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.
It also stands to reason, then, that as the economy has gone down the toilet, the NASCAR bubble would be one of the first in the sports world to burst. As fewer and fewer domestic autos have sold, interest in NASCAR has declined as well. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has buffeted stock-car racing beyond the travails of the Big Three. According to AdAge, 12 of the sport’s 42 full-time rides lack a sponsor with the Daytona 500, the traditional circuit-opener, just two months away. Mergers and cutbacks are the talk of pit road. Race teams have pink-slipped seemingly half of Mooresville, N.C., the home to the majority of the teams. The carnage has totaled roughly 1,000 employees, with many more bracing for the inevitable. Someone who still has a job—for now—with a smaller-level race team put it to me simply: “We’re fucked.”
It would be one thing if NASCAR were exceptionally strong and this were merely a cyclone to be ridden out in a basement somewhere. But the sport has been leaking oil for some time. Attendance at races dropped drastically in 2008 (in large part because steep gas prices this summer curtailed the RV armada that follows the circuit), and TV ratings declined for the third straight year. The season-ending “Chase” has failed to provide fireworks or closure—if not for the BCS, it would be the worst playoff system in sports. There’s also a growing disconnect between racing and its hardcore fan base that began when the Frances stripped races from traditional tracks in Rockingham, N.C., and Darlington, S.C., in favor of places like Kansas and Las Vegas. And the most visible part of NASCAR, the driver corps, has morphed from a crew of heroic-yet-relatable, older, mostly mustachioed hell-raisers to an interchangeable posse of corporate-ready drones fresh out of driver’s ed.
Consider Jimmie Johnson, the three-time Sprint Cup champion. Superbly talented, handsome, friendly, and always ready to pump the sponsors, he has received a lukewarm embrace from fans who prefer old-school types like Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. The Tim Duncan of NASCAR, Johnson is excellent but dull. That would be OK if there were enough Kobes and LeBrons to make up for the champ’s lack of luster. But Junior is an average driver living off his last name, Stewart can’t find Victory Lane and is about to embark on a risky venture owning and fronting his own team (he couldn’t have picked a worse year for that), and the rest—feh. Drivers like David Ragan and Denny Hamlin are strong up-and-coming talents, but they bring very little oomph.
But NASCAR’s biggest problem isn’t fixable with a couple of sexy drivers or a breathless season finale in Miami. The sport can’t escape the fact that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels are technologies on a steep downslope. With hybrids and electrics on the way in, it’s hard to see where gas-guzzling, emission-belching stock cars fit in. Unlike the Indy Racing League and Formula 1 (open-wheel racing circuits famous for the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, respectively), NASCAR has yet to implement alternative-fuel programs—hell, it only switched to unleaded gasoline last season! Open-wheel racing isn’t immune from the economic turmoil (Honda recently announced it was dropping out of F1), but it stands a better chance at survival. Formula 1 and the Indy crowd run machines that are less cars than science experiments, highly engineered equipment that can and will adapt easily to new technologies. Stock cars are just tricked-out Dodges and Chevys—you know, the ones that nobody’s buying anymore.
During NASCAR’s glory years in the 1990s and early 2000s, gas was cheap, we could kid ourselves into believing it was plentiful, and those who pointed out the connection between CO2 and global warming were easily shouted down. The Hummer went from obscure military hardware to pop culture icon. But then Al Gore made a documentary, and politicians started talking about the folly of importing oil from “countries that don’t like us very much.” In 20 years, are we going to look back and shake our head in wonder that we let such a wasteful, environmentally disastrous “sport” take place?
Or, if you prefer cold-blooded business calculations to tree-huggery, examine the situation from the Big Three’s point of view. The automakers’ CEOs have already been reamed for flying private jets to D.C. while their companies wither. If the bailout does come through, making a huge expenditure on a diversion like NASCAR would be a jet-style PR disaster. Congress wants those dollars to go toward renewable-energy technology, not mammoth ad displays in the Talladega Speedway infield.
Continuing to fund stock-car racing would be a sign that Detroit simply cannot function in the new century. When and if U.S. automakers come up with a better alternative to their outmoded product, I’ll be all for getting them out to racetracks to trade a little paint. But there is an unshakeable anachronistic whiff to NASCAR these days. Like the saber-toothed tiger and the cassette tape, stock cars had their time—but that time is now past. Yes, it flamed out quickly, but that’s how Neil Young says it should happen. Detroit’s nightmare is an opportunity for NASCAR to do the right thing and suspend operations. Once it goes, we’ll probably wonder why it ever existed in the first place.