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NASCAR: Former champs hope for best

By Mike Harris
Associated PressCORAL GABLES, Fla. ó When it comes to good times and bad in NASCAR, Richard Petty has seen it all.
Stock car’s King was already part of the sport when American automakers first began spending money on the teams in the 1950s. And he has been there as a driver or team owner each time the manufacturers have pulled out or dived back in since.
Now, with America facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the very real threat that any or all of the crumbling Big Three automakers could leave again, Petty sees both hard times on the horizon and the eventual survival of NASCAR.
“Back in the 70s, we depended entirely on the technology that the factories had,” Petty said.
“The teams now have started hiring their own engineers and doing a bunch of stuff. So, the technology coming from the factory is nothing like it used to be. … It would be less crippling if they leave now, except for the economy. If the factories all went home, the general public up in the grandstand probably wouldn’t know the difference if we had sponsorship for the cars.”
But the failing economy remains a huge factor, with the sponsorship outlook for midpack teams like Petty Enterprises getting more bleak by the day.
It costs far more to race competitively these days than ever before and, earlier this year, Petty became part of a growing trend of finding well-heeled partners when he sold majority ownership in Petty Enterprises, the team started by his father more than 50 years ago, to Boston Ventures, an investment banking firm.
Even so, the signature No. 43 car fielded by the Petty team has only partial sponsorship for 2009, and Petty does not deny the team has talked about a possible merger, similar to Wednesday’s merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc., and Chip Ganassi Racing.”We talk to everybody about everything that we’ve been talking about, and we’re still standing here independent,” Petty said. “But we’re not wanting to take on somebody else’s bad because we have enough of our own.”
Petty is one of several former champions brought here to celebrate Ford Championship Week. Despite the upbeat reason for their presence, Petty was not alone in expressing concern about the impact of the economic crisis on NASCAR.
Three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, now a NASCAR analyst on Fox, said he’s concerned because of how deep the relationship between the sport and the manufacturers runs.
“I don’t think we really realize how much the manufacturers do for our sport,” Waltrip said. “So, if the manufacturers continue to struggle and have trouble, it’s got to overflow to us.
“Right now you’re not seeing the effects of the economy so much because a lot of the things that are happening right now were already budgeted and paid for. People have already bought tickets to races. It’s next year when we’re going to see the problems. I think when we get to Daytona (in February) and beyond, that’s when we’re going to see people that don’t have jobs, they can’t charge stuff on their credit cars. I think that’s when we’re going to really see a negative effect on the sport.”
Rex White, who won his only championship in 1960 ó long before NASCAR was the mainstream sport it is now ó said some things never change, especially for the have-not teams.
“We had a problem with money every day, every week, with meeting payroll or winning enough money to race on and being able to finance the car and buy the pieces and parts that you need to go there and win the race,” White said. “So money is always a big problem when you race. Racing has never really paid its way properly maybe until today. Not even today. Without the sponsors, they couldn’t even race today.
“But I think it’ll go on and NASCAR will survive it because people that are race fans, they’ll come to see some kind of racing. It might not be the same as it is today, but racing will continue on.”
Dale Jarrett, the 2000 Cup champion, agreed.
“We’ve been at the point that we only had three (manufacturers) involved at one time, so I think (the sport) definitely would survive,” said Jarrett, who has also moved to TV with ESPN. “Is it important for them to stay involved? Certainly. Being a Ford dealer, I think it’s extremely important because I know that Ford’s success on the racetrack helps to still sell cars. So I hope that is able to continue.”
But Jarrett said that the nation’s economic woes are bound to cause some major changes in NASCAR.
“I think that we’ve just been so fortunate for so many years that we haven’t even had to consider a cutback, and everybody’s just going to have to look and understand that the reins may have to pulled back a little bit and we do things a little bit different,” he said.
Jarrett said the days of getting on a private jet and flying to tracks may be coming to and end ó and not just for drivers and team owners.
“I’m talking about crew members that have no idea what it’s like to get in a van and drive to Dover, Del., for the races,” he said. “You might have to cut back some and, in doing that, that would help for the manufacturers to cut back some of the support there or some of the dollars they have to spend in the sport right now.
“Hopefully, we can just do some cutbacks until things get a little bit better and we don’t lose any of the manufacturers.”
Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion who is still competing, was an interested listener as Petty spoke about what he has seen in his long tenure with NASCAR.
“Listening to what Richard says, it’s given me the perception that he’s been through a category 5 hurricane, survived it and he’s seen the series and NASCAR get hit by storms and survive it,” Busch said. “I’m looking long-term and thinking this will be a blip in the road.
“Teams will have to scale back, but the series will survive and we’ll still be here to collect a trophy on Sunday.”

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