Commentary

Start-and-park owners are businessmen

Updated: August 28, 2009, 12:02 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

On Monday I realized just how much Carl Edwards gets it. To gauge his understanding of the media impact on NASCAR, one needs to look no further than his in-race interviews with Dale Jarrett during the Pocono 500 race broadcast.

The guy not only answered DJ's questions with insight -- a rarity during booth/cockpit in-race banter -- he even flipped his helmet visor open … and looked directly into the dadgum camera. Really, man? Unbelievable.

Those are small details that make fans really appreciate a guy.

Also, with the news that Lowe's Home Improvement won't return to Charlotte Motor Speedway, I can pull out the ol' cherry-red windbreaker swag the track gave me during the 1998 media tour. Retro, baby. Only thing is it's like a 3XL.

When I wear it, I look like a Popsicle. (I'm the stick).

The Six …

Hey Marty,

It seems to me that NASCAR is home-growing a problem that could easily lead to empty pockets very soon. I read weekly that even the top NASCAR teams are scraping to get sponsorship moneys together.

But yet, they allow certain teams to show up just to get 43 cars in the race. Is it that important to have a 43-car field? I'd almost bet most fans don't even know these "start and park" guys take the green flag -- with the exception of their mothers possibly.

Looking at just three of the start/park teams -- although there are about eight teams that practice "starting and parking"… vibration, transmission, electrical problems, out of G2, needs a Whopper … the excuses are endless.

Looking at ONLY the last (10) races, comparing laps completed to payout, and looking at how much these teams are making per lap:

No. 09 Phoenix Racing Dodge: Five out of the last 10 races -- Winnings, $386,362; average laps completed, 45; pay per lap, $8,586. Note: These numbers are not bad, but this team has only run five of the last 10 races.

No. 87 Nemco, Joe Nemechek: Ten out of the last 10 races -- Winnings, $888,586; average laps completed, 63; pay per lap, $14,105. Note: I like Joe and I think he's a great rep for NASCAR. But he's just sucking dollars away from teams that are competitive. I'm sure he's trying to keep the dream alive, and at $14,000 a lap, he probably will.

No. 66 Prism, Dave Blaney: Nine of the last 10 races -- Winnings, $734,246; average laps completed, 24; pay per lap, $30,600. Note: Now this team has got it figured out! They are racking it up on the dollars. At $30,000 a lap they should keep racing.

Anyhow, where do you think this is heading and do you think NASCAR even cares?

-- Gregg Engle; Durant, Okla. (Oklahoma dirt track racer)

NASCAR cares, Gregg. And it can hate start/park all it wants, but until a shift in philosophy occurs -- be it, as you mentioned, smaller fields, or a move away from the free enterprise model -- it can do nothing but grin and bear it.

And I'd venture to say neither of those is happening any time soon.

Ideally, NASCAR wants 43 competitive cars. It does Daytona nothing but good to have a full, at least remotely competitive field. It's NASCAR's job to develop concepts that make it affordable and beneficial to want to race the entire event. It's been a problem for years, and it's bigger than just a purse-size issue.

Start-and-park owners are businessmen. Businessmen function to make dollar bills. I don't much care for what they're doing, but it's naive and self-righteous for me to feel that way.

Who am I to judge? They're well within their rights to do as they've done -- "spirit of competition" be damned. The last time I checked, "spirit" doesn't pay the bills. That 750-large that Phil Parsons and the boys have pocketed in '09 does.

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(And I'm not certain I'd consider Phoenix a start-and-park. Numbers may suggest it. But the No. 09 won this year. Granted, it was in a Hendrick car with a Hendrick driver in the seat. But it was Phoenix guys working on it. And, um, they won. They W-O-N.)

I discussed the start-and-park dynamic with Nemechek, who quickly -- and quite adamantly -- pointed out he is no start-and-park. He's a man trying to salvage a career. And it puts him in a heck of a financial predicament.

"Everybody thinks you're getting rich off doing this -- you're not. Believe me," Nemechek said. "OK, yeah, it pays this big amount to start the race. That's fine. But you don't make any money off of that.

"You're just surviving week-to-week with that, if you're doing it right and you have all the stuff. When you back out all the costs, there's nothing left. But for me, at least I'm at the racetrack, and I'm able to qualify and I'm fast enough. Every week.

"I'm not a start-and-park. I'm in a different category than what those guys are trying to do. I'm trying to race. I'm trying to keep going."

Nemechek is on a full-bore sponsorship search. He says it costs him $70,000-$100,000 a week for a motor. One motor. And that's just one small variable in the equation.

"When last place only pays $65,000 and you haven't paid for tires and payroll and transportation and hotels, any of that, what're you supposed to do?" he said. "So what I'd tell the folks that don't like it. … I don't know, if you don't like it, and you can't handle it, I guess find something else to do.

"I know racing, been doing it all my life and I love it. And I want to race. But you've got to have all the pieces of the puzzle to do it, or else in a couple weeks you're gone and no one remembers you."

