Thursday, January 15, 2009

NASCAR sport

As the proud owner of a Honda and a Toyota, I've been following the to-bail-or-not-to-bail dance between the federal government and the Big Three automakers from a slight reserve. Forgive me, but as I've worked as a producer on a television show about NASCAR and written lots of articles about the sport in recent years, I'm most concerned about the fate of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Given the brutal financial climate, I should, out of pure self-interest, support whatever measures will preserve NASCAR. Nevertheless, I can't help but think that Detroit's version of the Troubles is the right time to put the sport out of its misery.

I don't recommend euthanizing NASCAR lightly. This is the sport that gave us sporting icons like Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, and the King, Richard Petty. I appreciate NASCAR's cutthroat competition, consider it a major sport, and think of the drivers as world-class athletes. But let's face facts—even if Ford, GM, and Chrysler get the cash they want from the taxpayers, they are going to have to pull back heaps of sponsorship dough from stock-car racing. Brian France, the CEO of NASCAR and grand pooh-bah of the sport, wrote a letter to Congress lobbying for the bailout, but that won't be nearly enough to win favor with the automakers, who will be slashing costs with a band saw, not a scalpel.

The Big Three and NASCAR have a symbiotic, deeply intertwined relationship. The adage "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" has defined the way Detroit views NASCAR—as an extension of its core business. Roughly 75 percent of Sprint Cup teams—NASCAR's top division—drive American brands (the rest are with Toyota), and that percentage increases further down the NASCAR ladder. Beyond outfitting the race teams with chassis and souped-up engines, Ford, GM, and Chrysler provide manpower, technical support, and—the plasma that courses through the sport's veins—sponsorship: at the tracks, at media/marketing events, and everywhere else that NASCAR touches down. There is a simple cause-and-effect in the automaker/motorsports relationship. Poll after poll shows that there's a huge overlap between racing fans and buyers of American cars. Both tend to be fiercely loyal to preferred brands, which is a big reason why NASCAR shot to the top of the sporting food chain not so long ago.

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