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Nascar's best days in rear view mirror

The impact of the rough economy on the sport is not overwhelming, but it is evident.

Last week I went to the Nascar race at Chicagoland Speedway. Besides being there to watch the race, I was curious about the impact of the rough economy on the sport. It is not overwhelming, but it is evident. Nascar is a sport that is almost entirely based on sponsorship and the fans' willingness to spend their dollars on these sponsors and the merchandise of Nascar. Every driver's car has a title sponsor emblazoned on the hood, along with many small sponsors' stickers all over the vehicle. Same goes for the drivers. When Dale Earnhardt Jr, for instance, exits his car after a race, he is wearing all his sponsors. He is drinking his sponsors' products.

The top drivers have title sponsors on the vehicle that dominate the look of the car. Jimmie Johnson has "Lowe's" in big letters on the hood, on the side and so on. As I walked past all the cars in the garage, I noticed that a few cars had no major sponsor. I talked to a few reporters and they said some teams cannot find a sponsor willing to dish out big dollars for title sponsorship; especially the lesser teams.

What is even more evident is that major car makers are scaling back their involvement in Nascar. Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge are long time partners with Nascar. The old marketing motto was: "What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday." Now with the struggles of the big three American car makers, the amount of dollars from the car company to the teams they sponsor is being scaled back. The economy has hurt ticket sales and fan spending as well. Nascar competes 38 weekends a year and some tracks they visit only once. Chicagoland Speedway is one of those tracks. You would think that with just one race the stands would be packed as they were around the sport five years ago, but that was not the case.

There was a strong crowd but there were thousands of empty seats. The action on the track is as good as ever but for reasons beyond the economy, fewer fans are showing up. Feb 18 2001 was one of the worst days in the history of the sports, but from an exposure standpoint, more fans nationwide paid attention to Nascar than ever before. The legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr died in a final lap crash during the Daytona 500.

On that tragic final lap Earnhardt crashed while trying to block oncoming drivers from passing his son Dale Jr who was in second place and teammate Michael Waltrip who was in first. The news that the sport's more recognised driver died on the final lap of racing's premiere stock car race shocked fans and casual observers. Nascar became a top-tier sport earlier this decade. They knew how to market the action, the drivers gave fans more access to their heroes than any other sport. The television coverage of Nascar also improved.

Over the past few seasons it is as if the sport has stagnated. Nascar still has stars that are household names, but I do not think it is growing. Nascar has probably the strongest base of fans, but despite adding drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya from Formula One, that fan base has not branched out as they expected. There is talk that open-wheel driver Danica Patrick may join the sport and for the first time, Nascar may need her to do so. There are no female drivers in Sprint Cup racing.

The combination of the stalled economy and a natural down-cycle has many inside Nascar worried that the sport's best days are in the rear view mirror. After seeing it first hand last weekend, I cannot muster up much of an argument against that. Nascar is not in danger of collapse, but it may be in danger of regressing back into the niche sport it was 30 years ago. ppabst@thenational.ae

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