Jeff Gordon says the current economic meltdown is increasing the pressure on NASCAR teams to win.
And that gives the bigger teams the upper hand.
“It’s a domino effect, when the strong get stronger,” said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion for the elite Hendrick Motorsports team. “I think that, especially in a tough economy like this, we have secured sponsorship and we have the resources; it makes the gap sort of widen at times.”
Track officials and teams in all of NASCAR’s top three professional series are either still looking for sponsorship for 2009 and beyond or spending time worrying that the companies currently in the fold may find themselves having to cut back on spending, or even walking away from their contracts.
Gordon believes the top teams — Hendrick, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Richard Childress Racing — have an advantage because they give their sponsors a return on their investments.
“It’s a business, and the strong businesses that are providing great product and have something to give back are the ones that are going to thrive,” he said. “That’s us, that’s Roush, that’s Gibbs, that’s Childress and that’s just kind of the way it is right now.”
Most folks who have been around NASCAR awhile remember what happened in 2002 when Kmart filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and suspended its sponsorship of the Haas-Carter Motorsports team in the Cup series, as well as its involvement with the Daytona 500.
There’s little question that more of that kind of attrition could affect NASCAR.
So, right now, it’s good to be one of the dominant Sprint Cup teams with multiple big sponsors and lots of resources.
Heading into Sunday’s race at Texas, the top four teams have combined to win 29 of the 33 Cup races this season. They also each placed three drivers in the 12-man Chase for the championship.
Gordon, who also owns an equity share in the Hendrick team, understands that sponsorship is a necessity in stock car racing and foresees some tough times ahead.
“If those companies (that are current sponsors) aren’t thriving and they can’t put the dollars in their marketing program and look at NASCAR as one of those marketing programs, and they’re cutting back, then the sport is going to suffer,” he said. “What happens is that those teams that are farther down, it just makes it tougher and tougher to get sponsorship. If they don’t get sponsorship, they fold.
“For us, if we don’t get sponsorship, we could last for a little while. Even as good as we are, we might have to look for a merger.”
Greg Biffle, who drives for Roush Fenway, said he’s very happy to be with an organization with so many resources.
“But I think we’ve seen that anybody can be susceptible to these big issues, like the big banks,” he said. “So, I don’t think anybody is safe, but I feel bad for those people in those positions that are trying to get by.
“The only saving grace that we have, I think, is that the oil prices keep going down.”
Jeff Burton, who also drives for Roush Fenway, said the worst thing anyone in NASCAR can do right now is panic.
“I do believe that in our sport, as probably most sports, we have a tendency to beat this story into the ground,” he said. “But on the same token, it is there. It’s not something that we’ve created by any means.
“The only thing that we can do as a sport, in my opinion, is … make a compelling reason why people need to come watch a race and why they need to tune into it on television. If we do that, then we’re going to have better days when the economy is good.”
And what the sport has to do, he added, is somehow hang onto its share of corporate America through the bad times.
“If we don’t have (sponsorship), we can’t succeed,” Burton said. “So, it impacts us because if the corporations can’t spend the money and the people can’t afford to come watch, then there’s teams (in trouble).”
While everyone agrees that tough times are coming, NASCAR is trying hard to remain upbeat.
Last week, while announcing Camping World as the new series sponsor for the truck series, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France sounded an optimistic note.
He said NASCAR’s business is off only “single digits” at the moment, adding, “We tend to fare much better than other industries, thankfully. That’s because sports are so culturally ingrained to fans. It’s one of the last things that they want to not participate in.”
France said most of the teams in Cup are well-funded heading into 2009.
“There are obviously some teams that aren’t, but there are always teams that aren’t,” he said. “Some of that is based on performance, not necessarily the economy. So teams that tend to perform consistently well tend to do very well in the sponsorship area as you would think.”
While Gordon expects the rich to get richer in bad times, he is trying to look down the road.
“This economy affects everybody,” he said. “It affects me, it affects you, it affects sponsors, it affects race teams. These are tough times. Everybody has got to bear down and stick with it and make the most of it.
“We’re all kind of waiting to see where it’s going to go.”