Economic crisis tops worry list

CONCORD, N.C. -- NASCAR's top executives sat on a podium Thursday, bringing one clear message:

They feel your pain. They care.

That goes for the traditional blue-collar fan wondering whether he can afford to attend a race this year, all the way up to the Sprint Cup teams, some of which are struggling to survive.

NASCAR closed out the 2009 media tour with its annual version of the state of the union speech at its Research & Development Center. The overwhelming topic of the day was the economic crisis and its impact on the sport.

Chairman Brian France, President Mike Helton and the other NASCAR honchos want everyone to know they aren't just sitting around in their big offices playing with die-cast race cars and hoping things get better.

"This is the most difficult economy in a generation," France said. "But NASCAR has been in business for 60 years because we have a sport that endures.

"We are working with the speedways and glad to see they are offering tickets-pricing incentives to the fans. And we're working to help the teams develop a new business model."

It's a buyer's market if NASCAR fans are looking for deals. Ticket prices and hotel charges are falling to levels not seen in a decade.

The real challenge for NASCAR is trying to keep its players in the game. Corporate America is hurting, so sponsorship is hard to find.

"But we've had 15 new teams register cars here at the R&D Center," France said. "It's encouraging because it shows an improved cost structure for teams that might have seen this as a mountain too high to climb at one point."

Clearly, that was the most misleading statement of the day. These are teams (a stretch to use that term) without sponsorship and with little or no chance of running a full schedule.

About 30 Sprint Cup cars are fully funded. The Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series don't come close to that number.

So saying 15 new teams are coming in is a ridiculously optimistic view of things. But NASCAR isn't fiddling while the teams burn. Quite the contrary.

Believe it or not, the powers that be do care. And NASCAR is actively involved in seeking constructive ideas and approaches to support the teams.

No, they aren't offering a bailout and handing teams cash. That won't happen. But NASCAR officials are trying diligently to find sponsorship dollars for teams.

Steve Phelps, Jim O'Connell and Jill Gregory are three people you probably don't know. They have the toughest and most important jobs in NASCAR at the moment, trying to align teams with sponsor funding.

"Absolutely, I feel pressure," Phelps said. "We feel a burden and a responsibility to help."

"It is the bread and butter of NASCAR to make sure we have a full-funded industry," O'Connell said.

Gregory, NASCAR's director of industry relations, heads up a new marketing office in Charlotte. Phelps believes having a marketing arm where the teams are located has helped.

"It's built some trust in what we're trying to do," Phelps said.

That hasn't been easy. Team owners have complained that NASCAR is taking sponsors for itself and away from drivers and cars.

And exclusivity agreements with Sprint and other NASCAR official sponsors have kept teams from signing competitor companies. Phelps and O'Connell, both of whom worked in the NFL, say NASCAR has far fewer exclusivity issues than the other pro sports.

NASCAR has looked uncaring at times, but Phelps and O'Connell are the good guys. They are the link to seek out the money for the teams.

It has been an interesting and challenging offseason for everyone. In tough times like these, people tighten their belts and focus on what they do best.

-- Brian France

In this economy, it's a little like looking for a mountain lake in the Sahara Desert. They didn't have a lot of luck last year in securing long-term financial backing for Yates Racing.

"But it wasn't for a lack of trying," Phelps said.

Successes do happen. The NASCAR marketing team was instrumental in bringing Ask.com into the sport and aligning it with Hall of Fame Racing to sponsor Bobby Labonte, along with making it the official search engine of NASCAR.

NASCAR often gets criticized for taking sponsors away from teams, but this is an example of bringing a sponsor to a team.

Phelps said the marketing team now avoids directly aligning sponsors with a team because that causes complaints of favoritism.

The goal is to help teams make a professional proposal and align corporate needs with marketing goals that fit a particular NASCAR organization or driver.

"Claritin is one example," O'Connell said. "They asked us to find a team that had a driver who had allergies. That's how they ended up sponsoring Carl Edwards."

Too bad Travis Kvapil doesn't have allergies. He could use the sponsorship money a lot more than Edwards. Aflac is paying $26 million to put its paint job on the No. 99 Ford, which Edwards drives.

The rich (Roush Fenway, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing) get richer and the also-rans die out when times are tough.

NASCAR always has been a survival-of-the-fittest game. That concept is magnified now.

"It has been an interesting and challenging offseason for everyone," France said. "In tough times like these, people tighten their belts and focus on what they do best. But it is more difficult for some of these teams to get sponsors now if they haven't performed at the level they need to."

The Pettys and the Wood Brothers have learned that lesson. Being legends of the sport isn't enough for sponsors now if you run 35th every week.

Tough times for NASCAR teams was the prevailing story of the 2009 media tour. That theme will continue this season.

NASCAR officials know it, but they are proactive on some fronts. And they hope you believe their message:

They care.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.