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NASCAR teams and drivers rethink how they should operate in sluggish economy

DAYTONA BEACH — Jeff Gordon is flying commercial. Many of his counterparts with private craft have begun jet-pooling, piling the once-unthinkable total of four or five others aboard with their buddies and girlfriends.

With the proper planning, NASCAR's monied elite can be more insulated than most from a putrid economic climate, but everything is relative. And things are relatively terrifying now in a sport that derives its sustenance from corporate sponsors and workaday fans, all of whom are ailing financially in their own way.

"Us drivers have gotten spoiled over the last, I guess, three or four years or so," said Denny Hamlin, 28, who enters his fourth season at NASCAR's top level. "We all have the planes and everything, and most of the time we're all taking off at the exact same time, and we have two people sitting in the plane. It just doesn't make sense."

Welcome to the age of the big rethink, from boardroom to cockpit.

Among teams, mergers, alliances and layoffs have become the main form of defense against liquidation and oblivion, with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing forming one four-car team and sloughing programs and employees. Gillette Evernham Motorsports consumed Petty Enterprises and the iconic No. 43 Dodge and rebranded itself Richard Petty Motor­sports. Hall of Fame merged with Yates. The legendary Wood Brothers, whose roots run as deep as the Pettys' into NASCAR's bedrock, have funding for just 12 races.

Most teams derive engine leases and other critical support from Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet), Roush (Ford) or Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota), and numerous reports have estimated total shop layoffs in the Charlotte, N.C., area at more than 1,000.

The Nationwide series is groping for an identity, and the truck series has just a few teams with full-time sponsors.

"We're in a delicate, fragile situation," truck series driver Rick Crawford said.

Still, there are entrepreneurs. Former Evernham Motorsports crew chief Tommy Baldwin will launch a team this season, and two-time series champion Tony Stewart will start his first campaign as a driver/owner.

"There's pros and cons to it," Stewart said of starting a team now. "From the economy side, it's terrible, but with that, it's created opportunities, too. There's probably a thousand good mechanics out there that are looking for work, so when you're starting a new organization and changing people, it makes it a lot easier to go out and find them. It's like a buffet."

"Correction" has become the less-apocalyptic word for the downturn among those who have maintained their livelihoods. NASCAR had become fat off a seemingly endless stream of dollars and a bloated work force after two decades of rapid growth. Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick, who owns a team that competes in the Nationwide and truck series, said, "In the end I think it's going to be something that's good for our sport.

"I think it's going to be good for our country and for everybody involved to tighten that belt, get rid of the fat, run your teams more efficiently," he said. "Everybody is looking at every piece of their business right now to make it better, and I think you're seeing ticket prices go down, you're seeing sponsorship values go down, you're seeing team costs go down."

Said driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who merged his JR Motorsports Nationwide series team with that of his Sprint Cup team, Hendrick Motorsports: "We sort of quit cutting corners and costs and just stopped paying attention to the little things, trying to save a buck here and there, and it's sort of biting a bunch of people in the butt now."

Hamlin, who qualified for Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship in each of his three full seasons, considers himself fortunate to be locked into a long-term deal contractually with successful Joe Gibbs Racing and a sponsor as he has seen friends laid off and peers struggle to maintain viable rides.

"We don't know how long we're going to be as fortunate as what we are, and especially me," he said. "I mean, Jeff is obviously lifetime, but you can't take for granted the situation that you have right here in front of you, and you've got to be prepared for anything that hits you."

Ryan Newman, who left Penske Racing after 10 seasons to join Stewart in his venture, takes a more free-market approach to the possible pains within his industry.

"Just because the unemployment rate went up doesn't mean the world is crashing down," he said. "I'm not a very good politician. You can tell. I think it's going to be tougher than it was, but the people who have to worry about it is the fans."

Gordon, 37, estimates he saved at least $100,000 in January by flying commercial and because he did not need to arrange private travel to various tracks because of NASCAR's cost-saving testing moratorium.

That shortish guy with the brown hair thumbing through BlackBerry messages at the United Airlines gate the weekend of the Talladega race just might be a four-time Sprint Cup champion.

"I think I made a few new fans," he said, laughing. "I think some people are doing that double take, but everybody was very cool."

Everyone's in this together, apparently.

Fast facts

Daytona 500

3:30 p.m., Feb. 15, Ch. 13 (qualifying, 1 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 13)

Speedweeks schedule, 2C

NASCAR teams and drivers rethink how they should operate in sluggish economy 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 9:26pm]

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