In spite of the twinkling holiday lights and fresh scent of pine trees in the air, there is no peace on earth as the US economy continues to struggle.
This economic turmoil has already deeply impacted the sport of NASCAR. The first signs have been the tell-tale pink slips that started flowing through the garage area after the final race in Homestead.
Even storied teams such as Hendrick Motor Sports have not been immune to the layoffs. In fact, champion Jimmie Johnson’s spotter was one of the first to be let go.
Other teams are also suffering. The future of Petty Enterprises is uncertain, with heir Kyle Petty out of a ride and Bobby Labonte leaving the team this week.
Legendary Dale Earnhardt Inc. is facing similar woes. Recent merger discussions with Ganassi will result in four teams, yet only two and a half sponsors.
To date, close to 600 employees of the racing world have lost their jobs. And the numbers are sure to rise as more teams grapple with the economic uncertainties.
Sponsorship woes also abound. General Motors just announced that the company is rethinking its decades long sponsorship of NASCAR’s biggest show, the Daytona 500.
What is NASCAR to do in this epic battle with the US economy? Short of throwing up their hands and gnashing their teeth, there are many steps that NASCAR can take to address these economic challenges.
One of the first issues that the sport should address in these tough times is that of sponsor exclusivity.
While companies like Sprint have invested mightily to be the title sponsor, they have also forced out other competing companies in the process. The sport no longer has the luxury of losing sponsors like Cingular/AT&T and Alltel because of exclusivity requirements.
In that same vein, NASCAR must also do more sponsor sharing and cross promoting in order to survive.
Instead of competing for sponsors, NASCAR should introduce its sponsors to teams and tracks alike. Creative cross promotions will not only help the sport but could also increase the overall value of the sponsorship dollar.
The final option that NASCAR must explore is a renewed focus on the fan.
NASCAR should consider working with track partners to reduce ticket prices and working with sponsors to provide reasonable ways for fans to attend races, including lower prices for rooms and special travel packages.
Drivers and teams could also help by increasing fan access and fan experiences on and off the track.
The most important thing that NASCAR can do, however, is to make each race a show. Fans, new and old, come for the experience of seeing cars on the track, smelling the burning rubber, and feeling the thundering power of the racing motors. If NASCAR can guarantee close, side-by-side racing, the fans will hunger for that Sunday relief from their everyday worries.
Will NASCAR survive? Let’s face it, NASCAR racing is not for the faint of heart.
This is a sport that got its start during the Great Depression, as bootleggers ran their moonshine. Drivers put their lives on the line each time they take the track. And NASCAR fans are some of the most hard-core and loyal in sports today.
NASCAR leadership, teams, drivers and fans will surely be tested during this recession. But the drive to take the checkered flag, that competitive, no holds barred spirit that abounds in NASCAR, is indeed what will ensure its survival, even in these unsettling times.