Felix says: Fewer cars on the track, more automakers in the garage
When it comes to Felix Sabates, just stand back and listen, writes Mark Ashenfelter.
Felix Sabates, minority owner of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, held court with several members of the media, including ESPN's Mark Ashenfelter, Saturday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Here's what the always-colorful Sabates had to say about the sport and his own race team:
Question: Four teams [Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing] have drivers in the Chase. Is this a case of the rich getting richer?
Answer from Felix Sabates: What happens is that two or three teams, you've got Hendrick, you've got Roush, you've got Childress and Gibbs, and they have an unlimited amount of money and they can outspend everybody else. NASCAR cannot regulate that -- this is a free-market economy. Eventually, you're going to end up with six or seven teams [ownership groups], and that will be it.
Q: Are you comfortable with how [NASCAR regulates] the four-car rule? In essence, some teams have satellite teams that make it look like they're actually a seven- or eight-car team.
A: I think NASCAR should have put [in] a three-car team rule, not a four [-car team rule]. I think they made a bad mistake and I think the reason they didn't do it is they were afraid of [Jack] Roush suing them. That's probably the reason.
There's no need for one guy to have four race teams, or five race teams, and then have satellite teams. But here, again, how do you control that? How do you prove differently? Who owns Yates [Racing]? Does [Doug] Yates [and Max Jones] own Yates? Or does Roush own Yates? Who knows? Or the Wood Brothers -- who owns the Wood Brothers? But here, again, we're a free country and as long as you have a democracy [it's OK].
But the NFL doesn't let a guy own two football teams; the NBA doesn't let you own two basketball teams. So, I don't think NASCAR should let anyone own more than three [Sprint Cup Series teams].
Q: Who is going to drive for the No. 41 team?
A: The latest driver we were talking to, but we decided not to offer him the job, was Jeff Gordon. Jeff wanted to drive for us, but we decided, "Nah, he's too old now." Of course, you know that's a joke.
Q: Is there a place in the sport still for Kyle Petty?
A: If it was my decision at Ganassi's team, I'd put Kyle Petty in the 41 car.
A: Kyle spent [eight] years with me. Kyle's got the biggest heart of anybody I ever worked with in my life. He's been in a bad situation for years at Petty Enterprises. People kind of gave up on Mark Martin [as being] washed up and look at what Mark Martin is doing now. And he's older than Kyle.
Kyle can drive a race car. If you put Kyle in competitive cars and you challenge him -- I can challenge Kyle -- Kyle will win races. I am convinced of that 150 percent. Chip doesn't believe it, so there's nothing I can do about it.
But if it was my money and the situation that we're in, I'd bring Kyle in because he would do several things for you. No. 1, he would help with the morale on the team and No. 2, he would help to get sponsors. No. 3, he would push the gas if I told him to push the gas.
Q: How many teams that are here today will not be around a year from now?
A: There's a possibility that [seven] cars could be gone a year from now.
Q: Are you just picking that number out of the air?
A: I've done the math. In the old days, we only had 36 cars starting anyway, so we'll go back to a 36-car field. The reason NASCAR went from 36 to 43 was because a lot of the [owners] had two-car teams, so NASCAR said, 'Let's make it a 43-car field.' But it was only a 36-car field [before that].
Q: If there are [seven] teams gone, wouldn't it make sense for some of these teams to do start-and-park teams? You'd make $60,000 a race and not put much time and effort into [the team].
A: You might see some of that next year. I think, [by] 2010, you'll have [seven] cars here today that won't be here.
Q: Next year?
A: I think in '09 you'll be fine.
Q: By 2010, there will be [seven] cars here today not around and not replaced?
A: And you'll be shocked who some of them are. You have all these venture-capital companies coming in here thinking they were going to make a fortune in racing. I deal with the business world with these sharks. You have these venture-capital companies that came in here in the hype of the rah-rah-rah [growth era] and they're looking for a return. If they don't see a return, they'll just close the doors because Uncle Sam is paying for 35 percent of it anyway.
If they close the doors and write it off, they lost 65 percent on the dollar. Because they can write off 35 cents on the dollar.
Q: What were your thoughts when you saw empty seats at Talladega?
A: That's not a reflection of NASCAR, that's a reflection of the economy. Plus, there was no fuel [available in parts of the region]. We've got a lot of people in Gulfport, Miss., that work for my [yacht-building] company and I bought a block of grandstand tickets. I bought 40 tickets and only 12 guys came because they couldn't buy gas. You're not going to drive 400 miles not knowing if you're going to get gas or not. So a lot of that was because of [Hurricane Ike] and there was no gas.
Q: But they don't expect a normal-sized crowd [for Saturday's race at Charlotte]?
A: This track, for this race, they've never had a big crowd. The second race has never been [as full] as the [Coca-Cola] 600, that's the one that draws the people.
The thing that you have to understand is if you get 80,000 at a track that holds 120,000 -- you think you have a bad crowd. But that's a great crowd -- 80,000 showed up. They just happened to have built too many seats. If you go to any racetrack and they have 70-80,000 people, that's more people than most football teams get every week.
And for sure a helluva lot more than basketball does, or baseball. So, there's still a lot of people out there.
Q: What would it mean if General Motors and Chrysler merged?
A: I don't see that happening, but hypothetically, if it did happen, you would have two GM teams and the rest of them would be out on the street. You'd have Hendrick and you'd have Childress, and everybody else would be out looking for Hyundai to come into racing.
We've got to get more manufacturers involved in racing. We've got to get more of the foreign dollars coming in here. Ford is in deep trouble. GM will always make it, but I'm not sure Ford will make it long term. They might all have to file for bankruptcy.
We need to get Honda; we need to get all these other people in here. NASCAR has to go out and chase those guys and beg them and whatever they have to do.Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.