The idea of NASCAR racing without Chevrolets and Fords on the
track once would have been unthinkable.
But that possibility is no longer farfetched as the continuing
economic meltdown puts the already struggling automakers in even
U.S. auto sales have plummeted in recent months, and Ford and
General Motors, along with Chrysler, are fighting for survival amid
the crisis. The three Detroit manufacturers - along with recent
addition Toyota - are the cornerstones of NASCAR.
NASCAR boss Brian France, speaking over the weekend at Phoenix
International Raceway, acknowledged that the auto manufacturers
"play a very important role in lots of ways with supporting teams,
the branding and heritage."
But he also said NASCAR can survive without one or more of them,
if it has to.
On Friday, GM and Ford revealed multibillion-dollar losses for
the third quarter of 2008, and GM warned it could run out of cash
in 2009. It also suspended acquisition talks with Chrysler.
Still for those companies to remain viable, they need to sell
cars and trucks - and NASCAR remains a key marketing tool for each
Terry Dolan, manager of racing for GM's Chevrolet brand, said
the sport remains an attractive partner despite the company's
"We actually operate with three core principals," Dolan said
in a telephone interview. "We race to win; we want to make sure
the audience that follows racing is relative to the products we
sell, and we must get a return on investment. We're working
diligently to make sure we've got all three of those balanced. The plus is when you look at the NASCAR fan base. It really does align with the Chevy product portfolio and there's some tremendous loyalty to our brand that's helped us to sell vehicles to this audience for many, many years."
Brian Wolfe, director of North America Motorsports for Ford, has
a similar outlook.
"We're doing what we can, both on and off the track, to try and
support the company," Wolfe said. "On the track, we're winning
races and contending for championships ... we're creating a winning
image for our products. Off the track, our drivers and teams in
NASCAR and NHRA have been working hard to get the word out about
Wolfe pointed out that Ford is in the midst of a seven-week
online campaign in which its top NASCAR and NHRA stars test drive
new products and blog about them.
"We're using their popularity to reach their fan bases, and
help sell more cars and trucks," he said.
Toward that end, Ford will unveil its new Fusion Hybrid - three
days before the official launch at the Los Angeles Auto Show - as a
pace car at this week's NASCAR finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.
"That's what racing should do," Wolfe said.
But with the economy stumbling, unemployment climbing and just
about everyone in the U.S. nervous about the future, race teams are
feeling the effects.
Some of the biggest teams with the most resources have begun
laying off employees, and smaller teams are finding the search for
sponsorship growing more difficult by the day.
Teams without full sponsorship for 2009 in all three of NASCAR's
top professional series - Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman
Trucks - are trying to find multiple companies to fill up the
quarterpanels, hoods and rear decks of their entries - 10 races
here, 15 races there - hoping to get enough for a full season.
Partnerships are another possibility, and on Wednesday The
Associated Press learned that Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale
Earnhardt Inc. will combine their teams next year.
It's another sign of auto racing's rapidly changing landscape.
"The cost to run a team on an annual basis, a quality program,
is in the $20-25 million range per car, per year," Dolan said.
"And the resources available from corporate America, having
rapidly contracted with the economy, is just placing pressure on
teams to look at alternatives as to how they can continue to manage
and run their businesses.
"And, unfortunately, in some cases that's causing teams to look
for efficiency by joining forces with other organizations and,
quite frankly, making some pretty severe changes in what the sport
will look like even 12 months from now."
Rick Hendrick is owner of the elite Hendrick Motorsports team
that is on the verge of winning its eighth Cup title and third in a
row - with Jimmie Johnson and Chevrolet- as well as the head off a
sprawling auto dealership empire.
Hendrick is trying to remain optimistic about both NASCAR and
the auto industry.
"We've had some cutbacks because we ran four (Cup) teams, a
(Nationwide) team and then we brought Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) in and
we didn't cut anybody back," said Hendrick, who added that his
team will cut back on the number of cars it runs outside of Cup
next year. "It's all sponsor driven. There are also (personnel)
changes you make to make everybody a little better. So, you have a
little bit of both going on right now."
But he noted, for now, it's business as usual on the auto dealership side.
"Absolutely," Hendrick said. "I talk to (GM) on both sides
because I'm also a dealer. They've been very upfront and open about
what they are trying to do. I think they will be fine."
Likewise, GM and Ford remain confident they will stick with
NASCAR for at least the immediate future.
"From a NASCAR standpoint, we're fully committed to fulfill the
agreements we have in place," Dolan said. "We've built a program
over the years that has paid some quality dividends back to General
Motors, between winning races and winning championships and having
a strong alliance with the fan base, it's a good platform for
Chevrolet and a tool to sell vehicles.
"What has to happen, though, I think, whether it's us or any
other key sponsor looking at the sport, is to determine if the
current cost that it takes to participate is consistent with other
opportunities in the marketplace? If not, we have to look at ways
to become more cost efficient."
Wolfe said Ford will also watch the bottom line closely.
"Certainly, the economic issues facing the entire auto industry
have to be of concern to everyone involved in racing," he
explained. "Ford's racing program falls under marketing and sales,
and when revenues are down, the budgets for all marketing programs
are down, including racing. We're not immune, nor should we be."
So, despite all the gloom and doom, there will continue to be
Chevys and Fords on track - for now.
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)