Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Whenever a fellow reporter asks you what you're working on, there's only one of two politically correct answers. "My next big story," is always the best response. But if that's not entirely accurate, then there's the more casual approach, which is suggesting you're just headed into the paddock or garage to stir the you-know-what.
It may not have been politically correct, but the April Fools Day story that appeared regarding President Obama shutting down factory participation in NASCAR certainly qualifies as stirring the you-know-what. Beyond the mean-spirited swipe at both the president and NASCAR, it did raise an interesting question.
Can, gulp, motor racing survive without factory participation?
The quick answer is no. The manufacturers are the most consistent source of budgets, equipment, technical expertise, advertising and promotion. But their biggest contribution could be the presentation of an image.
Would a race really be major league if no automobile factories were participating?
There may be some upcoming answers to that question in the offing.
An executive at the IRL confirmed that it's possible the series might get along with privately-built spec engines in the future. Although he wasn't specific, the implication was that the current V-8's from Honda were awfully expensive for teams considering the life-span of the design and the absence of competition.
On the other hand, it was also confirmed in the St. Petersburg paddock that the IRL is looking to downsize to turbocharged V-6 or inline four engines in the future with the hopes that several manufacturers might be interested in taking up this cudgel. Presumably a price-point would be negotiated.
In NASCAR, a factory withdrawal may well take place before the year is out. The Penske Racing team has its Dodge well positioned for the championship, assuming the team owner can sustain the effort behind driver Kurt Busch, who somehow imagines he's on a dude ranch and that Roger Penske is merely a hired hand. But if Dodge goes out of business, will that sideline Penske or the effort of George Gillett, the other Dodge team owner?
Probably not. Would it hurt the image of NASCAR if a team won the championship in a brand that has gone out of business? It would be interesting, but not the end of the world.
Back when David Pearson and the Wood Brothers had the stock car world by the tail in the early 1970's, the team was fielding Mercury's. The engines were Ford designs, but the engine blocks were being cast by drag racer Keith Black due to Ford having withdrawn from racing. So there's always a way to go forward when it comes to equipment.
When it comes to budgets, the factories withdrew from NASCAR in 1971 until Ford SVO officially brought Detroit back into the fray 10 years later. For an entire decade, the series survived without direct factory involvement. (GM, of course, kept the door to its performance parts division wide open for the NASCAR guys.)
Currently, the top dollar investment in NASCAR is by Toyota, which is believed to be spending about $8 million per year on each of the Toyota entries at Joe Gibbs Racing. Could the team survive on half of that? Probably. Will Gibbs have to learn to get by on less once its three-year contract is over in 2010? Stay tuned.
In the case of GM, a bankruptcy could put its NASCAR teams in a bad spot if the contracts they hold are negated. But would that put Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress out of the racing business? Not likely. Would it tip over the new partnership of Teresa Earnhardt and Chip Ganassi, formed in large part due to economic necessity? Stay tuned.
The betting here is that GM figures out a way to not sacrifice the marketing segment it has built in NASCAR by giving it away to Toyota and Ford, the latter currently being on firmer ground financially than its American brethren.
In sports car racing, factory involvement is crucial. Two new factory cars from Acura at the ALMS round in St. Petersburg kept the show going. So did the rumor that Audi will return to the ALMS in August at Mid-Ohio after the Le Mans 24-hour.
Between now and then, the GT2 category will sustain the ALMS due to the presence of Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Panoz and private entries by Corvette and Viper owners. Plus, Porsche Cup cars will be added to the grid from the IMSA Challenge series starting in Salt Lake City. A factory Corvette GT2 entry is also expected at Mid-Ohio and the entire grid at the Petit Le Mans in September is expected to have major factory participation, just like Sebring.
The year ahead is likely to bring more talk about a hybrid Porsche prototype destined for Le Mans in 2011 and the ALMS presumably in 2010.
It's been widely held that the Rolex Series of the Grand-Am has factory participation by Toyota, Ford and GM precisely because the same factories are involved in the Sprint Cup of NASCAR, which owns both series. Since those factories have a relatively low overhead in that series due to supplying mostly engines to the teams, and because the participating factories do want to curry favor with NASCAR, it seems unlikely that all the factories will disappear. Porsche, as always, is organized for the long haul.
In Formula One, the factory equation can be summed up by one word: Ferrari. The Italian marque will continue in the world championship without fail, even if it has to supply the entire grid with engines. That's prospect enough to keep at least one or two other manufacturers involved no matter how bad the economy!
The economy and credit flow is bad the world over and may not improve much in the coming year, which in turn will influence budget decisions for the 2010 season. There's likely to be fallout, but who falls and who is out remains to be seen.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.