Bruce Martin
Monday December 1st, 2008

This is the week when drivers, mechanics, marketing executives and even the traveling slobs known as the "motorsports media" put on fancy clothes and tuxedos for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Banquet.

But with an economy teetering on further decline, and many of NASCAR's most loyal fans out of work, including some who have lost their houses to foreclosure, NASCAR should consider toning down this year's affairs.

In the past, the NASCAR banquet was a chance for the sport to fly its corporate muscles and show off its economic might. With so many of the top consumer brands and Fortune 500 companies involved in the sport, either as "official" sponsors or as car and team sponsors, NASCAR could show off its billion dollar industry. The amount of money spent on the affair was staggering.

Fans watching at home could see a certain glamour attached to their heroes, who sat at the head table. Moreover, checks with jaw-dropping numbers were awarded to the top 10 drivers in the series during the lengthy Friday night affair.

But this year is much different. I'm not so sure fans who wonder how they can afford Christmas gifts for the kids really want to see the rich get richer in this setting.

I'm not saying the banquet is a bad idea -- after all, this should be a night to honor Jimmie Johnson for becoming only the second driver to win the Cup three straight years, joining the great Cale Yarborough, who won from 1976 to '78. The Sprint Cup trophy itself signifies that perfectly in addition to the estimated $10 million the team will collect in New York.

But in the worst economic climate since The Great Depression it's just time to tone it down a little, that's all. There are several precedents to consider.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, both the NFL and the NBA made changes to the Super Bowl in Tampa and the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. The annual Commissioner's Party at the Super Bowl and the All-Star Game Party were toned down dramatically with music and entertainment acts scrapped to reflect the somber mood of a nation at war.

Seventeen years later in the city of Wall Street, it's time for NASCAR's banquet to reflect a similar mood.

For the first time since IMS started hosting three major events eight years ago, the winner of each of this season's races won his respective series championship.

Scott Dixon won the Indianapolis 500 on May 25 and went on to clinch his second IndyCar Series title. Valentino Rossi won the Red Bull Grand Prix on Sept. 14, which propelled him to his sixth MotoGP World Championship. And when Jimmie Johnson clinched his third NASCAR title on Nov. 16, he added the final championship to Indy's unique "Triple Crown." Johnson, of course, won the AllState 400 at the Brickyard on July 27.

Two weeks ago, the IndyCar Series announced that it would stop using corn-based ethanol produced in the United States for sugar-based ethanol made in Brazil.

On the surface, that move drew some criticism from, among others, The Wall Street Journal.

But the IndyCar Series explained why the move was made.

"The IndyCar Series is proud to be fueled by ethanol, a renewable energy fuel," said Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the Indy Racing League. "For the last three years, ethanol has been the official fuel as a result of a sponsorship agreement with the ethanol producers and EPIC, the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council.

"The ethanol producers recently notified the IndyCar Series that it would not be renewing the agreement for 2009 and beyond and EPIC is ceasing operation. No one from any other part of the American-based ethanol community stepped forward with a substantial proposal.

"Soon after, the IndyCar Series and APEX-Brasil reached a preliminary agreement. As part of that agreement, we plan on starting our 2009 season with American-produced ethanol. Opportunities still exist for American ethanol companies and organizations to continue involvement in the IndyCar Series. The IndyCar Series is pleased to continue to be the only major American racing series fueled by 100 percent fuel grade ethanol. APEX will use the IndyCar platform to promote a variety of Brazilian products, services and opportunities, including ethanol. We look forward to working with American producers and Brazilian producers of ethanol to promote ethanol as a renewable energy source and part of the solution to lessen the United States' reliance on Middle Eastern oil."

On the surface, this would look like another move made by a series that needs to drape itself in the American flag more than the Brazilian flag. But upon further review, it was the only move the series could make because it is committed to running engines with the renewable fuel in its series.

A switch back to methanol would require a tremendous amount of cost from its engine supplier, Honda. So in this case, signing an agreement with the Brazilian ethanol producers is one that just makes the most sense.

Apparently the troubled global economy has had no negative impact on the energy drink empire at Red Bull, which is taking 100 percent control of the Formula One Toro Rosso team by buying the 50 percent owned by former F1 driver Gerhard Berger.

