Nationwide Series at a crossroads
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Haulers that a few years ago were painted in bright colors and covered with graphics promoting the sponsor and driver were blank. New pit boxes were few and far between, many several years old, faded and scratched. New uniforms were as rare as new pit boxes, most a year or so old, some ragged and worn.
A trip through the Nationwide Series garage at Daytona International Speedway this past weekend was like stepping back in time.
Tough economic times have forced teams to cut back on the luxuries that not long ago had them challenging the Sprint Cup garage for glitz. Less than half the garage is fully funded, and some argue fewer than half the teams show up expecting to actually compete.
But below them, the picture is not pretty, with manufacturers pulling financial support and full sponsors seemingly impossible to secure.
Many expect things to worsen next season when NASCAR introduces the Nationwide version of the Car of Tomorrow, likely in restrictor-plate races and on road courses.
Just as it was when the Cup series introduced the COT, some teams are expected to struggle financially to build the new and old car at the same time. With money much more a factor than ever, there will be casualties, likely from stand-alone teams without Cup support.
"There's a lot of things different in our sport right now," said Jason Keller, who has more Nationwide starts (474) than anybody in series history. "There's not as much spending as there once was. I just hope that doesn't start taking away from our product on the track. "It's OK if we don't have as shiny of a helmet, as shiny of a firesuit, as shiny of this and that and the other. But we want to make sure we put a product on the track that is good for the fans."
Keller's concerns are shared from the smallest of organizations to the largest.
"I want to believe the series is going to be healthy," said Ty Norris, the general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing, which runs a Nationwide team on a part-time basis. "It's got a pretty bad flu right now, but I believe it can recover."
He hopes it can. Everyone does. They see the value in the series not only as a place to develop young talent but also for Cup drivers to compete in a less pressurized environment.
Television ratings say it's still by far the No. 2 motorsports series in the country. NASCAR chairman Brian France doesn't believe the doom and gloom is nearly as bad as it appears.
"Sponsorship could be better, of course, but it is OK," he said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. occasionally drives in the series he won twice before moving to Cup and says the racing is as exciting as when he first started a team.
"It's still an interesting series with a lot of great personalities, and it's still fun for me," said Earnhardt, whose JR Motorsports fields Brad Keselowski in the No. 88. "It's a little bit of a challenge to convince corporate America why that series versus any other series, but nothing comes easy."
A few years ago, it was much easier than today. Manufacturer support was solid, and there was almost an excess of sponsorship.
"Honestly, this has been a good gut check for a lot of people in this sport," said DeLana Harvick, whose Kevin Harvick Inc. -- which she co-owns with her husband -- runs in the Nationwide and Truck series. "Sometimes things can get out of control as with anything. We're just trying to race more efficiently now."
That means making cuts, from the number of employees to new uniforms.
"Sometimes people get used to the excess," DeLana Harvick said. "Not that they were wasting money, but is that [new uniforms, etc.] the most efficient use of funds? Probably not."
The cost of a Nationwide program is at least half that of a Cup program. Norris estimates it takes on average about $15 million -- minus driver salary -- to run a Cup organization with three cars, compared to $6 million to $7 million to run a typical Nationwide deal.
Many stand-alone teams operate on a much lower budget. They've had to, with sponsors withdrawing support.
"The series always has survived, and I'm sure it will, but it's not overly healthy right now," said Michael Waltrip, who began a Nationwide program in the garage behind his North Carolina home in 1996. "That is pretty obvious. When you throw the green flag and 10 or 12 guys scramble to the garage, that's not good."
Waltrip was referring to the start-and-park cars, the teams that come each weekend hoping to make the field, run a few laps and pick up a paycheck. Keller isn't as worried about start-and-park teams as he is about teams that simply can't afford to purchase the full allotment of tires to compete. That, he argued, affects the overall product.
"Our series has been strong with car count," he said, reminding us that 45 to 47 teams show on most weekends. "But how many of the car count is truly planning on running the race? That is going to be down dramatically compared to the average we've had.
It's OK if we don't have as shiny of a helmet, as shiny of a firesuit, as shiny of this and that and the other. But we want to make sure we put a product on the track that is good for the fans.” -- Jason Keller
"Show me the amount that have gone and bought six sets of tires every week. I don't know the numbers, but I guarantee it's half."
