By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Hey, wanna start a NASCAR team and come play this game?
Fat chance, if you plan to start from scratch, unless you’re a glutton for financial punishment.
But there are some interesting business investment opportunities, if you’re the gambling type.
The price of running an existing Nextel Cup team has gone through the roof this season. The gap between the Haves and the Have-nots is a canyon. And for the right price you can probably pick up an existing team right now.
Team owner Richard Childress says the rush by outsiders to merge with current teams is based on the belief NASCAR’s Brian France is ready to set up an official ‘franchising’ system for the sport. But Childress says France has no such plans. Indeed NASCAR has steadfastly opposed franchising (though its top-35 rule, guaranteeing the top-35 a spot in each weekend’s field, is de facto franchising).
Now life may be good at the top of the heap. The Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Rick Hendrick sponsorship package is valued at estimated $28 million a year, for example.
But under the heap they’re suffocating.
Robert and Doug Yates are on the edge of the cliff. The Pettys are merging with Ray Evernham who is merging with wealthy outsider George Gillett. Robby Gordon and the Woods look like toast, unless they can each put together much stronger business plans. Cal Wells is long gone, and so are Bobby Ginn and others who have packed it in as the price of racing has soared. Ginn lasted less than a year before bailing out.
Of course the guys with deep pockets here in the NASCAR garage may love the dwindling of competition.
But this is not healthy for the sport.
Two years ago right here France declared he was limiting car owners to ‘just’ four teams, by 2009 or 2010. That was quite clearly aimed at Jack Roush, who had just put all five of his teams in the playoffs. France had hinted he was looking at limiting owners to three teams, but decided against that; Rick Hendrick is the only other owner with more than three teams.
But now two years later, NASCAR has tacitly okayed Roush to work with the Yates, in a Team Ford arrangement, to save the Yates’ franchise.
When it comes to the business of NASCAR racing, this is indeed big business, but the classic business model for a NASCAR team is long broken, and anyone who tries to keep doing things the same old way seems doomed.
Succinctly, this sport is becoming Team Ford versus Team Dodge versus Team Toyota versus Team Chevrolet. And if you’re not a member in good standing in one of those camps, better call 1-800-Honda and see if you can get a deal.
Two key issues to ponder: sluggish TV ratings, even for the hotly touted ‘chase for the championship,’ and the car-of-tomorrow, which increasingly looks like a boondoggle, both technically and economically.
—NASCAR executives, their fourth season into it, still haven’t got this championship chase package set up right: the first two events, at Loudon, N.H., and Dover, Del., were dogs, and the ratings showed that. And today’s 400 will likely be another boring gas-mileage race, like this track has become known for. ABC will have to hope for something spectacular if it hopes to match or beat last year’s 4.0 by NBC or the 4.5 on NBC in 2005.
When it comes to the playoffs, the line to consider may be this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
This event is one ABC officials say will be their first head-to-head showdown, apples-to-apples, with what NBC was able to do with this part of the tour during its own run.
The chase, of course, needs to kick off with a splash, in a big-market, hot-target venue, like Los Angeles or Las Vegas (though even in September an event at either place would have to be at night because of the heat).
Talladega next Sunday will almost certainly be a big TV event; it always is. But the fall 500 has gone downhill in the ratings three straight season, from a 5.4 in 2005 to a 4.8 last year (all on NBC).
And Major League Baseball is starting its playoffs, and NASCAR’s Atlanta stop will go head-to-head with the World Series.
—NASCAR’s car-of-tomorrow project needs a major review because it appears to be failing on some key issues.
One driver bluntly calls the new car “a pig,” because it handles so badly. The center-of-gravity is much higher than the car-of-today, and the aerodynamics are not only confusing – particularly the invisible trailing ‘wake’ – but NASCAR is taking such a strict ‘No!’ to any body modifications, which leaves crew chiefs seemingly powerless during a race to make any meaningful handling changes.
Drivers and crew chiefs are becoming increasingly disgruntled with the deaf ears their complaints fall upon, particularly when some simple and easy changes could be made. If NASCAR executives think their hard-line on body templates for the new model is cutting costs, they’ve got their heads in the sand. This project has become labor-intensive, and instead of helping the ‘little guys’ in this sport, it is driving them right out of business.
A big problem with the car-of-tomorrow – drivers complain they can’t pass for the lead, because there’s not enough downforce on the nose. And the race-leader stats bear that out. It’s all so hit-or-miss: Clint Bowyer kicks everyone at Loudon; Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon rout the field at Richmond; Matt Kenseth and Carl Edward have it all their way at Dover.
Such dominance doesn’t make for good TV, even given the saturation marketing by ABC and ESPN this season.
NASCAR bosses need only consider Bristol’s three late August events: the smooth, new concrete made for great action in that Wednesday’s Truck race, great action in Friday’s Busch race, and a boring Cup race on Saturday. That should have been a clear sign to NASCAR that something isn’t quite right here.
