Bruce Martin
Monday October 27th, 2008

HAMPTON, Ga. -- As Americans prepare to go to the polls to vote on Election Day, the underlying theme is "It's the economy, Stupid." That same phrase could be used to describe the plight of NASCAR.

As the U.S. economy continues to weaken, NASCAR is getting hit the hardest of any of the major sports because its business model depends on corporate sponsorship to run its teams and the series.

"It starts with NASCAR," says Bruton Smith, the Chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns tracks at Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte and Texas, among others that host Cup races. "They have to cut expenses. All businesses today have to cut expenses. In business, we have meetings every month where we hammer away at expenses. A business has to whack on those expenses every month.

"The racing business is not a complicated business. I'm in a lot of complicated businesses but racing isn't one of them. If we do a better job with the fans and give them what they want, we will all benefit from that. It's greed, greed, greed and we've had an overdose of it in all of the economy. From hotels charging ridiculous rates and having four- or five-night minimums for race fans."

Smith called Felix Sabates the "prognosticator of the year" after he told SI.com two weeks ago that there will be eight fewer cars in the Cup garage area next year because of the economy.

"The teams have two-legged overhead." Smith said. "I told NASCAR that 2009 would be a tough year. I told them that as early as April of this year. I hope NASCAR changes the direction of some things. When you talk about the economy, you have to look at everything. If this guy has a team and has 45 employees, you don't need 45 employees, but you've got them. Maybe they only need 35.

"The first thing we look at in business is two-legged overhead. NASCAR has people that work for them that they don't even know. I'm not even sure all of them show up to work. Teams have an unbelievable number of workers. They have people hired to keep an eye on the other people. That needs to be cut back.

"NASCAR has to reduce costs. The COT is costing teams millions of dollars and that is pathetic. We could have taken the car from two years ago and made it safer. The guys in the garage area are brilliant and we need to let that brilliance go to work. And there are things the team owners need to do to cut expenses. This is stock car racing. We're not Formula One. This has been a runaway freight train for the last five or six years on expenses."

But even with changes, NASCAR officials said the competitive model of the sport would not change dramatically.

"There are always going to be a big disparity between the guys that have the most and the guys who have the least," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications. "What we have now is we have more cars closer to the ones with than we've ever had before."

As for the economy, Hunter believes it will sort itself out.

"You never know what a price-point is until people stop buying it," Hunter said. "Everything in this sport has escalated to where we are today -- ticket prices at the tracks, cost of participation, salaries, everything has increased. In our economy, there has always been a correction. I look at this as a correction. We are on a correction path right now."

Hunter said speedways are concentrating on added value because it's hard to reduce prices on tickets.

"Our attendance for the last couple of years has been flat, even down in a lot of instances," Hunter said. "But we'll weather it. This industry has proven it can get tough. Some of the best car owners in that garage know what a good baloney sandwich tastes like. This thing will keep going because people like to see cars race."

Teams may have to accept less money from sponsors in order to keep their cars funded. But Smith believes using some smart thinking can keep the grandstands full of spectators even in bad times.

"We have over 300 million people in this county," Smith said. "We are only after a small percentage of them. That is all we are after. If you are running one of these deals, you work harder. Give the people what they want, promote hard and they will be there. Start with a better hot dog. Make parking better. Things like that help the spectator."

Smith has always been viewed as a maverick by the NASCAR powers in Daytona Beach, dating to the early days of the sport. At times, he has considered a takeover of the industry, but has backed away from that idea and also realizes that splitting from NASCAR would not work.

Many men his age are already in the retirement home, but Smith has no time for that. And that's a great thing for the sport because many of Smith's ideas are just what NASCAR needs to endure the economic challenges that exist today.

With the American automotive industry trying to become relevant again, the news that General Motors and Chrysler are discussing a merger has led to some concern in the garage area. And while no one believes the loss of one of the circuit's four automakers would be a devastating blow, two officials that I spoke to acknowledged that it wouldn't be an easy road to travel either.

