NASCAR feels the crunch

The world began to change in NASCAR at the end of last season. More than 1000 jobs were lost as belts were tightened and five teams either merged or closed down. Petty Enterprises, NASCAR’s longest-standing team, was bought by Gillett Evernham and renamed Richard Petty Motorsports. Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates merged their NASCAR team with Dale Earnhardt Inc, reducing two three-car teams into a single four-car effort. “Bringing two companies together is a difficult task,” said Ganassi. “It was a painful thing for a lot of people on all sides.”

Yates Racing, another long-time NASCAR team, merged with Hall of Fame Racing, which was started by retired Dallas Cowboy quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. And Bill Davis sold his team’s assets, while his remaining team entry was bought by Roger Penske to guarantee Sam Hornish’s car one of the 35 owners’ slots in the 2009 Sprint Cup field. Another sign of the times was the departure from NASCAR at the end of ’08 of three major sponsors – Texaco, AAA and AT&T.

This year’s traditional season-opening Daytona 500 enjoyed a pretty good crowd thanks to the track’s many creative ways of giving away tickets in the final weeks leading up to the race. But many tracks this year, starting with round two the following week at the California Speedway, are having a hard time selling seats. During NASCAR’s boom years many new tracks were built with 100,000 or more grandstand seats, and at the California Speedway and elsewhere this year they have looked conspicuously bare. This is a serious problem because most of NASCAR’s tracks are owned by two publicly-traded companies – the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), owner of Daytona and 12 other tracks, and Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports (SMI), which owns seven tracks across the United States.

ISC cut 100 jobs last winter and currently employs 1000 people. Its president Lesa France Kennedy, daughter of Bill France Jr and granddaughter of NASCAR founder Bill Sr, said layoffs would be the last option considered this year. “There are many areas in the company under evaluation,” said France Kennedy.

“We’ll look at those before making any personnel changes.”

In a sign of the trying economic times, four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon will leave his private jet at home on some trips this year and take commercial flights instead – something he hasn’t done in 10 years. Gordon reports his aeroplane costs between $3000-4000 per hour to operate, but he’ll continue to use it regularly this season, particularly when he’s travelling with his wife and daughter.

“For Ingrid, the baby and myself to fly together, we’re going to fly private,” he said. “I have a plane and I’m not going to not use it at all. When I’m flying by myself and I’m more flexible on time I’m going to fly commercial whenever it makes sense, and then I’m going to fly private when that makes sense.”

Gordon says NASCAR’s test ban saved Rick Hendrick’s team $100,000 in off-season travel and running expenses. He also said that he and Hendrick will do whatever is required to reduce costs. “If we have to cut costs then I want to know how I can do that along with the next guy, from the top to the bottom of the team,” said Gordon. “We know what our budget is. We know what the trends have been. We have a pretty good projection of what our income is, but in this kind of economy those aren’t all guaranteed.

“I think everybody should be paid fairly within the economy. I’ve always said a driver should get paid on a percentage basis of the income to the car based on the sponsorship dollars as well as earnings on the race track. We’ve all gotten pretty spoiled the last several years and for good reason the whole sport has grown. I’ve been successful and my salary has been incredible. It’s something I never dreamed it would ever be.

“That doesn’t mean I couldn’t live with less,” Gordon added. “I could and I’d do whatever it takes. It’s tough when you get adjusted to a certain lifestyle and income. It’s definitely not easy to do, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Team-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr was more emphatic about the terms of employment he would accept in today’s changed world: “I told Rick [Hendrick] he could pay me whatever he wants to pay me. I don’t have a problem, I’ll drive a race car for nothing.”

After 10 years with Joe Gibbs Racing, two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart has started his own team this year. As the season began Stewart was still trying to find the funding to run team-mate Ryan Newman’s car in all the races. “It’s hurt everybody, obviously,” he said. “We still have 13 races to sell on Ryan’s car. It’s no different for us than for anybody else.”
Defending champion Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, has assessed his hopes for winning what would be a record-setting fourth NASCAR championship in a row. “If you look at the odds it’s certainly stacked up against us,” he said. “It’s never been done before. But from my perspective and in my heart I truthfully think we’ve got a great shot at a fourth championship. I feel we have a very good chance of winning the title because we have the tools.

“At every team meeting we’ve had all we’ve talked about is winning races and winning a championship. It’s just the simple mindset that we want to win and be as good as we can be. No one is really satisfied. We still have the hunger to go out and do our jobs and be the best in our sport.”

Johnson believes NASCAR’s decision to establish a test ban last winter will result in the big teams such as Hendrick pulling further away from the smaller operations. “They all have this technology – the race shops with seven-post rigs and simulation and wind tunnels,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see in the first quarter of the season how much of an advantage that stuff is. I think with no testing nobody has any idea [what’s going to happen this year].”

Johnson emphasized the importance of being ready for the ‘Chase for the Cup’ play-off over the season’s final 10 races, when the top 12 drivers in the points have their scores reset to guarantee a close fight for the championship. “If we can be organised and composed come September, like we have done the last three years, I think we really have a chance,” said Johnson. “If you show up at the Chase trying to catch up, you’ve got your hands full. The last three years we’ve been ready for the Chase. We’ve been ready to go out and race for wins. We’ve had to win a lot of races to beat these guys and win the championship.

“Our goal is to be organised come September and hope things go our way.”