Commentary

The bright side to financial distress? Racing the way it was meant to be

Something good -- no, great -- could rise out of the financial disaster known today as our economy. Imagine a NASCAR garage teeming with rugged individualism, roguish innovation and rowdy can-do spirit. Ed Hinton can.

Updated: October 30, 2008, 7:18 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Cale YarboroughAP PhotoWhen's the last time you saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon giving Tony Stewart a push? You haven't. But Richard Petty, right, and Bobby Allison, rear, didn't think twice before giving Cale Yarborough a hand at the 1973 Daytona 500.

All this doomsaying about NASCAR's economic future is boring the bejesus out of me. It's all nickel-and-dime stuff: manufacturer cutbacks, dwindling sponsorships, falling attendance, teams folding …

Let's do this right. Let's knock the bottom out. Let's envision the worst kind of economic scenario for NASCAR …

    All the carmakers have pulled out entirely. There is no technical, let alone financial, support from them.

    Several major team owners have gone away. NASCAR is no longer a profitable venture for big businessmen.

    Of the teams that are left, only about 10 percent have adequate sponsorship to run a full season, and even they are down to one-car operations. The rest are vagabonds, racing week to week, hand to mouth.

    Race fields usually are 30-something cars -- or whatever number might show up.

    Fuel shortages are so dire that there is fear the federal government might shut down auto racing altogether.

    Job layoffs have been so massive nationwide, and gasoline prices are so high, that attendance is less than half that of the 1990s and early 2000s.

    During this, the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Dow is in the process of shedding nearly half its value.

    In the garages, between practices, the top drivers sit on the workbenches near their cars with nothing to do but talk to what few media people come around. There are no TV commercials to be done, no public appearances to be made. They are not mobbed for autographs.

    Maybe a third of the teams can even afford uniforms for crewmen, who are paid week-to-week in handwritten checks that might or might not bounce.

    There are no catered meals at the tracks. Lunch is Vienna sausage, bologna sandwiches, Beanee Weenee.

    One thing about these conditions: Now we know who the real racers are. They're the only ones left.

I don't have to imagine the above scenario. I need only remember it.

Welcome to the NASCAR I began covering, during the hard times of 1974-76, the first global recession after the global depression.

Even before the terrible downturn, Detroit manufacturers had pulled out of NASCAR, and nobody expected them to come back. Ever.

Sponsorships were rare and lean, $100,000 a season tops, and only two were multiyear -- STP for Richard Petty, and Purolator for the Wood Brothers and their driver, David Pearson.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
AP PhotoMultitasking? Richard Petty waves to the crowd as he beats David Pearson by half a car length in a 1975 race at Michigan.

Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker usually managed to scrape together a little backing, a season at a time.

Cale Yarborough and his car owner, Junior Johnson, started the 1975 season with no sponsorship at all.

Was it dreary? Depressed? Depressing?

Hell, no.

It was wonderful -- wild, colorful, candid, the garages reeking of rugged individualism, roguish innovation, rowdy can-do spirit.

And for the general public, legends and folk heroes arose from those garages, because the rough-hewn men would all talk to us in the tiny press corps. They would tell us the truth about their lives and careers, about how they saw the world.

If some publicist or marketing expert had come around advising Junior Johnson that he shouldn't talk about his moonshine running or his prison term, Junior would have told that person to kiss his backside, and wouldn't have cared if we quoted him.

Neither was there any pretense whatsoever to Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Baker, the Allisons …

I had a recurring thought during the TV ratings boom for NASCAR through the past 20 years: If America thinks it likes these drivers and this racing, it should have seen those guys and that racing when there was little TV to speak of.

Ratings would have gone through the roof for the hard-knocks boys, who were real before reality shows were cool.

There were no drivers who got there on money alone, no pretty boys, no sissies, no whiners, no hucksters, no marketing people, no rapacious car owners, no venture capitalists, no prudish corporate sponsors, no PR hustlers, no image-makers.

Before the deluge of all of the above opportunists, NASCAR was genuine. It was a thing of the common people, for the common people.

We can only hope times get plenty tough for NASCAR again, to save NASCAR from itself and its greed.

This industry, when times get tough, has proven that it can get tough. Some of the best car owners in the garage know what a good bologna sandwich tastes like.

-- NASCAR's Jim Hunter

Regardless of the times, NASCAR will go on -- unless NASCAR refuses to get real again.

From '76 through '78, Yarborough won three straight championships on sponsorship of less than $300,000 a year -- or less than 1 percent of the $30 million a year Jimmie Johnson, likely to be the first threepeat champion since Yarborough, has raced on.

The inflation in the general economy these past 30 years cannot nearly account for the more than 100-fold increase in the cost of a driver's winning championships.

NASCAR and its teams, as any addictive medicine specialist would say, have steadily increased their tolerance for a substance -- money -- to near insatiability.

NASCAR needs rehab, painful as withdrawal may be.

So if there are fewer cars per race in the future, fantastic! No way you need 43 cars to have a good race. Thirty is plenty. The rest get in the way of the good racers.

I grow weary of entire marketing/advertising campaigns being built around drivers who rarely if ever win a race. I never take fabricated stars seriously.

Fewer races? Great! Everybody knows 36 are too many, and a virtually year-round schedule loses its potency and pizzazz as the season drones on … and on …

Lower attendance? Well, the track owners never should have overbuilt their grandstands so vastly in the 1990s. If 100,000 people in 150,000 seat grandstands -- check out Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday -- draws bad press, the promoters brought this on themselves.

Cut Texas back to one race, and California back to one, and they might actually fill their grandstands -- as they did before they doubled down.

Are the manufacturers about to go? Oh, well. NASCAR did fine without them. Since they came back, beginning with Ford in 1981, they've created such a zoo of one-upsmanship on engineering, corporate whining and generally wagging the dog, that when NASCAR finally put its foot down, it shot itself in the foot with the ill-advised "new car."

When NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, one of the few who remember as far back as I do, tries to explain to this generation of media that NASCAR's fortunes are "cyclical," he is telling the truth -- but few have been here long enough to know he's right.

"This industry, when times get tough, has proven that it can get tough," Hunter said the other day at Atlanta to a gaggle of journalists. "Some of the best car owners in the garage know what a good bologna sandwich tastes like."

He and I chorused a name for instance, "Richard Childress."

One writer, considered a veteran, interrupted, saying, "When I see Richard Childress [now known for his high living] checking into the Hampton Inns that I stay in" … then he will know that NASCAR is in trouble.

He didn't get it at all, didn't know the Richard Childress who'd have considered Hampton Inns luxurious, having spent many a night in his battered old truck, towing his battered car to the tracks and then driving it himself, for years, before he found a little sponsorship and hired a younger driver named Dale Earnhardt.

All in all, "I look at this as a correction," Hunter said of the current economic downturn.

Sometimes in business, a correction is so harsh as to become a contraction.

Maybe NASCAR, too big for its britches for too long, will be forced to get lean and mean again.

Then the public might come back in droves, for what it wanted out of NASCAR in the first place.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.