Gas prices might put squeeze on fans

3/9/2011 - NASCAR

How's that Hemi workin' out for ya?

That is, with gas prices at $3.50 a gallon on national average and skyrocketing, propelled by civil unrest in 15 -- count 'em -- nations in the Middle East and Africa.

We're short of our national howling point, "$4 gas," which we saw briefly in 2008. But at the current rate of increase, 16.5 cents per gallon per week, we'll be there by April Fools' Day.

And if the upheaval spreads to Saudi Arabia, experts fear, all bets will be off. Do I hear $5 a gallon?

A little auctioneer staccato, please: Fiveandaquarternow, fiveandaquarternow … fiveFIFTY!

When the White House and OPEC are scrambling, you know it's serious. And some experts doubt whether even a drawdown in our strategic oil reserves will ease the problem.

Not to pick on the Dodge Hemis. Will that Avalanche soon be what you think hit you at the pump? Might that Tundra cost you a ton? Could that F-150 freak you out when you fill 'er up?

Reason I ask is, the aforementioned vehicles and their husky ilk are, by and large, the type I see sitting in traffic on any Sunday morning I'm covering a NASCAR race.

And that's not even counting the battalions of recreational vehicles lumbering into the infields.

NASCAR fans love to drive -- farther, in bigger vehicles -- to their events more than any other sports fans.

Take Talladega, where fans drive an average of 300 miles each way, according to track chairman Grant Lynch. That's 600 miles, plus whatever local driving you do in Alabama, for a race weekend.

Even at 20 miles per gallon -- optimistic for some pickups -- that's 30 gallons. At today's price average, that's $105, but it would be $120 at $4 per gallon and $150 at the $5 level.

"We're always on the lookout for situations that could affect our fans' ability to attend the race," Lynch confirmed via e-mail.

Talladega last felt direct impact from such issues during the shortages and price spikes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Texas Motor Speedway, with its major metropolitan area, calculates fan travel not in miles but in drive time. According to the marketing department, 75 percent of the attendance lives within 282 minutes, or, at 60 mph, 282 miles.

But what about that 25 percent coming from places such as Nebraska and Wyoming? (I've seen those license plates at Texas).

Soon, drive time might not be the issue, except in terms of fuel cost per minute -- the way private jet owners figure.

Texas' next race is April 9. At the current national rate of increase, gas prices would by then be a national record average of $4.32.

Talladega's next race is April 17. At the current rate, prices would be right at $4.50 a gallon.

So now, I'm just asking: Does it pinch? Does it hurt? If the increases continue unabated into the summer, could prices go high enough to keep you away from distant tracks?

One thing is certain: If you can get there, you'll see racing. NASCAR's multiyear contract with Sunoco guarantees not only the supply but also that "there's no fluctuation in terms of the cost of racing fuel," said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston.

Racers, like fans, are affected by the fuel costs of traveling. Remember when Jeff Gordon parked his private jet a couple of years ago?

Other than travel, the biggest issue NASCAR has during fuel tempests is its image among the general public. There's usually some outcry that NASCAR wastes gas.

My rookie year covering NASCAR, 1974, in the wake of the original Arab oil embargo, Cup race distances were reduced and some sports car events, such as the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring, canceled entirely. A lot of that was public relations.

And you know the pit crew "catch can man" who has just been replaced by that awkward recovery system in the new cans?

The catch can man originally was a PR ploy in the 1979 shortage, when the public howled at the sight of gasoline being splashed on the pit road. Again, the notion of waste.

By way of perspective, "We Americans, all society, use about 366 million gallons per day," Poston said. "In the Sprint Cup Series, we use about 135,000 gallons for the year.

"So the amount of fuel used by NASCAR basically equates to a thimbleful when compared to the overall use of fuel."

So the NASCAR racing itself has never really been threatened by -- nor has it contributed to -- the national fuel tempests down through the decades.

The main thing has always been fan travel.

I recall sitting in a filling station line that stretched for blocks for nearly an hour in Riverside, Calif., in 1979, then driving to the track, where then-general manager Les Richter was breathing a huge sigh of relief.

His initial fear had been that he might have little or no crowd on Sunday. But Richter then calculated that one tank of gas would cover a round trip from Bakersfield, Southern California's NASCAR hotbed.

He was right. A decent crowd showed up.

What NASCAR racing has done, from '74 to now, is set a bad example for its fans with its engines and fuel mileage. The impression is that to have performance, you've got to have cubic inches -- long since disproved in other forms of racing.

The last time Cup racing responded with engine downsizing was in '74, dropping from 427-cubic-inch monsters down to the 351 (tolerance to 358) with a four-barrel carburetor. And that remains the formula to this day.

Fuel injection is on the way for 2012, but engine size will remain the same.

Poston points out that the racing fuel is now 15 percent ethanol. But with race cars that get 4 or 5 miles per gallon under green, maybe 6-plus under yellow, using alternative fuel sends a mixed message at best.

The muscle message to fandom doesn't make for many hybrids in the parking lots. I know of but one Prius, and have heard of one more, ever at NASCAR tracks.

I drove one as a rental car to New Hampshire a couple of years ago and got some funny looks in traffic. And a guy I know said he drove one to Daytona -- and got some funny looks.

A little Pete Seeger music, please: Oh, when will they ever learn …

When gas price increases are gradual, Lynch points out, fans can plan ahead for the fuel costs.

But, "ultimately there comes a point, even with planning ahead," Lynch observed, "that fans just can't absorb the cost."

What is that point? When might it come?

It doesn't seem very far from Libya to Talladega anymore.

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