Wednesday
Apr082009

NASCAR's Doomsday Scenario

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.The one question - bar none - that I’m asked more than any other by racing enthusiasts I encounter in my travels is: “What’s going happen to NASCAR if GM and Chrysler are forced to walk away from the sport because of bankruptcy?” It’s an excellent question. The common refrain coming from inside these manufacturers goes something like this: “Though we are looking for ways to cut our expenditures throughout the company - and we continue to trim our costs in NASCAR whenever we find the opportunity - we expect to remain a part of NASCAR for the foreseeable future.” It sounds good from NASCAR’s perspective, doesn’t it? But the reality is not nearly that cheery.

Make no mistake, if GM and Chrysler are taken to some form of “pre-packaged” bankruptcy, all bets are off, and NASCAR will suddenly be left with two “officially” participating manufacturers, Ford and Toyota. And I say “officially” because I expect all of the current GM teams - especially the Hendrick Motorsports organization - to continue to compete in NASCAR, even without direct GM involvement. And I fully expect Rick Hendrick in particular to continue to proudly display prominent Chevrolet logos on his cars out of loyalty to the brand and the company. (I don’t expect the Chrysler situation to engender such loyalty, however.)

But the research and development money - and all of the other associated promotional money that has already been severely reduced by these manufacturers in NASCAR - will be gone. And no matter how NASCAR spins it, this will be a considerable blow to the racing organization. Some have suggested that NASCAR will turn to other manufacturers (Honda, Hyundai) to pick up the slack. But it’s not that easy. It would take years before either one of those manufacturers would be ready to embrace the idea, even if they were interested, which they’re clearly not.

The other scenario that seems much more plausible - which some cynics, including myself, believe was NASCAR’s long-term plan all along with its “CoT” - would be to shift NASCAR’s racing model to running “NASCAR Specials.” This means running the current “CoT” - which is approaching 99 percent parts commonality already - as generic race cars that have no manufacturer affiliation whatsoever. If Ford and Toyota wanted to continue with their programs, that would be allowed, but any independent teams not officially affiliated with a manufacturer would then have to run a (fill in sponsor name here) “NASCAR Special.”

After all, from NASCAR’s perspective, what would be wrong with this “Doomsday” scenario? They’ve managed to slowly but surely neuter the role of the manufacturers over the years anyway, with the “CoT” being the final nail in the coffin. And let’s not forget, NASCAR is the most personality-driven form of motorsport in the world, so if the Winner’s Circle routine is minus one less mention after the sponsors and marketing partners, what difference will it make, right? And think of all the fees that NASCAR won’t be paying to manufacturers any longer for its line of die-cast model cars. NASCAR would get that fee money directly.

NASCAR has had plenty of opportunities to shore up its relationship with its participating manufacturers (accommodating the new versions of the Detroit Three’s “pony” cars, Mustang, Camaro and Challenger in Sprint Cup, for instance), but instead, they took their usual approach, which is to do nothing that resembles change unless absolutely forced to.

Only in this case NASCAR’s perennial inability to get ahead of the curve may in fact pay off for them.

If GM and Chrysler go into Chapter 11, the era of the “NASCAR Special” may be just around the corner.

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