NASCAR ’09: Driving head-on into economic crisis

Published 8:20 pm Friday, February 6, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brian France and the NASCAR brain trust had to have felt a twinge of jealousy as they watched another spectacular Super Bowl come to a close.

Played in Tampa just 100 miles south of Daytona International Speedway, the NFL’s season finale had everything NASCAR’s chairman wants for his family business: A thrilling finish for the deep-pocketed fans and sponsors in attendance, plus millions more watching on TV.

It’s a tough act to follow for any major sport, but more so for NASCAR, which heads into the Feb. 15 season opener fighting the effects of the economic crisis.

“It’s been an interesting and challenging offseason for everyone,” France said recently.

That’s putting it mildly.

Because the sport depends so heavily on corporate funding as the primary support for owners, the landscape will look vastly different from a year ago when the track opens Thursday for teams to begin preparations for the Daytona 500.

Many owners have merged, others have slashed their budgets and some have simply folded their race teams. Hundreds of team members have been laid off since November’s season-ending race, and the cutbacks spanned the entire spectrum: deep-pocketed Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing all made small reductions to their work forces, while underfunded Bill Davis Racing, The Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises had massive layoffs.

Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are suffering through a steep drop in car sales, while world leader Toyota is facing its own surprising downturn. The monetary and technical support of the four automakers is vital to the race teams.

And the NASCAR fan base, traditionally the blue-collar workers of America, is struggling to afford a weekend at the racetrack.

Despite all the economic issues facing the sport, France remained confident 2009 will prove NASCAR’s perseverance.

“In tough times like these, strong people tighten their belts, put a little extra zip in their step, and focus on the things they do best. In our sport, that’s racing, and no one does it better than our drivers and teams,” France said. “The entire country is going through … a very difficult economy. We will get through it.

“This is a fixture in American culture — this sport. We have seen tough times before. We’re actually optimistic about ’09 for a lot of reasons.”

France points to several on-track story lines he hopes will steer focus away from the economy and toward competition:

—Jimmie Johnson will try for a record-breaking fourth consecutive Cup championship.

—Carl Edwards, winner of three of the final four races last season, will try to dethrone him.

—Two-time series champion Tony Stewart will attempt to transition into the difficult duel role of owner and driver.

—Jeff Gordon will try to get back to Victory Lane after his first winless season since 1993.

—Kyle Busch, who dominated the 26-race regular season only to falter in the Chase for the championship, will try to avoid another collapse.

Compelling competition, indeed, but NASCAR won’t be able to avoid the economic issues outright.

Although 50-plus NASCAR teams are listed so far on the Daytona 500 entry list, the number should drop significantly a week after the race when the circuit shifts to venues in California and then Las Vegas. A March swing through the South could bring some car owners back to the track, but the true indicator of just how tough it will be to make it to the track this year should come in the seventh and eighth events of the season — a western swing through Texas and Phoenix.

“We were on such a rocket ride there for a while that people just kept paying more money and more money. It was like there was no tomorrow,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “But now we’ve seen tomorrow.”

The outlook, he predicts, will filter out the competition.

“I do think it’s going to get back to the die-hards who really want to do it,” he said. “I think you’ll see some people running out-of-pocket because they want to race.”

The financing is still solid at the front of the field, where at least 15 teams should be strong enough to challenge Johnson’s reign. It’s the back of the field where the economic effects will be noticed — assuming anyone is paying attention to the also-rans.

France said more than a dozen new teams had applied for certification, including Cup entries for former full-time driver Jeremy Mayfield and Tommy Baldwin, who was director of competition at BDR before Davis sold the team in late December. The new owners of BDR don’t have sponsorship to bring the No. 22 to Daytona, where Ward Burton drove it to a Daytona 500 victory in 2002.

“We’re starting to get some interest from maybe some new team owners who thought the mountain was too high to climb at one point, so that’s encouraging,” France said.

So perhaps the credit crisis will help NASCAR return to its roots, to a day when anyone could pull a race car to a local track and take a shot at winning the main event. But the sport will do so without many of its pioneers.

Petty Enterprises and The Wood Brothers, NASCAR’s two oldest teams, have had dramatic makeovers.

Petty Enterprises no longer exists as a family run business, merging with Gillett Evernham Motorsports last month to form Richard Petty Motorsports. So far, it doesn’t appear the iconic driver will be anything more than a figurehead at RPM.

And The Wood Brothers only have plans to run 12 races this season as sponsorship woes have crippled the storied team.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 series champion, admits he’s a bit insulated from reality as a driver for heavily sponsored Penske Racing, a team that recently boasted it didn’t lay off a single employee during the offseason.

But he’s not unaware of the struggles many teams will feel through 2009.

“There’s definitely a sense of urgency on the outside,” he said. “But yet when you really get your fingers into the nuts and bolts, it’s still business as usual.”