at the end of the day. There is a problem, but it’s not the teams starting and parking that holds the lion’s share of the blame. It’s partly NASCAR’s and partly the economy’s.

The teams that start and park don’t do it for the money. Even a backmarker car costs as much as the last-place purses they take home. They certainly don’t do it for the fame-they can do without the derision they hear every week. They do it because they want to race and right now, it’s the only way they can.

With the cost of racing going up and sponsor interest in the sport going down, teams can no longer race successfully on the shoestring budget of a small or part-time sponsor. On the flip side of that, the sponsors who may consider NASCAR might be more likely to gamble on an established team rather than a brand-new one. The teams have some equipment, they have a driver and they know the racetracks. Those things are stacked in their favor should someone come calling.

I used to be on the fence about the start and park teams. There are a couple in the Nationwide Series who were doing it to help fund a team car as the Cup interlopers gobbled up the available sponsors, and I never took issue with that. On the other hand, there are times when a team planning to run the full race is outqualified by someone who only plans to make a few laps, and that doesn’t feel right either. But then I talked to a couple of start and park drivers, realized why they do it, and my opinion changed. It stinks that they have to, but the reality is that it’s better than not racing at all.

I spoke with Michael McDowell (then with PRISM Motorsports; McDowell now drives the No. 46 for Whitney Motorsports, still a start and park team) a couple of months ago about their situation, and McDowell said, “It keeps 15 families fed that wouldn’t otherwise be fed. That’s the hard part that people don’t always understand is that nobody is leaving here driving a Mercedes or a Lexus or flying on their helicopter back to the house.” Again, nobody is getting rich here. But the unemployment line is a bit shorter.

Another reason that McDowell mentioned also made sense. “We’re doing this because we have to, but we’re also doing it because if we keep the team together, we keep the people together so that if we do land a sponsor, we’re ready to go.”

That’s actually a smart move. These teams do learn something each week at the track. Casey Mears said that his Germain Racing team, which starts and parks when they don’t have part-time primary sponsor GEICO on board, runs practices and qualifying as if they were planning on running the entire race, gathering data on handling and tires as every other team does. That gives them something to work with when they do have a sponsor on board.

Anybody who thinks that drivers like to end their day early is wrong. They don’t. They drive these cars because there’s nothing else right now. And if you’re not driving at NASCAR’s top level at all, you get forgotten in a heartbeat. So they pull into the garage when they’re told to. But that doesn’t mean they like it.

The only thing that hurts worse is not racing at all.

For the most part, especially in the Sprint Cup Series, these aren’t no-name drivers. Mears is a winner on the Cup circuit with Hendrick Motorsports. McDowell was tapped to drive for Michael Waltrip’s then-fledgling team. Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte has done it occasionally. I promise none of them want to do it.

“The hardest thing for me to do in my career was the first time I ever had to pull in,” said Mears at Martinsville. “I’ve raced since I was three or four years old, and I’ve never pulled in halfway or partway through a race. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever done.”

After hearing that, watching Mears pull into the garage halfway through the race was just that-painful to watch. He didn’t want to. None of these guys want to.

Really, NASCAR is partly to blame. It could just be poor timing, but starting and parking didn’t become a problem until after NASCAR changed qualifying rules, doing away with the old time-and-provisional system under which anyone could race in, while the big names were still protected with provisional starting spots. Perhaps the new system forced teams to reevaluate-they had to put that much more into qualifying for one of a handful of open spots, and that meant taking away that much more from the actual race.

NASCAR also, in their haste to make a few more dollars, has robbed small teams of potential sponsors, taking their money instead to make them the “Official oil/cereal/whatever of NASCAR.” Had the sanctioning body steered those companies towards the teams in the garage instead, the entire sport could have been healthier, with more full-time teams competing for both starting and finishing position every week, making the racing better and perhaps keeping some more fans around for the long haul.

The big teams share a bit of the blame, too. The seemingly endless driving up of costs has pushed many, many teams out of both the Cup and Nationwide series in recent years. What used to cost $10 million now costs $25 million and more, and there are few sponsors willing or able to pony up that kind of money to an upstart team. $10 million is a stretch, and it simply can’t compete. A couple hundred thousand dollars per race isn’t much if the top teams are spending a million or more. There’s simply no incentive to sponsor a team when going in, there’s no realistic way they will get exposure. Not when the television cameras focus on the big-money teams, sometimes because they’re getting sponsor money from those same companies paying the bills for the biggest teams on the circuit. There’s all risk and no reward for smaller sponsors in today’s NASCAR.

So those teams do what they can to survive, clinging to the hope that a sponsor will come along who can take a chance on a team that already has a driver and can qualify into races at a lot of the tracks on the circuit because they have the knowledge to do so.

Sure, it’s awful to watch. Sure, it’s sad to see the sport come to this. But the teams themselves aren’t the bad guy. They’re racers. They go through the sweat and tears that it takes to race every week knowing that it won’t last, that just when they feel the car coming to them, they’ll get called to the garage. Just when they’ve found that perfect line, the race is over for them. They won’t see a huge paycheck or a cut of the point fund at the end of the year. But they do it anyway. Because the only thing worse is not racing at all. And real racers race. It’s simply what they do; they know no other way.

Nobody, fan, driver, crew member or car owner wants to see teams start races and park every week. Unfortunately, it’s part of the reality of competing in today’s NASCAR for many teams not among NASCAR’s elite. Don’t be quick to hate them; hate the climate that created them. Next time one of them pulls into the garage, feel his pain and know he doesn’t want to do it. Know that his heart beats in time with the engines and all he wants is to pull back out there, but he can’t, because the team has nothing left. They do it for the love of the sport, not for spite and not to make a quick buck. Racing a little is better than not racing at all. Maybe that doesn’t make them deserving of derision and ridicule. Maybe that makes them racers.

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