NASCAR's season begins tomorrow with the Budweiser Shootout but there's a decidedly different vibe this year--economic crisis and a sport feeling the crunch. NASCAR, with its reliance on corporate sponsorships and auto industry money and equipment, is perhaps more vulnerable to the economic crunch than any other major sport in the United States. An off season of layoffs, mergers, and test bans have left NASCAR employees and fans alike reeling as the green flag gets ready to drop in Daytona.
Veteran driver and car owner Kyle Petty, son of the legendary Richard Petty, notes that "The economy will be the elephant in the room wherever we go with the Cup series this year....Anybody that says it is not is full of (baloney). I think the days of the $15 (million) to $20 million sponsorship in this sport are a thing of the past. Speedways have already seen corporate sponsors begin to pull back. Some of the teams have seen some of their sponsors cut them 15(%) to 20% because it is all they can afford."
USA Today has a great rundown on the challenges facing NASCAR and a preview of some of the story lines that are emerging for 2009, including:
- A resultant series of mergers aimed at surviving the downturn has eliminated two of the sport's most indelible brands tied to its two seven-time champions: Dale Earnhardt Inc. (now part of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) and Petty Enterprises (absorbed by Gillett Evernham Motorsports to form a new team that bears Richard Petty's name — Richard Petty Motorsports).
- A testing ban intended to help cut costs has crews working computer simulations around the clock and kicking their seven-post shaker rigs into overdrive, using 21st-century technology to overcome a lack of real-world data to hone setups.
- A pall hangs over the American auto industry that threatens to alter the competitive landscape in Sprint Cup. While they received a reprieve on Capitol Hill late last year to keep them afloat through the spring, General Motors and Chrysler are cutting back on their motor sports spending by as much as 30%, and Ford has shifted its resources out of the Camping World and Nationwide series into Cup.
Sport is usually a way for people to unwind and distract themselves from their troubles. When a major sport like NASCAR is effected as much as it is by the economic situation in the country, we are all in trouble. Let us hope that the storyline in 2010 will revolve around the sport's and the economy's rebound.