Richard Childress Racing is a prime example of how the economy has impacted the series. A year ago, RCR entered two and sometimes three cars into every race. Clint Bowyer drove a full schedule, with Scott Wimmer competing in 23 events and Jeff Burton 13.
On Friday in Daytona, RCR had only one entry, Bowyer, who won the organization's first race of the season in the No. 29 Holiday Inn car. BB&T, which sponsored Bowyer's Nationwide team in 2008, moved up to the Cup series so RCR could add a fourth team.
Keller expects more Nationwide sponsors to move to Cup, particularly when he hears organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports need more sponsor dollars for drivers such as Mark Martin.
"They've got to get their moneymakers taken care of, and their moneymakers are on the Cup side," he said. "It used to be they had an overabundance of sponsors. An organization like Roush was, 'OK, we'll put Carl Edwards in the Nationwide Series and let you run for a championship.'
"Those deals are coming harder and harder to come by."
Roush Fenway Racing is another good example of the trickle-down effect. Last year, the organization had two to four entries in the Truck series. This year, it has one. Instead of running two drivers -- Edwards and David Ragan -- for the Nationwide title, it is running only one.
Operations such as Richard Petty Motorsports have farmed out their Cup drivers to Nationwide organizations to save money, and RPM has formed a Nationwide partnership with Braun Racing. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing eliminated its program altogether after the merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing.
"Everything right now is obviously squeezed down," said Robbie Loomis, the vice president for race operations at RPM. "For us, when we added a fourth Cup car, it took a lot of our resources and people's energy to do that.
"That's why we decided to go outside to Braun Racing."
NASCAR has done what it can to reduce costs, such as the sealed engine rule that prohibits teams from using new engines in more than two consecutive races.
"I am hearing there are lease programs out there for under $600,000," Nationwide series director Joe Balash said. "Before we were looking at $1.1 million to as high as $1.5 million. There's been positive effects."
Most agree the COT will reduce costs in the long run. But short term, it likely will be a burden for stand-alone teams that can't pass down technology, parts and pieces like those with Cup support.
"The Roushes and Childresses have already built enough of these cars to be able to know at least more of what to do and what not to do," said Keller, who drives for Baker Curb Racing. "For the independent teams, you may build one or two and be OK as far as how fast they are.
"But with stand-alone teams, we'll have to keep using the same cars. We can't just throw them in the corner and say, 'We'll build another and the next one will be better.'"
Some won't survive. The competitive gap that has shrunk somewhat in the past year will widen again.
NASCAR is doing what it can to make the new car unique to differentiate the Nationwide Series from Cup. There will be a spoiler instead of a wing, no bump stops and more front-end downforce so the car drives differently.
"Fans are really going to enjoy it when they see that car on the track," Norris said. "Done correctly, it will save the owners money. But the transition is going to be tough, and some people won't survive."
J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, also expects casualties but believes others will replace them.
Cup teams likely will step up participation. Because the technology will be similar again as it was when both series used the old car, more are likely to participate.
"It's never going to be a place to make money," Gibbs said. "It's going to be a place to get your next mechanic or crew chief." Those who don't favor participation by Cup drivers won't get a reprieve. Cup drivers always have been a big part of the Nationwide Series and will continue to be.
They have to be for the series to flourish. Track promoters aren't anxious to spend what it takes to put on a Nationwide event filled with no-names. They want stars.
Money isn't a factor for the Cup drivers, so it doesn't matter whether the economy is up or down.
"People fail to realize these Cup guys aren't in the Nationwide for the money," DeLana Harvick said. "They're doing it because they love to race. More than anything else, they love winning the trophy."
Nobody knows for sure how this will work out. In all likelihood, the model will be much different going forward. Teams will spend money on the essentials, not the frills.
"I hope when we show up at Daytona in February, 55 cars show up and I look like I didn't have a clue to what I'm talking about," Keller said. "I hope the jobless market moves up and there is a lot more money to be spent.
"But there are some big holes that have to be filled. In order to be filled, we have to be smart, and somehow, some way, we have to figure it out."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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