Verner column: Racing should take a college course

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 28, 2008

What NASCAR needs is a healthy dose of financial elitism.
That’s one way it can weather its economic spinout, which has already resulted in substantial layoffs at premier teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing. To help teams save money, NASCAR has suspended all testing for 2009 (and you can bet that a lot of high school students think that would be a swell way for the public schools to save money, too). If sponsorship dollars decline much further, race teams may soon be competing in pedal cars, with the Disney Channel carrying live coverage.
This is not a happy scenario for racing. It is not a happy scenario for North Carolina, which hypes its racing roots with evangelical fervor. It is not a happy scenario for drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have images and lifestyles to maintain ó images carefully shaped to drive home the notion that top-level stock-car drivers are really just ordinary folks like you and me, except for the penthouses in New York, the bungalows at Palm Beach, the private jets, the garages stuffed with exotic cars, the trophy wives, the appearances on Letterman and Leno, the driving ability ó and the psychotic urge to insert multiple product placements into every sentence uttered.
(I’ve sometimes wondered: When Kyle Busch opens his presents on Christmas morning, does he keep up a running commentary like, “Gosh, brother Curt, thanks for the 18-inch Poulan ‘Wild Thing’ chain saw, with ergonomic hand grip and automatic oiler. And I just love these Fruit of the Loom, 100 percent Egyptian cotton, low-rider briefs. How did you know white was my favorite color?”)
It doesn’t have to be this way.
What NASCAR needs to do is broaden its sponsorship base beyond traditional mainstays like beer, beef jerky, hardware stores and (more recently) male enhancement products.
It needs to go where the real money is ó like Ivy League colleges. I recently read that Harvard is sitting on something like a $36 billion endowment. Yale has $22 billion. Princeton is holding about $15 billion. In other words, we’re not just talking Warren-Buffett-walking-around cash; we’re talking bailout-caliber bucks.
With money to burn, why not invest in burnouts? Think of the marketing opportunities offered by uniting stock-car racing with the halls of academia, not to mention the alliterative possibilities. You could have Tony “The Professor” Stewart piloting the Harvard/Dartmouth/Home Depot Toyota, or Matt Kenseth schooling the field in his Princeton/Yale/Prilosec OTC Ford Fusion. Or for those who insist on maintaining some semblance of a Southern flavor, put Kyle Petty behind the wheel of the Duke/Emory/Duracell Dodge. (Duke may not run in Harvard’s financial circles, but with a $5.9 billion endowment, it can afford to spring for a few lug nuts ó at least until the lacrosse settlements come due).
As with any racing sponsor, elite colleges would expect drivers to make personal appearances on their behalf. This would necessitate some minor adjustments. Instead of turning up at bass tournaments, ribbon-cuttings and corporate soirees, the drivers might be required to give commencement speeches or conduct graduate-level seminars on hard vs. soft tire compounds or the physics of bump drafting. For colleges that pony up for the highest tier of sponsorship, Bruton Smith could serve as a guest lecturer on such esoteric topics as “Leveraging government incentives” and “Dragstrips 101: How to flatten local officials.”
It’s also possible that, given how stuffy Ivy League schools can be about such things, they might want to change NASCAR’s system of nomenclature. Instead of having its name and school colors plastered on a race car, for instance, a college might prefer something more subtle, like an unobtrusive footnote on a fender stating that “Kasey Kahne holds Harvard’s endowed seat in the No. 9 Dodge.” Perhaps a veteran like Mark Martin who’s been around for a few decades might be designated as a “driver emeritus,” meaning that he performs no discernible function for his sponsoring university beyond showing up at the occasional faculty meeting and launching into bitter diatribes against the Bush administration. Such changes would be a small price to pay for both the cash and the cache that would come from these kinds of academic partnerships.
Indeed, the more I think about it, the more this seems a winning deal all the way around. NASCAR gets a heavy infusion of cash, and urbane intellectuals get an opportunity to explore exotic new locales like Concord and Talladega while endlessly debating whether one should serve red wine or white with pork rinds. Stock-car racing could use a little more elitism, and Ivy League elites could benefit from exposure to the grit and grime of this most proletarian of sports.
Once you’ve seen ’em going four-wide at Daytona, the tenure track will never be the same.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post. Contact him at cverner@ salisburypost.com or 704-797-4262.

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