Tom Bowles
Thursday June 25th, 2009

The two biggest racing series in the world, Formula 1 and NASCAR, don't have much in common. NASCAR's big, bulky stock cars pale in comparison to F1's open-wheel marvels of engineering precision, with the wind tunnel meaning just as much to a team's finish as the driver in the cockpit. With side-by-side racing difficult in F1, there are more lead changes in one stock car race than there are in one-third of an F1 season.

But off the track, the two series share a common bond of multi-car team organizations that threaten to dominate their sport. It's a hot-button issue in a tough economy, and NASCAR should take note of the tumult that swept F1 this month.

This week's agreement by FOTA and the FIA to come together for the 2010 season not only preserved the future of the open-wheel series but also allowed for an important measure: cost-cutting. For the first time, the series' biggest organizations -- Ferrari, McLaren and Toyota among them -- came together on a plan to curb spending. Sure, it wasn't exactly what FIA President Max Mosley had in mind -- he couldn't get everyone to commit to a hard cap of $60 million -- but there were still enough concessions to ensure the 2010 season will be a cheaper one.

Three new teams will still be entering the sport next year, and now the cost of staying involved will be low enough to keep the old ones from dipping in the red. That means while other series are struggling to attract new owners to the grid, the F1 series will actually expand next year by as many as half-a-dozen cars.

What does all that have to do with NASCAR? While series head Brian France has done his best to cut costs in recent years (see: no testing, the Car of Tomorrow), it hasn't been enough to attract successful new owners during this latest recession. As I documented two weeks ago, start and parkers continue to dominate the back end of the garage due to an inability to make money and remain competitive at the same time. The sport is struggling to fill its fields, and when it does, the cars that show up rarely have the cash flow and the intentions of running an entire race.

Solving the problem is difficult, but to make the playing field more cost-effective you have to find a way to make the big teams stop spending. A top-level Cup team these days has costs around $25 million per car, money not many people have when both manufacturer and sponsorship money is drying up. Yet when money is tight, the old saying rings true: "To the victors go the spoils." With the cost of competition going up each year, the bigger organizations can't stand pat with the sponsors they already have; rather, they're forced to add new ones in order to offset higher expenses.

Just look at the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth as an example. On one of the top-tier teams at Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth used to only need money from longtime supporter DeWalt to run for the series title. But with costs increasing, the tool company can only give the team so much money, meaning Kenseth's list of backers has grown significantly. USG, R & L Carriers, and Carhartt are just some of the roughly half-a-dozen primary sponsors that will plaster the side of Kenseth's Ford this year, and that's still not enough. RFR announced recently DeWalt needs additional financial relief to keep sponsoring the car in 2010.

What's interesting about that example is two of the sponsors listed (USG and R & L Carriers) came into the sport supporting smaller organizations that no longer exist. As the balance of power shifted, these sponsors jumped ship and aligned themselves with surefire exposure -- the coverage that comes from the sport's top teams -- while leaving one less financial piece of the puzzle out there for new owners looking to develop into contenders.

Now, with the manufacturer cutbacks, that cycle of gobbling up the smaller sponsors is only going to get worse. Teams like Richard Childress Racing are set to lose as much as $10 million next season from GM's recent struggles, leaving them in desperate need of additional financial support. Rick Hendrick is in the same boat, and the sport's richest car owner announced recently the team may need additional backing for 2010 for Mark Martin's No. 5 car -- even if sponsors Kellogg's and CARQUEST stay on board.

Of course, both teams wouldn't need that money if the cost of competition went down by $10 million. But how does the cycle of spending stop?

NASCAR is looking at several options -- crate engines appear to be one likely solution -- but nothing that's a permanent answer. To solve this problem it may take a group effort the likes of which the sport has never seen before. NASCAR just had a town hall meeting with all of its participants -- perhaps it's time for a second one with just the sport's multi-car giants in the room. Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress and, yes, Michael Waltrip either own or supply chassis and engines to over half the Cup Series garage. Until these men can come to terms on a spending cap, they're going to keep finding ways to make the cost of competition increase: and in doing so, they'll risk pricing the sport they love right out of business.

Joey Logano may be running away with the Rookie of the Year chase, but he's only the third-best first-year driver on the circuit. Not only has Brad Keselowski won a race already (Talladega), but also Tasmanian Marcos Ambrose is having a more impressive full-time season. With two top-5 and four top-10 finishes -- including a third at Infineon -- he's up to 18th in points and has a slight chance to make the Chase. So why is Logano so far out in front? Keselowski never applied to run for this year's award, while Ambrose ran too many races last year (11) to be eligible. That's a little confusing to the casual fan, though, and you wonder if the rookie program won't get itself a revamp prior to 2010.


With Kevin Harvick enduring the worst Cup season of his career, there's been talk he would bolt RCR and start his own team next year under the Kevin Harvick, Inc. banner. But with GM cutbacks to both the Nationwide and Truck Series, that's far less likely as Harvick's cars were among the hardest hit. How can you fund a Cup team when you need to scramble to save your lower-tier programs instead?


With all due respect to Tony Stewart, through 16 races Jimmie Johnson remains the clear favorite to win his fourth straight title. He's scored more points at this stage (2,207) than in two of the past three years he took home the trophy, and he's shown no signs of vulnerability heading into the sport's summer stretch.

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