This morning, stock car racing fans got another taste of what is coming in NASCAR. The corporate movement afoot in NASCAR racing is here to stay. It is only going to grab a stronger and stronger foothold on the sport so many of us love. There is no way to avoid it. Certainly however, it saddens many long time fans.
This morning, the race team known as Petty Enterprises announced it was parting ways with NASCAR Champion driver Bobby Labonte. Petty Enterprises and Labonte agreed to part ways abruptly in a decision that neither side wanted to make. After just three years in the seat for Petty Enterprises Bobby Labonte will no longer be in the plans for Petty Enterprises. A group called Boston Ventures came in last season with an influx of capital and big ideas of reclaiming the Petty mystique and success. In fact they own more of the rights to marketing the Petty legacy than the King himself, Richard Petty, does. And now it would appear that Boston Ventures wants out after an extremely short stint in the sport.
Petty Enterprises is in talks with Gillette Evernham Motorsports to form a merger of the two companies. It is reported that this will only happen if Gillette Evernham agrees to assume the losses of Boston Ventures. Petty Enterprises would fold into GEM Motorsports and it is reported that Reid Srrenson would then be the pilot of the number 43 dodge. Petty Enterprises has said that if the merger does not happen it will run a one car operation for 2009 and it may be run from he former Petty Enterprises home of Level Cross, NC. Either scenario seems as likely as the other in these tumultuous times.
The writing is on the wall for NASCAR. Just like every other sport in the country it is about to be come incorporated. In last season’s Chase for the Cup there were only three teams competing for the championship, and no doubt they are the three best funded teams in the sport. Roush Fenway Racing had already incorporated themselves when Fenway came on board two seasons ago. The othjer two teams in the chase, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have always been the best funded teams year after year. All three organizations set the tone for what is to come in NASCAR with multi car teams that have gained advantage by having many more test dates than a one or two car operation. It has tilted the playing field or race track,if you will, in the direction of well funded multi car operations.
NASCAR used to pride itself on the fact that everyone could participate in its sport. All you had to do was build a fast race car, get yourself a qualified driver and show up for qualifying. Of course, the process is a little more involved but the principle stands. It is no longer true. There will be no more Dave Marcis or Jimmy Means type operations to come along. They were the single car teams owned and driven by the same person. Perhaps Alan Kelwin was the most famous of the dead breed when he actually won NASCAR title as an owner/driver. Sadly when he died in a plane crash the following season he may have talent he breed with him.
With the cost of NASCAR skyrocketing, by some estimates it cost as much as twenty million dollars to fund a competitive car. That leaves NASCAR in a quandary. They either have to figure out a new way to get teams funded or watch as marginal teams fall by the wayside and they have to resort to using field fillers to complete the fields in races. They have to figure out a way for Small teams to continue racing and create an environment where you are not asking so much from your sponsors. As it stands fewer and fewer companies can afford to sponsor a race team, the returns are just not there. It does not mean sponsorship is a bad idea. Lowes Home Improvement, who sponsors NASCAR champion Jimmy Johnson, realized over 200 million dollars in exposure during the last season. Other front running teams fared well also. But for the teams struggling for recognition in mid pack, sponsorship dollars do not always bring the value that sponsors thought they would receive.
The collapsing automobile industry in the US is also causing a lot of stress for NASCAR. Ford, GM, and Chrysler can no longer afford the type of money they infused into the sport. Pulling away from NASCAR is a big mistake for these companies. NASCAR fans are loyal fans and they buy NASCAR. Does that mean when a company leaves NASCAR or cuts back its involvement in the sport that they warrant less interest from the fans. Often times it works out that way.
In most areas of life, policies and plans are formulated with money in mind. NASCAR is at a new crossroads. It needs to address as an organization, the needs and problems of its teams and their viability. If they don’t they will see fewer and fewer competitive teams participating in the sport. Hopefully it will not regress to the point where ten teams are the only ones with a chance to win a race and a title.