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NASCAR feeling the pinch

Because of the worldwide economic slowdown, much of the big-money sponsorship in NASCAR has either disappeared or been cut back substantially.

Although nearly 60 cars are at the Daytona International Speedway this week trying to make the 43-car field for Sunday’s Daytona 500, it’s no secret that almost a third could disappear by the time the 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shifts into high gear.

Because of the worldwide economic slowdown, much of the big-money sponsorship in NASCAR has either disappeared or been cut back substantially. A handful of teams have gone out of business. Other previously successful organizations – Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing are just two examples – have either had to merge or pool some of their resources to stay racing.

NASCAR banned off-season testing to help teams save money. Regardless, there have been several thousand job losses since the 2008 season ended and a gloom has settled over the sport as it prepares to open its ’09 season.

It’s a worry for legendary NASCAR and IRL promoter Eddie Gossage, president and general manager of the Fort Worth-area Texas Motor Speedway where two Sprint Cup races – the Samsung 500 April 5 and the Dickies 500 Nov. 8 – will be run this year.

But it also presents a challenge, one of many that the journalism graduate from Middle Tennessee State University has faced since he got his first auto racing job at Nashville Speedway 30 years ago when he was 20.

But Gossage also thinks that U.S. government interference and the media’s reporting of it are making a bad situation worse.

“I think the scrutiny from the media and the scrutiny from the U.S. Congress have caused a lot of corporations to pull the reins back – and they’re the people that buy the tickets to big sporting events,” he said in a telephone interview.

“We sell tens of thousands of tickets to corporations (the Texas speedway seats 160,000),” he said. “A year ago, those corporations were buying 500 tickets or 300 tickets and now they’re only buying 100 because they don’t want Congress to do to them what it’s done to, say, the auto manufacturers (who were criticized for flying to Washington in their private jets to seek government bailout money).”

But Gossage also thinks that if NASCAR wants to survive the economic crisis, it has got to battle back.

“It’s a tough time,” he said, “but we have to take care of our business and work harder than we’ve ever worked before. We have to try to be more fan friendly and we have to be more accessible and everybody in our sport has to share that obligation – whether it’s track promoters, the drivers, the team owners or even NASCAR itself.

“If we don’t do that, then we’re going to pay a very heavy price.”

Gossage said it’s a given that because of corporate cutbacks there will be empty seats at NASCAR races this year. But, in true glass-half-full fashion, he points out that this creates an opportunity for individual customers.

“This is a great time to be a race fan,” he said.

“There are bargains out there both in terms of race tracks with reduced ticket prices and other promotions, but also hotels and motels are reducing their rates as well. It’s a buyers’ market.”

Calling it an “investment in the future,” Gossage points out that at his speedway, he’s cut ticket prices in half for seats in the back grandstands from a range of $45-$80 to $20-$45 (U.S.).

“We’ve never had a reserved seat for a Cup race that low in our history,” he said. “Those are obviously not the best seats in the house but here’s what we’re trying to do: I’ve studied Major League Baseball and the NHL and they both had work stoppages.

“When they started playing again, the fans didn’t return automatically. Maybe it’s a little different in Canada, but I know down here, they (the fans) haven’t returned after the lockout the way the NHL hoped.

“So what I’m looking at with the $20 ticket is to help bridge the troubled waters for those fans who are having some tough times. If they can still come to the races and buy a $20 ticket – and we don’t charge for parking and we’ve cut our concession prices accordingly, too – then when the good times return, and they will, then those folks will still be interested in our sport, they`ll still be engaged and they’ll buy our higher-priced tickets in return.”

Gossage isn’t too concerned that by the time the tour gets to Texas in April, the traditional NASCAR starting field of 43 cars might just be a memory – because he’s been there before.

“Now, I know it (a `short’ field) will be a big deal, because the media will make it a big deal,” he said. “So it’ll be a big negative. But I don’t think it’ll have any impact on the quality of racing. As long as you have Johnson, Gordon, Dale Jr., Stewart, Biffle and those guys going at it, we’ll be fine.

“The truth is, it doesn’t matter if you have 43 cars or 37 cars or whatever. I don’t think of myself as an old guy and I’ve promoted Cup races that only had 30 starters. That was back in the ’80s, at Bristol.”

Again, from the perspective of the bright side, Gossage thinks this “correction” that the slowdown has enforced on big-league stock car racing might not be a bad thing.

“Do we need wind-tunnel testing to put on a good race?” he asked.

“Do we need a dozen people with graduate degrees in engineering on one team to put on a good race? Do we need more private aircraft, including some 727s, to put on a good race?

“Do we need these private motor coaches that cost in the neighbourhood of a million dollars each to put on a good race?

“Obviously, the answer is no. Our sport has grown to enjoy excess, but the racing was great before we had all these things and I think the best race for the fan still comes from the driver that makes the gutsiest move and the crew that rolls the dice and makes the right call.”

 

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