Somehow, energy drinks have become all the rage, and motorsports has benefited from the millions of dollars its companies have pumped into the sport. Which begs the question, just how lethargic was the human race before this stuff was invented?

Before Dietrich Mateschitz's Red Bull teamed with Berger to overhaul the former Minardi Team, that outfit regularly held the role of "bringing up the rear" on the Formula One track. The first win in the team's 25-year history came in this season's Italian Grand Prix together with Sebastian Vettel, one of the Red Bull Driver Search Program's biggest talents. In the Formula One World Constructors' Championship, the Scuderia Toro Rosso achieved sixth place in the F1 standings.

"I'm very grateful to Gerhard for his enormous input," said Mateschitz, who also owns the Sprint Cup team that bears the name of his energy drink. "Together we have made Toro Rosso a team which, from 2008 onwards, will regularly qualify for the Top 10 and collect Championship Points."

"That's gotta be a great trivia question that you can use at the bar while you're enjoying a cold beer. Our winning streak at Penske is second only to Hendrick Motorsports (23 years). It's longer than Roush Racing's (12 years), longer than Joe Gibbs' Racing's (16 years) and longer than Richard Childress Racing's (four years). Even through the difficult seasons like we had this year, we've still been able to win races. That fact is certainly something that our team takes great pride in." -- Kurt Busch reflecting on the fact that Penske Racing's 18-year winning streak is the second longest active one in Sprint Cup racing.

"It's been a whirlwind this year. I feel like I'm always fighting time and sleep. It's nice to get away from the NASCAR circuit for a while, come home and spend time with my family and friends. It's going to be great and I'm really going to use this time to reinvent myself. I feel like I had my butt handed to me this year in the U.S. I finally got in some competitive equipment, got into that Cup racing game and realized that if I'm going to contend, I've really got to go to another level."

-- Marcos Ambrose of Australia on his NASCAR effort this year. He made 11 starts and finished 45 in the points standings.

Sarah Fisher has never won an IndyCar Series race, but the popular driver is showing she can be a winner off the race track. Sarah Fisher Racing is part of the "12 Days of Christmas Food Drive" to support the St. Vincent DePaul Food Pantry in Indianapolis.

The SFR Race Shop, O'Gara's Irish Pub and Lamping Cleaners will serve as collection sites for non-perishable food donations from Dec. 1-12. Cash and food donations will also be accepted through the U.S. Mail to the SFR race shop.

"I'm a big part of this community, and I'm lucky to have the opportunity to put on a program which will enable the citizens of Indianapolis to join me and the team in helping feed the homeless and those in need," said Fisher. "We heard that St. Vincent DePaul Food Pantry was low on inventory, and with this being our off-season, what better time to donate some extra help to those in need."

IndyCar driver Will Power will return to his roots when the Australian competes in the 2008 Performance Racing Industry (PRI) All-Stars Karting Classic in Orlando on Dec. 11.

Power will drive for the team in the Masters division, running as part of a three kart squad alongside fellow IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and leading NHRA Top Fuel drag racer Antron Brown.

"Karting is where it all began for me, but it's one part of my driving that I've never completely stepped away from," said Power, who raced karts at an early age in his hometown of Toowoomba in Queensland, Australia. "I still drive karts regularly, both here in Indianapolis and back home in Toowoomba. The karts are so fast and the tracks are so demanding that it's the best way to keep your eye between races or during the offseason.

"And on top of all those benefits, it's a huge amount of much fun and something you can do with your friends, whether it's other drivers or just your mates. So you can understand why so many drivers keep racing karts through their whole careers. Any training you do that's also fun is always great."

The All-Stars Karting Classic is staged at night and is the season finale for the U.S.-based Stars of Karting Series. The event is held in conjunction with the PRI convention and is telecast on U.S. television.

While much of the NASCAR world gets to sit through the endless NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York City, it's off to Lucas Oil Stadium for me to watch the Indianapolis Colts play the Cincinnati Bengals. Hey, everyone is entitled to a little offseason time, and mine is following Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

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