As the 2010 racing season continues to wind down and teams and fans look towards what next year has in store, there is one theme that seems to be running rampant through the racing news of late: the struggle for funding is taxing more than just the Cup Series and it is signaling a disturbing trend for racing in general. Consider Richard Petty Motorsports facing a very uncertain future, Robby Gordon announcing he will not run the full season next year, Front Row unable to confirm if they’ll be able to run more than two cars for 2011 and other cars that battle weekly for the Top 35 in points waiting to make announcements for 2011 sponsorship dollars, or the obvious lack thereof, that is hitting the series hard.
The Nationwide Series is going to be switching to the new car design full-time next season, which means the teams that compete on the circuit now have to build nearly full fleets of new cars for next year. Several of the Nationwide-only teams are running with duct tape and mirrors as it is, so there is no signal whether they’ll be able to run the series full or part-time next season. There are supposedly other owners waiting in the wings to jump into the series as soon as it goes to the new car full time, but as of now there have been no announcements. Add to the upcoming reduction in purses in the series by an additional 20% after dropping them 10% this year, and it’s clear that sources of money are becoming even more important for the teams that run in the series solely.
While the national series garner most of the media attention, this past weekend’s events at North Wilkesboro gave all of us a much more staunch view of how hard this lack of sponsor money is hitting the grass roots drivers who aspire to make it to those bigger series in the future. There were eight different divisions running this weekend at NWS with nearly as many cars with blank hoods as there were cars with sponsor logos. Sunday’s Sunoco Touring Series finale spoke the loudest of all of the races, as there were only eight cars that showed up for the feature event for the entire weekend. The end result was the event was shortened from 300 laps to 150. There is no question that motor racing in general is facing a very tough road over the next few years until the economy fully recovers.
There were three examples in particular which will be familiar to at least some of the fans of the national series. The first was Danny O’Quinn Jr. O’Quinn was Jack Roush’s choice to run the Nationwide Series after competing in the Driver X competition on the Discovery Channel. O’Quinn competed admirably and was chosen the Rookie of the Year in the series in 2006.
Unfortunately for O’Quinn, Roush didn’t have a place for him to go after that season and he was forced to look elsewhere. While he’s landed a couple of rides in the Nationwide Series since, none had the backing of Roush. This past weekend he was running for a small team that is trying to give him something to drive going forward, but at this point he doesn’t have sponsorship to do anything. He was one of the promising stars of the future in 2006 and now finds himself trying to scrape together enough money to run his late model on a weekly basis.
Second was , who was the winner of the late model race on Saturday and the second-place finisher in the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300 at Martinsville early last month. McCall had a development ride with Yates Racing in 2006 in the Nationwide Series, but while he brought his car home in one piece in all but one of his races, Yates decided to go with Stephen Leicht because of his more aggressive driving style.
McCall has since continued to run well in whatever he’s driven, winning the UARA championship in 2005 and ’09. He’s also driven Carl Edwards’s car in practice for several of the Nationwide races where the Cup regular was unable to be on site to practice. McCall noted after the North Wilkesboro race he’s likely to be forced to hang up his helmet and put his engineering degree to work next season unless some quality sponsorship materializes.
The third driver in the race last weekend that most Nationwide fans are at least vaguely familiar with is Matt DiBenedetto, who is a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. DiBenedetto had a rough weekend, breaking something in the rear end and having to nurse his car home to a disappointing 12th-place finish out of 15 drivers.
DiBenedetto is hoping to drive some more Nationwide races for Gibbs in 2011 but doesn’t have anything firm at this point in time. He’s not sure, outside of that ride, what he’ll be doing next season and is hoping to find some sponsorship to continue running his late model, or possibly running some Truck Series races for some teams that have spoken to him. DiBenedetto is like McCall in that he has an innate ability to keep his nose clean and bring his car home in one piece. While he’s had some bad luck in the Nationwide Series this year he is still hoping to prove capable of racing at the next level and landing a full-time ride in a national series.
Like these drivers, track owners are not immune to the economic downturn. Putting on a quality show and attracting good car counts is becoming increasingly difficult for promoters because there aren’t as many cars out there to run the races. Spending the weekend at North Wilkesboro gives you an idea of what goes into running a racing facility and how much money it needs. The track is still coming back to life and 2011 will hopefully be an even better season, but there is a lot of work left to be done.
There are still stands that are not open for fans to utilize and there are corporate suites that are going to have to be rebuilt or completely reconstructed. There are walls that still need to be painted and the infield scoring pylon control panel that needs to be replaced because the old one has disappeared. Getting people to work as safety crew personnel, concession stand workers and ticket takers all takes money. Making a go of big-time track promotion is tough, but the group behind North Wilkesboro is determined and the community is getting behind them, so they’re going to make it happen.
The recession may have ended according to some professional economists, but you can’t tell that by looking around the world of racing right now. A legendary name in the sport is struggling to find people to invest in his race team. Jeff Gordon struggled all season to find a primary sponsor for the famous No. 24. The Wood Brothers are still unable to get a company to put their name on the hood for all 36 races for Bill Elliott to drive a racecar. Dover Motorsports has decided to close down two of its four racetracks and is looking to sell its other two facilities as well.
The boom years of the ’90s and 2000s are past. There is no telling if there will be another boom in the future, but one thing is for sure, right now it is hard for everyone who is trying to go racing on a full-time basis. Here’s hoping that the drivers mentioned above and the thousands of others who want to hit the track, either in the national touring series or their local bull ring, are able to find someone willing to put their name on the hood of the car and make it possible for them to chase their dream.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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