Nascar hits the skids

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The sporting spiritual home of blue-collar America is running into trouble as both recession-hit car makers and spectators steer clear of the race tracks.

In the high-octane, all-American world of Nascar racing, where souped-up cars speed bumper-to-bumper round smoking Tarmac, colliding with a competitor is known as "rubbing paint" and drivers have a saying that, "if you're not rubbing, you're not racing". But lately, devoted fans who come in their tens of millions to drink beer, eat junk food, and soak up the petrol-headed atmosphere at the nation's most popular spectator events have grown sick and tired of their beloved sport being rubbed-up the wrong way.

The faltering economy has hit Nascar with a triple whammy of financial setbacks which place a dark cloud of uncertainty over the colourful racetracks that represent a traditional spiritual home to the obsessions and values of blue-collar America.

Troubled US car-makers, who subsidise teams competing in events such as the Daytona 500 and Sprint All-Star, kick-started the crisis months ago when they began pulling money from the sport to try to offset a slump that eventually forced them to grovel for an emergency government bailout. Then cash-strapped corporate sponsors, who used to pay millions for small patches of advertising on the cars and overalls of such working-class heroes as Tony "The Smoke" Stewart and Jeff "Flash" Gordon, started scrapping deals.

Finally, the fiercely loyal punters, who travel in their camper-vans and pick-ups to venues such as the 150,000-seat Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama and 212,000-capacity Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth, began staying at home, to preserve their fragile bank balances. Attendances at Nascar were down almost 10 per cent last year, and several major teams now find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. More than 1,000 of their employees have been handed pink slips announcing their redundancies since the end of the 2008 season a fortnight ago.

Further blood-letting is on the horizon, as Nascar teams are forced into mergers or down-scale the number of cars they will enter next year, in an attempt to save the $20m (£13m) to $30m a season it costs to keep a single one of the 200mph vehicles on the circuit. "This is completely gut-wrenching," said Max Siegel, president of global operations at the Dale Earnhard team last week, as he dispensed with 116 employees. "We have some of the greatest people in the sport, some very talented people. Having to do anything that has a negative impact on them is very difficult."

Mr Siegel's announcement triggered brutal redundancies in other teams, which typically employ between 50 and 100 people per race-car. This week, Wood Brothers Racing trimmed its workforce by 90; Hall of Fame Racing got rid of 21; Bill Davis Racing released 40 people; Stewart-Haas Racing fired 16. In the sport's historic heartland of North Carolina, where almost all the teams are based, entire communities are suddenly wondering how they will survive if the perfect economic storm affecting the sport persists into the start of next season in February. International Speedway Corporation, the owner of many of the tracks that host events in the 36-race Sprint Cup – Nascar's blue riband series – has seen its share price plummet from a peak of $44.75 less than a year ago to $23 yesterday.

Some commentators even wonder if the Sprint Cup Series will be able to field its standard 43 cars per race in 2009. A third of the teams are still chasing sponsorship, and many have been pleading with supporters to write to their congressmen to lobby for a bailout of the auto industry.

But Nascar is not just facing a financial meltdown. To many, its troubles reflect a long-running decline of American working-class heritage that has simply been exacerbated by the recent economic crisis.

The sport can trace its roots back to the prohibition era of the 1920s, when moonshiners began firming-up the chassis and tinkering with the transmission of standard car-dealer "stock" cars, to outrun the police and "revenuers" charged with enforcing the puritanical ban on alcohol.

After drink was legalised again in 1933, they kept retuning their cars, and began racing them against each other in events known as "stock-car" races. In 1948, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, from which Nascar gets its name, was formed. In the 60 years since, aficionados have always praised Nascar for creating something other motor sports, most notably Formula One (which has never caught on in the US) have never been able to offer: close races. In the average race, as portrayed in the Tom Cruise film Days of Thunder, 40 cars will hurtle, often three abreast, around a banked, oblong track at speeds up to 200mph. There is constant overtaking and the pile-ups are legendary.

Although the symmetrical layout of a typical track might seem mundane, it offers fans the advantage of getting a decent view of the entire race. Many attend an event for several days staying at local hotels, or in campsites that typically fill the centre of the course.

Nascar is also famous for its "tailgating", the popular social pastime that involves cooking barbecues and drinking beer while standing around a truck outside a sports venue.

Last year, races in the 36-event Sprint Cup series accounted for 17 of the 20 best-attended events in the USA. It was also the second most watched sport on television after NFL football.

Yet despite the sport's astonishing popularity, many wonder if Nascar's guilt-free, carbon-guzzling brand of testosterone-fuelled, spit-and-sawdust entertainment has had its day. Even fans admit that the sport's attractions have paled. In the 2008 season, the three most popular drivers, Gordon, Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr, won just two of the 36 races. The less colourful Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and the widely disliked Kyle Busch won more than half the rest. The last season where the championship went to the wire was 2004, and since then television ratings for the biggest events have fallen by 5 per cent a year. "At races this year, you couldn't help but notice the large banks of empty seats," said Dave Rodman, one of the sport's best-known pundits.

"When things were good, venues built huge new stands and added to their capacity. Recently, there's been a number of events where large advertising signs have been covering unsold areas."

Mr Rodman adds that because most tickets are bought and sold up to a year before the actual event, recent Nascar attendances have reflected the economic position of fans in early 2008, meaning that things are likely to get worse before they get better. Since the average wage of crowds is $50,000, putting them firmly in the income group hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, the $75-$100 ticket price, together with the cost of travel to events, will next year represent an increasingly severe financial sacrifice.

"We are probably more susceptible to economic swings than other sports, particularly related to the price of fuel," said Andrew Giangola, a Nascar spokesman. "Our average fan drives 250 miles to each event. They stay down a few nights, in a hotel sometimes, and that can also put a strain on finance. That said, we are always amazed by their devotion and loyalty. Attendance this year was only down in high single figures."

Although Ford and Chevrolet plan to scale back sponsorship of tracks, he said both have promised to fulfil existing contractual commitments to the sport.

Nascar, a privately-owned company, has also recently changed rules regarding the design of cars, and banned testing at its official circuits, in a move aimed at saving each team $1m a year per vehicle.

"We are optimistic about getting through this challenging time, but it won't be easy," said Mr Giangola. "We are trying to improve sponsors' deals and make sure they get as much exposure as possible, so we hope that next year we are still going to see a full field of 42 entrants in each Sprint Cup race."

"You could look at the sport and say a contraction was due," he adds. "It just grew exponentially in recent years, and each weekend we saw cars going home because they were unable to qualify. Teams were staffing up and staffing up, and maybe it was time to put the brakes on."

The question now is whether Nascar can bring its sudden decline shuddering to a halt before more of its biggest names hit the end of the road.

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