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Daytona offers hints on NASCAR future

Associated Press Daytona 500 pole winner Martin Truex Jr., right, jokes with Mark Martin. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press Daytona 500 pole winner Martin Truex Jr., right, jokes with Mark Martin. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The million-dollar motorhomes still crowd the infield at Daytona International Speedway, and the FanZone has hosted a steady stream of cash-carrying customers.

The hospitality village is up and running, ready to host VIPs who helicopter in before NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.

On the surface, nothing seems amiss as today’s season-opening Daytona 500 approaches.

Is it all just a mirage?

NASCAR, like most businesses, is certainly feeling the effects of the economic crisis as America’s most popular racing series heads into yet another season. Budgets have been slashed and hundreds of crew members are out of work. Teams that existed in November have folded, while others have merged to stave off a similar fate.

But Daytona is a difficult place to measure just how rough 2009 could be. Pomp and circumstance still surround the biggest event of the season, creating an appearance of normalcy that might be misleading.

“I think the Daytona 500 is such a big event in and of itself that it seems like you always have more here than you have other places,” veteran driver Jeff Burton said. “It’s hard to compare the Daytona 500 to other places. But we know there are companies that aren’t doing the hospitality they did last year. We know there are people who aren’t going to be able to buy the race tickets they did last year.

“I think that will show up more at the Californias, the Atlantas, the places like that is where we’ll see it.”

Indeed, the talk during the weeklong buildup to the 500 has been a worried whisper about sluggish ticket sales next week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., or next month in Atlanta. Both venues have traditionally struggled to fill the grandstands, and the respective owners swapped their late-season dates this year in an effort to lure fans to their races.

Across the entire industry, track promoters are concocting clever pricing schemes, reducing concession costs and convincing hotel operators to lower their rates to create an affordable weekend.

“There’s no doubt this is going to be a difficult year to sell tickets,” said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage. “But it’s going to be difficult in every sport, not just NASCAR, where it appears to be more pronounced because our venues are so much larger. But it’s not the toughest times this sport has ever faced, not by a long shot.

“There are far more teams right now with far more money. NASCAR has a finger on the pulse of the problems the industry is facing, and the drivers are willing to do their part. I’ve had calls from many drivers asking ‘Do you need something? Can I help with something?’ I’ve never had that in 30 years.”

Regardless, people in every corner of the garage recognize the sport – which is so heavily dependent on corporate sponsorship – has a challenging season ahead. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin all informed owner Rick Hendrick they’d be willing to take a reduction in salary if it would help the organization maintain its hold as the most dominant team in NASCAR.

“I certainly don’t want Rick to be in a position where he can’t do things for the race team because he has to pay Jeff Gordon,” the four-time series champion said. “And I certainly don’t want sponsors to not come into the company because they can’t afford the rates.”

So far, at least at the front of the field, the sponsorship dollars are still flowing.

There’s no hiding that some teams are struggling to find significant funding, but there are companies still willing to spend, said David Abrutyn, senior vice president of IMG Consulting, which works with NASCAR sponsors Allstate and Coca-Cola.

“Sports is still a very powerful marketing tool, and NASCAR reaches a tremendous fan base,” Abrutyn said. “You can’t do business without advertising your brand. During these times, the goal is trying to do it smart, efficiently and figuring out how to maximize your spend. NASCAR provides that opportunity.”

Gossage is concerned corporate executives, gun-shy about the negative perception of hosting lavish parties at big sporting events, will scale back at-track hospitality at venues across the country. But Abrutyn said the functions are still essential.

“Is there less hospitality? Yes. But entertaining 50 to 100 of a company’s best customers, or Coca-Cola honoring its distributors at a race, is still an effective tool,” he said.

Continued involvement will be linked to the on-track product, which through three non-points races has so far been pretty good. It’s helped that Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch – three of the sport’s biggest names – each won a trip to Victory Lane in the days leading up to the Daytona 500.

It was the first win since October 2007 for Gordon, who last year suffered through his first winless season since his 1993 rookie campaign.

Busch, meanwhile, won for the first time since the late-season collapse that cost him his first NASCAR championship.

NASCAR’s success is often tied to the success of its most popular drivers, so good racing and likable winners could be the tonic the sport needs. The first step is an exciting Daytona 500, and NASCAR chairman Brian France won’t exactly be rooting for the favorites.

The weakened economy has opened the door for independent team owners to get a foot in the sport, proven when Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield both earned spots in the Daytona 500. Mayfield formed his own team less than a month ago, while Riggs was persuaded to drive for former crew chief Tommy Baldwin, who found himself out of work when Bill Davis Racing folded in late December.

France believes NASCAR will prosper if the underdogs can find some success.

“That’s very encouraging for us,” France said. “Someone who says, ’I didn’t have the biggest budget but was still competitive,’ that would be a wonderful story to see unfold in 2009.”

Stewart, Newman wreck cars

Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman wrecked during the final Daytona 500 practice, tearing up Stewart-Haas Racing’s two cars before today’s season-opening race.

Newman, the defending Daytona 500 winner, lost his right rear tire and his car spun out of control. Stewart, his car owner, was trailing tightly around Daytona International Speedway and couldn’t avoid running into him.

Both drivers had to go to backup cars, and both were livid with Goodyear.

They blamed the tiremaker for providing a poor product that cost them their race cars before NASCAR’s biggest event of the year.

“Same stuff that we always talk about every year, failures Goodyear has,” said Stewart. “I think that’s part of their marketing campaign – the more we talk about it, the more press they get.

“But, I think they forget it’s supposed to be in a good way, not a bad way.”

Stewart, a two-time series champion, turned to the car he drove to a third-place finish in last week’s Budweiser Shootout. But by going to a backup, he forfeited his fifth-place starting spot.

Newman needed his second backup of Speedweeks: He wrecked two others since arriving in Daytona.