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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

2009 could bring short fields as sponsorship woes hit NASCAR hard

It used to be that making the field in a Cup race was very difficult.
Every week, a half dozen teams would have to go home because of the large number of teams trying out for races on a regular basis.

But that was during better economic times. Today’s economy has left the garage decimated as far as sponsors go. Longtime sponsors like Kodak and Texaco/Havoline are giving up on the sport, and teams that are looking for sponsors aren’t having much luck. The exact number of teams all set on sponsorship for a full-season run in 2009 is well short of 43.

In addition, it’s pretty clear that some teams, such as the #01 DEI car, may either stop running entirely in 2009 or cut back their schedule due to lack of funds.

That brings up the realistic possibility that NASCAR may have to resort to a tactic they were using several years ago when a similar situation arose regarding car counts … essentially paying teams just to show up, run a few laps and park. It’s pretty lame, but without doing that they would have faced several races where they were a few cars short, and that would not have been good for their all-important image as the fastest growing sport in America.

This problem is even worse in the Nationwide Series, with plenty of start-and-park teams already competing on a regular basis, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2009 with longtime teams like the #25 (which Bobby Hamilton Jr. is funding out of his own pocket in the final 3 races of '08) not guaranteed to return.

Personally, I never though the number 43 was a magical number that had to be met. As far as I’m concerned, if 40 cars show up, that’s fine, as the other 3 you would get are likely garbage anyway.

But NASCAR will do everything it can to maintain its image, and even as the automakers are hitting record lows in sales and companies in all sectors are cutting jobs, they want to maintain the image that they're not struggling.

The reality is that when budgets get tight, sponsorship money is usually among the first thing to go. That’s a reality NASCAR is going to have to accept. The next year will likely continue to be rough economically, and don’t be surprised if there are some races with short fields.

The key for NASCAR is not to make a big deal out of it when it happens. The economy runs in cycles, and when things pick up in the future, there will soon be 50 cars out there every week trying to make the race once again.

NASCAR is full of pride about how successful it has become over the past decade or two, but they’re in for a rude awakening in 2009. Not only will many racetracks continue to have thousands of empty seats, it’s likely all the cars won’t even show up sometimes.


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