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NASCAR's economic questions hit close to home for Aric Almirola

HOMESTEAD — There is a tone in Aric Almirola's voice that underscores his impatience for the final race of the 2008 Sprint Cup season. The Tampa native is 24, set to take over in 2009 as the full-time driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

It is a dream of a lifetime fulfilled young. But his dream comes at a nightmarish time for NASCAR, when outside economic forces have the sport on puppet strings.

Sponsors, relied upon to pay in excess of $20-million just to ally themselves with one competitive car, are balking at making new commitments. Small and once-strong teams are merging, liquidating employees as a hedge against skyrocketing costs.

The death throe of U.S. automakers General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Ford threatens to remake the way the sport competes, if the manufacturers are forced to withdraw support and end what they claim has long been a fruitful relationship.

Though Ford appears to be in a relatively sound position among the Big Three, continuing to see a return on its investment, according to NASCAR marketing manager Tim Duerr, "When you're bleeding through the cash that the domestic automobile manufacturers are going through right now, it's always a challenge to spend any money."

Almirola is emblematic of a crisis that has grown the past five years. Just four seasons into his career at NASCAR's top levels, he already has worked for four organizations without ever having been fired or publicly criticized by an owner, an unusual feat.

He left Joe Gibbs Racing in July 2007 for a more immediate route to Sprint Cup with Ginn Racing. But that team, purchased by Celebration-based developer Bobby Ginn, foundered financially and was absorbed by DEI.

On Wednesday DEI, whose struggles in part led to Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving this season for Hendrick Motorsports, merged with equally futile Chip Ganassi Racing.

Almirola survived the pruning of two cars to comply with NASCAR's four-car cap per team, but lacks a full-time sponsor and the team is trying to cobble together finances with a series of partial contributors.

"I had talked with (DEI executives) Max (Siegel) and John (Story) and (owner) Teresa (Earnhardt) and I felt pretty confident that I was going to be okay," Almirola said, "but at the same time, we're in an economy-driven sport and it takes a lot of money to run these race cars. I'm excited about driving every week, but the reality of it is, we still need sponsors."

Everyone involved with NASCAR seemingly needs something these days, said Peter DeLorenzo, an industry analyst and publisher of autoextremist.com. The sport needs a better economy; it needs a plan, he said.

And he's not convinced NASCAR chairman Brian France has one.

"This is an opportunity for NASCAR to reinvent itself," he said. "Whether Brian France and his team have the vision to do that, I'm not so sure because they're pretty comfortable the way things are and the way things have been and the glass is always half full for them. I'm sure they think, 'Well, we'll get through this.' "

The series announced a ban on testing at tracks that host national touring series events beginning in 2009, which could save teams several million dollars per car per test. In some ways, NASCAR could finally be saving the teams from themselves, said retired three-time champion and former team-owner Darrell Waltrip.

"We're race-aholics, and race-aholics spend what they have, and a little bit more," he said. "And so if you have $20-million, you spend 21."

Such is not a choice for DEI and Almirola, which saw the U.S. Army opt to leave the No. 8 car for a more established driver in Ryan Newman. Almirola understands that cash, as much as fuel, makes a race car run, but he's concentrating on the dream.

"It's a good time for me right now in my life," he said. "I'm really looking forward to waking up and going to Daytona."

But it's not going to be the same Daytona for him or anyone else by then.

NASCAR's economic questions hit close to home for Aric Almirola 11/14/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 11:38pm]
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