"You deal with it when it happens," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "We didn't always have four manufacturers; we didn't always have three. We used to just have GM and Ford. One of the things to always remember is we have drivers, crews and team owners. We make rules and regulations on the cars that are out there available to drive.

"We're not trying to be smug about it," he added, "but they are basically big sponsors. We didn't have any manufacturer participation in the late 1970s -- virtually none. Junior Johnson had a decent Chevy deal at the time and Richard Childress lived off that quite a bit. The Pettys were independent. They would run an Oldsmobile on one track and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo on another one and a Chevy Caprice on another. Kyle Petty would run a Dodge Charger. That was all out of the same stable."

Added NASCAR's Jim Hunter, "The questions to be asked would be what models? Would they pick a car? Would it be Chevrolet or Dodge or would they run both? We have no idea. In the history of this sport, manufacturers have been in and out all the time, going back to 1957 when AMA banned motorsports participation by the manufacturers. In 1964, Big Bill France banned the Chrysler Hemi engines, so it was all Fords. But I still think what wins on Sunday sells on Monday, even in a weakened economy. People relate to what they drive and what their favorite driver drives. That's a given.

"I would not like to see this with no factory participation," Hunter added, "because both the dollars and the support they give the teams help drive the economical engine. However, we have raced before with no manufacturer support before. When there is no manufacturer support, teams will pick a car that is the best car out there. Hopefully, this will eventually work its way out, as it always has. Some may make it and some won't."

Pulling for Jimmie Johnson is like rooting for the IRS. He doesn't have the fan appeal of a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or even a Jeff Gordon. Fans politely applaud him after a victory but don't really show much passion for the driver who is about to win this third-straight Cup championship.

"Jimmie, he's my neighbor, great guy, super guy," Bruton Smith said. "If he got out of the race car and hit somebody in the mouth, the drama toward him would increase dramatically. But Jimmie is not that kind of guy. I don't want anybody hurt, but you've got to have drama."

After last week's win at Martinsville, I proclaimed in this space that it's over as far as The Chase is concerned. Johnson didn't do anything to disprove that on Sunday at Atlanta, where he rallied from 30th following a penalty for speeding on pit road to finish second. He has a 183-point lead over Atlanta race winner Carl Edwards with three races remaining.

At this rate, Johnson is going to clinch the championship before the last race of the season, barring an unforeseen collapse at either Texas or Phoenix. Some will call the stretch run anticlimactic. Johnson calls it fantastic.

"When you look at what has been done in other sports, you watched Lance Armstrong go for his seventh Tour de France with the world, and especially North America, excited to see if he could do it. I would hope that through all of this, that people would watch and say, 'This is pretty cool. I mean, a guy has a chance to do something that has been done once before and then will re-rack next year and chase history.' From my perspective I hope it is three-in-a-row and then trying to do four in a row."

When Team Red Bull was hit with major penalties after Brian Vickers' car was found to have sheet metal that did not meet the minimum thickness requirement at Martinsville, rumors spread that the team had dipped the sheet metal in acid to lighten its weight.

NASCAR officials say that was not the case.

"I think that is so over-rated, it doesn't matter if they dipped it or not," said Pemberton. Sheet metal is like shoes. It comes in all shapes and sizes and thickness and it's not a crime to buy big or little, tall or short. They sell rolls of sheet metal as thin as that paper and as thick as bridge structures. [Team Red Bull] just didn't meet the minimum thickness."

Pemberton said the "acid dipping" became a joke in the garage area that some media members reported it as fact.

"Here is how the acid stuff came into play a number of years ago, 15 or 20 years ago," Pemberton said. "It was when a lot of parts and pieces were stamped out and the factory handed them to you -- roofs and deck lids and hood stands and C panels. You would spray this stuff on, it would eat a couple thousandths of an inch off, and you would hose it off and measure it when there weren't rules and regulations for it. There wasn't a rule for thickness; it just had to be thick enough to hold the paint.

"It is [a rule] now with the new car because of the safety innovations -- the door panels have to have enough structure to hold the foam. The acid dipping, that came and went 15 years ago."

