ATLANTA -- Andy Petree doesn't have to look at the business section of the newspaper to know times are tough.
The same Corporate America that a couple years ago was throwing money into a bottomless pit known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series has gone on a financial diet. No matter how many proposals Petree prepares for prospective sponsors, the car owner has a difficult time getting past the receptionist.
''You used to make you pitch, then wait for a decision,'' said Steve Barkdoll, general manager for both of Petree's teams. ''Now it's hard to get through the door. We've got some things working for next year, but nothing concrete. We're still looking.''
At a time when 401(K) plans are losing money and credit-card debt is soaring out of control, stock car racing is struggling for its fair share: $8 million a year for the middle-of-the-pack teams and as much as $15 million for the front-runners.
Petree already knows he's losing one of his sponsors, Oakwood Homes, at the end of the year. The company that produces manufactured homes has bigger issues than racing. Like so many other sponsors of the past, the company is pulling back to avoid bankruptcy.
Worse yet, he doesn't have a commitment from his other sponsor, Square D, beyond this year's season finale at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
A year ago, Exide Batteries, Lycos and Big Daddy's Barbecue Sauce both got out of racing at midseason to escape financial collapse. Power Team, Turner Broadcasting, Family Click.com, Northern Lights.com, John Deere, MichaelHoligan.com and STP also baled out. At the same time, Bud Moore, Larry Hedrick and Cale Yarborough couldn't find sponsorship dollars, so they closed the doors to their race teams.
A $10 million-a-year commitment is only the beginning for a company that wants to market its product at 180 mph. Budweiser, for example, spends twice as much on advertising and off-track promotions as it does sponsoring Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet. Put it all together, and the cost of racing is staggering.
And it's never enough.
A single car with an engine costs about $100,000. Teams use two or three engines a week at a cost of $35,000 each as well as six to 10 sets of tires at a cost of $1,500 a set.
Petree would like to see NASCAR institute a rule change that limits teams to a single engine during a racing weekend. That rule is in effect on the Busch Series, and it cut as much as $500,000 from an annual budget.
''NASCAR isn't looking at the engine thing,'' Petree said. ''On a normal weekend with no problems, we're putting three engines on every one of these cars. I think that is a concern. I'd like to see them be able to control tires a little bit more and control costs. Over the past five years that I've owned a team, it's costing me twice as much now as it did when I started. If that keeps going, it's going to be tough for everybody to keep bringing in enough money. There are only so many corporations out there that have enough money to support something like that.''
The hard part for Petree is finding those companies and getting past the receptionists who are trained to rebut all sales pitches especially the ones for $10 million a year in a slow economy.
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