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Field fillers, start and park cars, welcome to 2009

Unless newly elected president Obama can pull a giant rabbit out of a hat quickly, 2009 is going to be a doozey of a year. We’re going to see cutbacks and downsizing in all phases of the economy.  
Name an industry;  they’re looking for a bailout. The government printing presses have got to be cranking full speed 24-7 printing more money.  In 2009 the chickens have come home to roost.  
NASCAR is no different than any other industry in these tough times, with perhaps one exception. After decades of being very much a niche sport that car guys followed and enjoyed for years, in the 1990’s Wall Street and the TV networks discovered the sport.  A sport that had been all about racing for nearly half a century suddenly became all about MONEY.  Sponsors' Money.  Big bucks from a seemingly endless array of corporations anxious to get involved in the fastest growing new vehicle to get their name in front of their potential customers.
The pickup trucks and box trucks once used to tow the team’s car on trailers to the race tracks were replaced by gaudy chrome plated tractor trailer rigs, complete with crew lounges and satellite TV.   Cinder block garages behind the team owner’s houses gave way to monstrous palaces, each more architecturally beautiful and grand than the ones before, many complete with auditoriums and observation walkways for fan visits.  
Driver and crews piling six or eight into a van to travel to the next race, forget it. The teams soon had their own fleet of jet planes.  Drivers traveled in their own executive jets that rivaled the transportation of any Fortune 500 C.E.O.  Five or six men to a motel room. Not on your life.  Drivers and crew chiefs stayed in their own personal million dollar motor coaches at the tracks.  Each driven to the next venue by a paid driver while the driver arrived via his personal Lear Jet.  
It was fun while it lasted.  The key word is WAS.   Happy New Year.  It’s time for a big time reality check.  If nothing else, 2009 is going to sort out the racers from the pretenders.
The belt tightening goes all the way from NASCAR headquarters itself, down to the race teams.  
Even the major teams Hendrick, Roush-Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Richard Childress Racing have reduced staff.   More than 700 racing related jobs have been lost so far, according to the N.C. Motorsports Association.  More are expected as the year goes on.  
Sports Business Journal reports that NASCAR typically has 48 corporate sponsors, or partners. They go into the new season with ten fewer.  They have no representation as the official, rental car company, quick service restaurant, home improvement store, and photo copy store, among others.
Heading into the season-opener at Daytona, everyone will show up, looking sharp and putting their best foot forward.  The reality of the economic situation will quickly begin to set in during the following weeks.   At this point only 37 cars are reported committed to running the entire circuit.  Of those, only 29 cars are fully sponsored for the season.  That leaves a big question about the car count as the season progresses.  
Will NASCAR be able to maintain 43 car starting fields?
It seems inevitable that we will be returning to the era of field fillers and start and park cars to fill out the field.  
In the 60’s and 70’s there was a regular group of independent drivers who made a living following the circuit, running a few laps and pulling into the pits. They kept expenses down by not paying a pit crew, very little wear and tear on their cars or tire bills to deal with and made a living from the purse money at the bottom of the field.  
The Nationwide series saw a fair amount of that this past season.  The latest issue of Car and Driver Magazine has an excellent article about this practice as it currently exists on the nationwide circuit.   It quotes Cup and Nationwide driver Kenny Wallace saying, “The start and parkers only come out during financial hard times.  There’s a lot of money to be made in start and park. “
With the dearth of sponsors and last place on the Cup circuit paying in the neighborhood of $60,000, drivers like 67 year old Morgan Shepherd may go on forever.
You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

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