NASCAR getting far too expensive for its own good

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

ATLANTA -- Although Tony Stewart had the worst finishing average of any champion since the NASCAR Winston Cup Series went to the points system in 1975, he still managed to win more than $9.16 million last season.

That's as much money in one year as Cale Yarborough, Joe Weatherly, Tim Flock, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Red Byron, Bobby Isaac, Rex White, Herb Thomas, Bill Rexford, David Pearson and Ned Jarrett collectively won during careers that included 23 championships.

Nothing costs what it used to. Bought a car, college education or a house lately? But when Shawna Robinson can make twice as much in just seven races than Lee Petty made in a 16-year career that included three championships and 54 victories, it proves just how accelerated the inflation rate is on the Winston Cup Series.

Nobody seems too alarmed by the amount of money drivers earn these days. Contracts in baseball, basketball, football and hockey have made most fans immune to seven- and eight-figure salaries.

Forty-three drivers earned more than $1 million last season on the senior circuit, including Geoffrey Bodine, who appeared in just 10 of 36 races.

What should get everyone's attention, however, is the cost of doing business. Stewart's winnings are about half of what it takes to operate a top-flight team. As the sport becomes more specialized and more complicated, expenditures will shift into overdrive. And like an engine that now costs $40,000 to build, race budgets can only take so much abuse. Eventually, something breaks down.

Ten years ago, a race team could flourish on a $5 million budget. Now it takes $15 million. There are engineers for shock absorbers, engineers for car bodies, engineers who read computer printouts at test sessions.

A sport that used to find help at the local junk yard or filling station now taps into a labor pool of college graduates. And there's nothing minimum about their wages.

NASCAR has the benefit of history. Twenty-five years ago, the open-wheeled racers from the CART Series ruled American motorsports. Their cars were fast; their drivers were wildly popular among the sport's fan base.

But stock car racing had two things working in its favor, although very few noticed at first.

Their races were more compelling, and their people had infectious personalities. It took a couple generations, but NASCAR finally took the lead as the premier motorsports organization in the country, and they did it one fan at a time.

CART became too consumed with engineering. The handful of teams that could afford highly specialized help survived and won all the races. The rest of the teams either wallowed in futility or were lost in a sea of red ink.

The Indy Racing League was spawned as a solution to CART's business and competitive policies. The IRL won the battle between the two Champ car organizations because sponsors and race teams grew weary of high finance. IRL races are compelling because success isn't driven by a balance sheet.

NASCAR needs to learn from all that.

IRL now is poised to do to NASCAR what NASCAR did to CART.

Costs are limited in IRL and that puts races in the hands of drivers, not engineers and accountants. Much like CART during its heyday, NASCAR has evolved into a sport where teams with the strongest portfolios lead laps and win races.

''The sport's pretty healthy right now,'' said Ricky Rudd, a driver who once served as his own car owner. ''I sympathize with the car owners. We have to do something to keep the costs down. They need to get a handle on things. Technology in the sport right now is huge, and that technology is very, very expensive.''

NASCAR is grappling to find solutions to soaring costs. The organization recently cut the number of test sessions for each team from seven a year to five. Teams, however, responded by moving tests to non-NASCAR facilities. The sport is a lot like baseball owners who beg Major League Baseball to protect them from their own destructive behavior and irresponsibility.

NASCAR can successfully argue the sport is healthier than ever.

After all, 18 drivers won races this season, including five who won for the first time. And then there are the 43 drivers who earned more than $1 million.

At the same time, six teams went out of business, which brings us back to an important history lesson: Nothing lasts forever.

Reach Don Coble at

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