Imagine this dream scenario: for the first time ever, you're sitting right behind home plate at a major league baseball game. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you've paid top dollar in this tough economy to see your favorite ballplayers up close. But as teams change sides in the bottom of the first, you notice a problem. As the visiting team scratches its heads, you peer into the opposing dugout as no one comes out to bat...because they're all packing up and heading for the locker room.
Five minutes later, the game is called, and the home team is on its way home, counting your hard-earned money.
It sounds impossible, but this is a very real, very scary phenomenon sweeping NASCAR's top three series: the "start and park." While the series' biggest owners have continued to get richer, their smaller counterparts have had trouble dislodging them from the top. So they came up with a new, more profitable way to survive: pack it in early.
These teams are easy to find each Sunday, as a quick look down the final running order shows them pulling into the garage within the first 50 or 60 laps. At the Cup Series race at Pocono, there were five, all of which retired by Lap 56 due to "vibration," "fuel pump" or "ignition" issues -- problems that were really just words on paper per NASCAR policy to list a reason a car fails to finish. The Truck Series division was even worse, with a short field at Texas in which nine of the 33 cars packed it in before the conclusion of Lap 26. The stats sheet looks like a nightmare's worth of mechanical failures; but in reality, those teams had equipment they're deliberately choosing to pack up in pristine condition -- "parking" it to earn some purse money.
And when it comes to starting and parking, there's plenty of cash on the line. Those five cars -- a cool 12% of the starting field at Pocono -- picked up nearly $325,000 combined. Prism Motorsports, which owns the No. 66 car driven by Dave Blaney, has earned over $1.1 million this season despite finishing just two of 12 races. Completing just 866 of 3,975 laps (21%), they consistently pull in at or around the first pit stop, occasionally changing tires once to simply give the impression they're "trying" in front of NASCAR officials.
But starting and parking isn't a full-fledged effort at competing; it's an opportunity to pocket some serious cash to not just survive, but also profit. According to a source requesting anonymity, one of the lower-tier teams currently asks for about $100,000 from a financial backer as the bare minimum the team would need to complete a full race competitively. However, some of that cost -- about 30 to 40 percent -- comes from leasing an engine from a multi-car program like Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing in order to post speeds competitive enough to make the field.
If teams want to start and park, it can take the engine cost out of the equation by making the race and only running just a few laps, reducing wear and tear and preserving the engine they have over the course of five, 10, even 15 races. In the meantime, the team buys just a handful of tires for the weekend, saving thousands of dollars from Goodyear, and employs just regular crewmen instead of those professionally trained for the 16-second pit stops you see each weekend.
When you cut corners like that, the $100,000 becomes maybe half that amount, allowing teams like Prism to run a few laps and make a tidy profit with their $64,875 won at Pocono. It's turning racing into a business, allowing them to keep castaway crewmen, drivers and others employed while teams like Hendrick continue to hold all the money and the cards. Case in point: Phoenix Racing won a miracle race at Talladega borrowing a Hendrick driver (Brad Keselowski) and using a former Hendrick chassis. Two weeks later, Phoenix's beat-up old Dodge Charger -- without Hendrick support -- was pulling it in early at Darlington to bank some cash.
Part of the problem here surrounds NASCAR's widening money gap. These teams are so far behind the curve of the bigger programs, the only way they can challenge is to gain the millions in sponsorship and engineering advances those teams have accrued yet refuse to share with others. That leaves a bid for the Chase all but impossible, meaning the best these teams can race for is a chance to qualify for a locked in starting spot with NASCAR's Top-35 rule.
But the monetary incentive to run 25th or even 30th just isn't there. Just check out the purse money from Sunday's race: Joe Nemechek, who parked his car and finished 41st, earned $64,725 from the track. Fellow underdog driver Dexter Bean, who ran the whole distance, came home 36th and won $65,450. That's just a $725 difference -- not enough for even half a tire bill to run the full weekend. The competitor in you wants them to run all day; but if you're not going to make extra money for going the extra mile, the financial bottom line tells owners, "What's the point?"
And as a struggling economy only causes the numbers of start and parkers to increase, there are consequences. These programs designed to run only a few laps are knocking out full-time drivers who had every intention of competing, robbing the fans of an extra competitor on race day when the "start and park" team pulls it in after just a few minutes of competition. Of course, the goal of these programs is to one day pull in sponsorship themselves, but that's difficult -- if not impossible -- to do without some significant on-track exposure. So, many of these teams find themselves in a Catch-22, doing just enough to stay above water while falling short of the results they need to attract companies interested in backing them.
Fixing the problem would seem to be twofold: increasing incentive for owners to run the full distance while curbing the costs needed to compete. But doing that is far easier said than done, with multi-car teams feasting upon the money from clients to rent engines in these tough economic times. And with the Chase as NASCAR's postseason marketing tool, the top 12 contenders make the rest of the 43-car field all but meaningless come September.
At the moment, one thing's for certain: the sport's not doing anything to stop this problem. They're in a bit of a bind themselves, with clamping down on start-and-park programs giving them less than a 43-car field each week -- raising the specter of negativity from casual observers in the face of declining ratings and fan attendance. So, for now everyone's playing that dangerous game of turning their heads and pretending the problem just isn't a problem.
"NASCAR doesn't perceive this to be an issue," the organization said back in April. "It doesn't impact the quality of competition whatsoever. NASCAR has always been about teams having the opportunity to participate in our sport; some teams might not have the full complement of resources to compete at the same level as others, but it's all about having an opportunity."
The issue is, to keep that opportunity fans need to come and watch the races. And if half the starting field pulls out after just a few laps of competition ... would you still watch?
Let's hope we never have to find out; but as the money dries up for NASCAR's middle class, no changes mean this practice is only going to increase.
Michael Waltrip's announcement that Patrick Carpentier will run his No. 55 on the road courses is a prelude to the driver/owner stepping back for 2010. That seat, a seat at Penske, and a possible fourth team by Joe Gibbs Racing (both of which aren't a certainty at this point) may be the best rides available in what's looking to be one of the smallest Silly Seasons in years.
Speaking of Gibbs, Kyle Busch leads the circuit with three victories, but is a slumping ninth in points. Guitar-smashing incident aside, the team had better focus on its Cup program because Busch, Denny Hamlin (12th), and rookie Joey Logano (25th) could all miss the Chase just one year after the team entered the playoffs a heavy favorite to win the title.
NASCAR's double-file restarts were lauded by fans and drivers alike as a rousing success. But expect some tweaks heading to Infineon next week. Can you imagine a 43-car field going side-by-side every restart on a road course without incident? I certainly can't.
On the bright side of the "start and park" bubble, TRG Motorsports -- a team I wrote about back in April that's been struggling for funding all season -- plans to go the full distance for the next two races with driver David Gilliland. Heavy emphasis is being placed on the Infineon race next week; it's the team's home base and a track on which Gilliand finished second last year while driving for Robert Yates.