SPEECHES AT the NASCAR awards banquet are notoriously light on substance. Usually they're little more than recitations of sponsors and stilted shout-outs to "the guys back in the shop." But last Friday at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, the site of the 27th annual awards, several speakers used their time on the dais to address an issue that is threatening the livelihoods of their teams and a large chunk of their fan base: the plight of the auto industry. Chad Knaus, crew chief for three-time champion Jimmie Johnson, said, "Please, don't forget to support our domestic auto manufacturers. Those guys are having a hard time, and they need our support right now." Owner Rick Hendrick implored Congress to "do the same thing for Main Street that we've done for Wall Street."
NASCAR chairman Brian France, who last week sent a letter to several influential congressmen imploring them to support a bailout of the industry, has said that NASCAR could survive a Big Three pullout, but given his sport's already precarious financial state, he'd rather not have to find out if he's right. The global crisis has hit all forms of racing hard. Last week Honda announced it was dropping out of Formula One, and Audi is pulling out of the American Le Mans Series. But the cuts have run especially deep in NASCAR. Keeping existing sponsors, let alone lining up new ones, has been a challenge; more than a quarter of the approximately 42 teams with plans to run a full schedule in 2009 don't currently have enough backing to do so. Virtually every team has laid off employees, and the smaller outfits are facing extinction. Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers gave the sport its best rivalry in the 1970s, when Richard Petty and David Pearson waged weekly battles. Now Petty Enterprises appears to be on the way out—it is in talks to merge with Gillett Evernham—and the Wood Brothers have announced that they will run just 12 races next year.
Even in NASCAR's best-case scenario—the bailout works and the Big Three are able to continue in racing—some 2009 races will likely have fewer than 43 entries, and some of the cars that do show up will likely run without sponsorship. For now, all teams can do is keep down expenses and look for reasons to remain optimistic. "Not every owner will be well-funded," says Richard Childress, who has sponsors for all four of his cars. "But if there's a chance they can go racing without having to worry about qualifying [because of smaller fields], they'll be there. People want to race."