To the point of safety, one of the principal reasons for the new car: This is the first race back with the car-of-today since Ricky Rudd’s shoulder-injury crash at California. Rudd said then that NASCAR needed to make a few safety improvements to the car-of-today, principally moving the driver more toward the center of the car, to keep his body away from the wall.
However it appears there have been no such changes, though car owners say many of the key safety items in the car-of-tomorrow could easily, and more cheaply, be incorporated into the car-of-today.
And if safety is NASCAR’s big concern, why aren’t Busch teams running cars-of-tomorrow too? And why don’t soft walls go all the way around every track?
While Cup teams struggle with all this, NASCAR officials have been dishing out a lot of odd penalties this season, and championship contenders certainly can’t expect the refs just to ‘let ‘em play’ in these playoffs.
NASCAR’s 25-point penalty for Dover winner Carl Edwards for his car being too low in the rear post-race last Sunday may have been yet another of the scratch-my-head penalties, of which there have been a number this year….beginning with NASCAR’s heavy-handed Daytona crackdown on crew chiefs for some very minor violations and then just days later a shrug of the shoulders when faced with major violations – Michael Waltrip trying to sneak his car through inspection with some trick fuel in his gas lines, and Jeff Gordon’s winning 150-mile qualifier discovered too low in the rear post-race.
That crazy pattern has continued at times through the season. Sometimes it looks like NASCAR just shoots from the hip, content to keep all these crews off-guard.
At Sonoma, before the cars even got out on the track, NASCAR accused Gordon and Johnson of trying to trick up the front fenders, relegated them to the rear of the field for the start of the race, and then docked each 100 points and $100,000. Yes, the fenders were out of alignment, though in a gray area. Yes, the body was deliberate. Yes, there was probably some aerodynamic edge to be gained. NASCAR typically would push those cars to the back of the inspection line and tell the crews to fix them. But NASCAR apparently was trying to make a point – don’t mess with anything about the car-of-tomorrow. So it went overboard in its penalties.
But the very next week at Loudon, N.H., when two cars were discovered too low in (ital) post-race (close ital) inspection, the penalties were just 25 points.
Is there any rhyme or reason here?
Rattling off the list of points-penalties and suspensions so far reads like a who’s who:
—Gordon and Johnson were both hit with 100-point socks at Sonoma in June for fiddling with the front fenders of their cars-of-tomorrow, and their crew chiefs were suspended for six weeks.
—Kurt Busch was docked 100 points for reckless driving on pit road at Dover in June.
—Earnhardt took a 100-point hit for too blatantly pre-race messing with the rear wing on his car-of-tomorrow at Darlington, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was suspended for six weeks.
—Waltrip lost 100 points and his crew chief was suspended indefinitely after Waltrip’s car was discovered pre-qualifying with an illegal gas additive at Daytona.
—Kasey Kahne lost 50 points for a pre-race body violation at Daytona in February, and his crew chief was suspended for four races.
—Matt Kenseth lost 50 points too for a pre-race body violation at Daytona, and his crew chief too was suspended four races.
—Scott Riggs and teammate Elliott Sadler both lost 25 points and their crew chiefs were suspended two races for a similar pre-race Daytona violation.
—Kyle Busch and Johnny Sauter both lost 25 points for their cars-of-tomorrow being too low on the nose post-race at Loudon in July.
—Robby Gordon was docked 25 points for fiddling with an in-car TV camera at Daytona, discovered pre-race.
—Tony Stewart was docked 25 points for using bad language on TV after winning at Indianapolis.
—Jeremy Mayfield was docked 25 points for having illegal weight in his car at California, discovered in pre-qualifying inspection.
And in the playoffs, Edwards has just been docked 25 points.
Is there any consistency? And just what has NASCAR been trying to say in all this?
Crew chiefs and cars have been beating the drums ever louder the past few weeks about the nearly impossible measurement tolerances NASCAR is trying to hold them to with the car-of-tomorrow. Why such tight tolerances? To save teams money? To give smaller teams a better chance to compete?
All the car-of-tomorrow has done is make the racing more boring, cost team owners more money, made the drivers and crew chiefs more frustrated.
Which car owners are winning these car-of-tomorrow events? Rick Hendrick has six wins in the 13 races, Jack Roush has two, Joe Gibbs has two, and Childress, Teresa Earnhardt and Chip Ganassi have one apiece.
Over the season the little guys simply aren’t faring well at all.
The way things have gone this season, looking at the big picture, shows that, while safety is much better with the new car, the expense and aggravation have been much more than anticipated.
The new car is supposed to be a more cost-effective car, opening the sport up to new team owners. But that appears to be backfiring, because the new owners coming in are not starting up new teams but rather are buying into existing teams.
So what’s the corollary to ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’