By admin | July 9, 2008
By Richard Allen
The warning signs have been there for a while in NASCAR. Growing discontent among the core fan base, dislike for the new car, races being taken away from traditional venues and given to locales with no real ties to stock car racing and the lack of personalities with the ability to draw attention to the sport are indicators of serious troubles on the horizon for what once was a thriving entity.
Now, to worsen the situation, a lagging economy coupled with astronomical gas prices are adding to the list of reasons for fans to stay away from the race track.
â€œAt best thereâ€™ll only be two more sell outs all year and that will be at Bristol and Richmond,â€ is what one NASCAR insider recently told me. â€œThere may be some tracks thatâ€™ll claim they sold out but it will be because they had to give a bunch of tickets away.â€
The Coke Zero 400 held this past weekend in Daytona was one of the most exciting races contested on that or any other track in some time, but there were few there to witness it firsthand. One person who was there remarked that it was the least attended Daytona race he had ever seen.
The problem is fans are not inspired by the product. And if the fans are not truly inspired, they will not go out of there way to make a trip to a race when times turn bad. In other words, when the going got tough the casual fans quit going, leaving only the hard core fans. And hard core fans are becoming fewer and fewer.
Still more troubling was last weekâ€™s announcement that Ganassi Racing was shutting down its car #40 operation for driver Dario Franchitti and laying off over seventy employees. This move came about because the team was unable to find sponsorship for the former IRL champion and Indianapolis 500 winner.
This too may become more common. With the economy turning sour, corporations are being forced to tighten their belts which means less disposable money. That, obviously, means these companies do not have the millions of dollars it takes to fund a NASCAR operation readily available.
The closing of the #40 team will only be the tip of the iceberg. Rumors abound that Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing may be shutting teams down and laying off employees. And still more closing could be on the way at Ganassi Racing.
In 2010 NASCAR has mandated that no single organization will be allowed to field more than four cars. My guess is that NASCAR will have to rescind their directive if they hope to have 43 cars in each race in 2010. As a matter of fact, it appears all to evident that as few as five or six super teams may be all to remain in the sport once this economic downturn has run its course.
Just this past week it was reported long time supporter Chevrolet intends to pull the plug on all of its sponsorship programs in NASCAR except for the backing of its race teams. In other words there will be no Chevrolet signage, no pace cars or official trucks and no event sponsorship of NASCAR races.
When a stalwart backer of racing like General Motors, Chevroletâ€™s parent company, is facing such hard times that the manufacturer essentially has to remove its name from the sport it serves as a screaming indicator that times are lean and about to get leaner.
To borrow a phrase used to describe what happened to cause a drop off in another sport here in the East Tennessee area, NASCAR is facing a â€˜perfect stormâ€™ of events that threaten to bring the sport crashing down. Some of these events were brought on by the sanctioning body itself and some were not.
It is now up to NASCAR to decide how they want to go about weathering this storm. I do not believe it is too far fetched to say the fate of big time stock car racing hangs in the balance, or at least big time stock car racing in its present form.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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