They were dancing in the streets of Surfer's Paradise after Australia's Ryan Briscoe became the first native driver to win on the streets of the Gold Coast in Sunday's Nikon Indy 300.

Briscoe started third, led two-thirds of the race and scored the third IndyCar Series win of his season and career in a race that was not considered part of the 2008 championship.

He took the lead for the final time on Lap 43 after the final round of pit stops and held off New Zealand's Scott Dixon, who finished 0.5019 of a second behind the Australian.

Two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who was allowed to participate in this race after a federal judge allowed him to travel outside the United States pending his trial for tax evasion, finished seventh. Danica Patrick finished 18th, two laps down.

The IndyCar Series was contractually obligated to finish the championship at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 7, so this race did not pay points. What IndyCar should have done was make this the first points paying race for the 2009 championship. It would have only made sense considering that driver Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Vitor Meira were all competing for their new teams in this race.

Wheldon finished 11th for Panther Racing, Meira 14th for A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Franchitti 16th for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

Australia's Casey Stoner won for the sixth time in 2008 at the MotoGP World Championship at the Grand Prix of Valencia -- the final race of the season for the high-speed motorcycle set.

"We couldn't really have asked for much more today," Stoner said. "To end a difficult season in this way is a fantastic feeling and it's a nice way to thank everybody at Ducati for their hard work. Once again my crew got it right, finding a good setting for the bike despite limited dry track time."

With his victory, Stoner, the 2007 MotoGP World Champion, finished second in points, by a margin of 373-280, to 2008 World Champion and Fiat Yamaha Team rider Valentino Rossi.

American riders Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards fared well in the season finale, with Repsol Honda Team rider Hayden, of Owensboro, Ky., finishing fifth and Tech 3 Yamaha rider Edwards, of Houston, closely trailing in sixth.

A new era begins for Hayden Oct. 27, when he moves to the Ducati Marlboro Team and begins testing at Valencia.

"We just start the race too late, you can't see going into Turn 1, and how can you race around a corner when you can't see going in to it. How are we supposed to hit our marks at 180 mile an hour when you can't see the rest of the corner? We need to start the race at 12 o'clock like we are supposed to. Quit this 2 o'clock mess and finish these races where you can see going off in to the corner. I was getting around the bottom pretty good and once the sun got in my eyes, I couldn't hit my marks because I couldn't see them anymore."

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr., complaining about the late starting time at Atlanta, where the green flag dropped at 2:11 p.m. to accommodate ABC's telecast.

"I don't even know what the points are but no, not until they give him the trophy. Until it is mathematically over, it's never over. I've learned that in this sport."

-- Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's crew chief, when asked if everyone is running for second in the championship. However, Gordon is 312 points out with three races to go so it is over for the No. 24 team in terms of winning this year's championship.

"It would be my suggestion as NASCAR looks at how to make this more exciting, if every team had an opportunity to throw out one race and be able to just count nine of the 10, that means you could have a mulligan and you could be able to come back from it."

-- Carl Edwards team owner, Jack Roush, on what he would like to see done to make The Chase more competitive.

"That's not going to happen. That would be akin to Major League Baseball throwing out one of the seven games in the World Series."

-- NASCAR Public Relations Director Kerry Tharp in response to Roush's idea about throwing out a driver's worst race in The Chase.

Carl Edwards' victory was his seventh Cup win of 2008. The last time a Ford driver won at least seven Cup races in a season was 1998, when Mark Martin won seven.

Jeff Gordon has three races remaining to score his first victory of the season. If he does not win at Texas, Phoenix of Homestead, this will be the first time in 14 years that Gordon has not won at least one Cup race. The last time that happened was Gordon's rookie season in 1993.

While NASCAR heads to Texas Motor Speedway, the Formula One World Championship will be decided in the Brazilian Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain has a seven-point lead over Felipe Massa of Brazil. However, Hamilton took a similar lead into the final race of the season last year and lost the championship to Kimi Raikkonen.

If Hamilton wins, he will be the youngest F1 champion, at 23, and the first of his race to win the world championship.

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