Nemechek said he has a new motto: We can do more with less. He also said other Cup teams are looking closely at his model.

"We've done very good with nothing," he said. "If some of these [underfunded owners] found money, would they race all the time? Look at teams capable of doing that. I've got Philippe Lopez. I've got awesome damn people on my deal. Awesome. But if you don't have money, you don't do it."

Nemechek
Nemechek

Like most things, money makes the world -- and in this case, the cars -- go round. Nemechek has the equipment. He has the people. It's the money that's so daunting. Without it, you're idling at best.

"You're caught in a catch-22," he said. "Man, I grew up a racer. This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But I have to keep reminding myself to look at the big picture. I have to survive."

He fully expects it to get tougher before it gets easier. The NASCAR landscape has changed, he said. He has folks trying to help find money, and they're close, he said.

"Without the funds you can't go very far -- not unless you want to go broke really quick," he said. "The cost is so out of control that it's hard to go out there and race when you don't have a name on your car. You can't do it. From the engine cost to the tire cost to all the fees associated with trying to race -- and that's before you even have race cars, people, overhead. It gets to some incredible numbers just on a weekly basis."

I asked what it costs to get to the racetrack. His answer was telling.

"Depends what you're trying to do," he said.

And he left it at that, other than to say a Cup engine deal is $4 million annually. Nationwide, he said, is more reasonable at $1 million to $1.2 million.

"I'm not ashamed of it. You've got to earn your place," he said. "One of the biggest things, too, is we're not a start-and-park. This is an opportunity for me to build my business. And since this started, I haven't seen my bank account go up."

Marty,

Great job on that Kyle Busch interview. I don't mind his arrogance, his drive or the fact that he wins all the time. What I don't like is his disrespect for the sport, other drivers, fans, sponsors and even the guys whose hard work has made him a star.

Arrogance is one thing, but total selfish disrespect is another. No amount of talent can make up for that. If he ever wants to win a championship he will need to take come "gratefulness" lessons off of Mark Martin. Also some perseverance and determination lessons from Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team.

-- Gerald, Branson, Mo.

Most fans want a gracious loser, Gerald. But gracious losers are difficult to find. Not everyone is wired to accept failure with a sponsor mention and a smile.

Busch has some maturing to do -- and to his credit, he's made tremendous strides since Chicago. He overstepped his bounds there. And from that point forward, he set forth to alter his approach. It is a process. It is not an immediate transition.

Again, a point I made during the interview: At 24 years old, most of us were idiots. I was. My buddies were. And we didn't have to grow up in the public eye the way Busch does. I'm not excusing any of his behavior, here. I'm merely taking a moment to put myself in his shoes. That's only fair.

Busch is Tony Stewart all over again. Stewart was a hothead who worried about himself first. And now look at him: America's Sweetheart.

And Mark Martin is the man. Period. But just so you know, it took Martin a long, long time to cultivate his current philosophy on things. He was as surly as anybody back in the late '90s. He'll be the first to tell you that he let chasing championships consume him.

It wasn't until he changed that perspective that he was able to actually enjoy himself.

Back to Stewart for a moment …

Marty,

Huge Smoke fan here. So now Tony says he's not adding a third team. Why would he pull the plug already? He's just now gaining the momentum to do it.

-- Salvador Randle, Indianapolis

Time. It's really that simple, Salvador. Typically, sponsorship deals have to be completed -- or at the very least, well on the way to being so -- by this time of year. In order for point-of-sale advertising to be shot, processed and ready for Daytona in February, mid-August is often the deadline for completion. Given the right driver there are interested sponsors. But … there is no driver.

Stewart hasn't found the right wheelman just yet. He has his eye on a pair of guys facing contract years in 2010: Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne.

Stewart refuses to grow just for the sake of getting bigger. He's the points leader. He has a legitimate shot at a championship in his first season as an owner. He didn't necessarily anticipate he'd be in this position. Adding personnel right now could dilute the focus, and that's the very last thing he wants to happen.

Marty,

Road courses always hurt my fantasy team in the standings. I never seem to get it right. I need three solid picks that all fit in my budget. Help.

-- Ron Blizzard, Louisville, Ky.

Given I have no clue what your budget is, it's tough, Ron. But if you can afford all three I'd go with Stewart, JPM and Marcos Ambrose. Stewart doesn't know how to do anything but excel at The Glen, and Montoya has both skill and momentum on his side right now. Ambrose is among the best road racers in Cup.

Marty,

That tie you had on at Pocono looked ridiculous with those ear muffs and that raincoat. The earmuffs were yellow and the coat was gray and the tie was red, white and blue. Interesting look, man. Terrible, actually.

-- Cedric in New York

Well, Cedric … thanks, man. I can't rightly say I anticipated I'd be standing out in a monsoon all morning. Once your shoes are saturated and your pants are soaked to the knee, you don't much care anymore that you resemble a wet dog in lemon headband, wearing a candy cane around its neck.

You just sort of roll with it.

That's my time. I appreciate yours. No Glen for me this weekend. I have a date with a pressure washer and a cold beer.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.