Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tough Economic Times Takes Toll on NASCAR

From one end of spectrum to the other, America is feeling the effects of a tough economy. Jobs are hard to come by, and many people are feeling the pinch when it comes time to make their monthly payments for lights, rent, mortgages, TV, and anything else you can think of.

NASCAR has also felt the pinch that many people do, in the form of lost sponsorships and lost revenues in terms of ticket sales and racing related merchandise. Grand stands are often sparsely populated during racing events. Some of the merchandise sellers have taken a beating on tee shirt and hat sales.

Is this the beginning of the end for NASCAR?

No, it's not.

NASCAR has dealt with bad economies in the past. Remember the oil crunch in the 1970's? OK, maybe you don't, but I do. I'm old enough to remember gas lines, much as some of us experienced for a few days after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a few years ago. The difference between the Katrina fallout and the 1970's was that the initial crunch passed in only a few days after Katrina. In the 1970's, gas was scarce, and sold for very high prices when it was available, for months at a time. The price of gasoline is relative. Today we complain when we pay 4 dollars a gallon for the stuff, and mostly the price of gas didn't reach those heights back in the '70's, but most people earned a lot less money back then too. In the 1970's most people were considered to be 'well off' if they earned $25,000 or $30,000 dollars a year. That can't be said in 2009.

NASCAR has always coped with bad economies. Not just the sanctioning body itself, but the teams involved. Back in the 1970's, NASCAR shortened the advertised length of races, and that seemed to work, to a certain extent. Fewer laps run means less money spent on fuel, tires, and everything else you can think of.

Today, the main crises that NASCAR and it's teams face is not one of fuel, but of sponsorship. Sponsors have been leaving the sport, taking care of themselves in their own ways by consolidating expenditures on advertising. Remember, NASCAR sponsors are driven much the same was as NASCAR itself is. Fans spend the money to support the sponsors, who, in turn pump money into the sport.

Until this year, it's mostly been a win-win situation for all involved. But now things have changed.

Companies such as Home Depot, Lowes, DeWalt, and a myriad of others have seen their sales numbers fall. Consequently, changes have had to be made. Sometimes that means not sponsoring a NASCAR team or one of the NASCAR tracks. For example, DeWalt Tools, a long time sponsor of Matt Kenseth, is leaving the sport. DeWalt has to keep it's company running, and since fewer people have the money to spend on power tools, DeWalt has felt the hit. They figure they can't afford to sponsor the 17 Ford of Matt Kenseth next year. Who could blame them? If you can't afford it, you just can't.

Lowe's is another example. Lowe's is giving up the naming rights at what was originally known as the Charlotte Motor Speedway. People simply don't have enough disposable income to pump into their local Lowe's store, and sales have fallen to the point that Lowe's feels they can't keep pumping money into the race track. As far as we know, Lowe's will still continue to sponsor the 48 Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson, but one has to wonder if that will become a problem soon for the North Carolina based corporation.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest of his family have taken their names off of the in-development Alabama Motorsports Park. I don't know for sure if this was directly a product of keeping sponsorship, but it looks that way.

Speaking of sponsorship, Dale Jr. seems to be one of the best at acquiring and keeping such. Robby Gordon could probably show us a few tricks too. But, being the sport's current most popular driver probably doesn't hurt Earnhardt's ability to acquire and keep sponsors. As an Earnhardt fan, who reads and even participates on some the most popular message boards and websites devoted to Dale Earnhardt Jr, I can say that practically all of the Earnhardt Nation have become avid Mountain Dew and Amp Energy Drink buyers. I imagine that that's not true of only the Earnhardt Nation.

If you're a Brian Vickers or Scott Speed fan, you probably don't drink AMP, but tons of Red Bull.

Most Jimmie Johnson fans buy their home improvement items at Lowes. Most Joey Logano fans buy theirs at Home Depot. Fans of Tony Stewart buy their office supplies at Office Depot, and eat there burgers at Burger King. Kevin Harvick fans buy their gas at Shell stations when possible, and use Pennzoil products in their engines. Juan Pablo Montoya fans will drive 15 extra miles to do their shopping at Target, even if there's a Wal-Mart next door.

My point here is that NASCAR has the most devoted fans ever, in my humble opinion. NASCAR fans support their driver's sponsors.

And that's how NASCAR will survive the latest economic crunch.

A fan has a dollar to spend. He buys a bag of M&M's. He just supported the 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch. He could have had Skittles, but he didn't. That's support.

One of the beautiful aspects of NASCAR has been that the fans drive the sport. Fans probably drive every sport, when you get right down to it, but never so obviously as in NASCAR. If a few racing fans hadn't bought tickets to watch Bill France's spectacle on Daytona Beach back in the 1940's, what would we all be doing today? Football's fun, Baseball's great, Basketball's ok, but to me there is only one fantastic sport.

Fantastic is what stock car racing is, the way NASCAR does it. It could be better, but it's still the greatest show on earth, once again, in my humble opinion.

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