NASCAR drivers and fans hit hard by the slumping economy
When Dario Franchitti moved from IndyCar to the Sprint Cup series at the start of the 2008 season, he had all the earmarks of being sponsorship gold. Not only was he the reigning Indy 500 winner and IndyCar series champion, but also he was married to actress Ashley Judd. Telegenic, good-lucking, and possessing a smile that can break hearts, Franchitti is as good with a microphone in his hand as he is on the track, where many -- including yours truly -- picked him to be the '08 rookie of the year in the Cup series.
But six months after making his Cup debut in the Daytona 500, Franchitti is no longer a driver in NASCAR's highest series. What caused his demise? Put simply, the slumping economy, and now Franchitti is the poster boy for how these tough economic times are affecting NASCAR.
In early July, Franchitti's owner, Chip Ganassi, shut down Franchitti's team due to lack of sponsorship, which meant Franchitti and 71 other people were given pink slips. It costs about $25 million to be the primary sponsor of a car, and in this harsh economic climate the competition among owners to attract sponsors is every bit as fierce as the paint trading on the track.
Sponsorship of a car, after all, boils down to advertising, and when a company is struggling, one of the first things that gets slashed is the advertising budget. Not even Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, has been immune to this reality, as the Navy recently announced that it was pulling sponsorship of the Nationwide team that he owns.
''The sponsorship game is really hard right now," said veteran driver Jeff Burton. "I think you're going to see more of it. The reality is we're going to see less sponsors in the garage than we did last year. People are less willing to make the investment because of the tough economic times we're in.''
"If you're a good businessman, you're going to look at all of your discretionary spending," said Roger Penske, who owns both a NASCAR team and an IndyCar team. "Where do you get the best return? I think sponsors are going to be hard to get in the next 12 to 18 months, and the ones we've got, we're going to have to deliver with."
Want more proof of the scarcity of sponsors in the Cup series? In the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, 53 cars had enough financial backing to attempt to qualify and make the 43-car field. When the circuit returned to Daytona in early July for the summer race, only 45 cars attempted to make the show. Could there come a time when NASCAR runs a race with a field that's less than full? It's certainly a possibility, especially if the economy doesn't turn.
What about the fans in these lean economic times? Though the tracks don't release attendance figures, it's clearly visible that the numbers at the gate are significantly down this season. Last weekend at Talladega, there were about 50,000 fewer fans than last year, which accounted for the lowest crowd for the race in two decades. The typical NASCAR fan drives to races, and the high prices at the pump (and the gas shortages in the South) have convinced many stock car diehards to stay home. While this has helped boost television ratings this season, it's hurt merchandise sales at the track, which are down across the board from 2007.
But at least the fans have a choice to stay away from the sport, something Franchitti didn't have. He's still hoping to return to Cup series next season, and at Watkins Glen on Aug. 8 he flashed his stock car talent by capturing the pole for the Nationwide race. "I'm going to talk to other teams in the NASCAR paddock, for sure," said Franchitti. "I'm going to talk to everybody and see what my options are for next year."
Unfortunately, if the economy doesn't get healthy fast, those options may be severely limited.