Even NASCAR isn't immune to skyrocketing gas prices

Updated: May 7, 2008, 2:31 PM ET
Associated Press

CONCORD, N.C. -- As gas prices soar across the country, the thought of paying $6.25 a gallon would make any consumer cringe.

Yet that's what it costs in NASCAR, where race teams use a special Sunoco 260 GTX unleaded fuel to fill their cars. Although the gas is free -- part of Sunoco's agreement as NASCAR's official fuel supplier -- it doesn't mean car owners and drivers aren't feeling the pain at the pump.

"It affects all of us, anybody that's in business," said car owner Richard Childress. "Getting our cars to the racetracks costs a ton in gas money for the haulers. Bringing our people to the tracks, the rising costs of jet fuel. It's very, very expensive to do what we're doing."

Childress, owner of a highly successful race team, isn't complaining. Nor are the drivers who pull in multimillion dollar salaries and don't flinch at $85 fill-ups on their luxury SUV's.

But no one in NASCAR is immune to the weakening economy and rising costs on fuel. Just because they can afford it, doesn't mean they aren't feeling the pinch.

Under Sunoco's deal with NASCAR, teams are provided free fuel at any sanctioned test, practice or race for all three top divisions. A company spokeswoman said it's impossible to determine just how much fuel is used per weekend because of fluctuations in schedules, weather and the teams' practice times each week.

When teams tested earlier this week at Lowe's Motor Speedway, their gas was once again free.

But the good teams test a lot, traveling all over the South to facilities not sanctioned by NASCAR. Sunoco doesn't cover those all-day sessions, and a race team typically brings a 55-gallon drum of gas to get them through the test.

Of course, it's all budgeted for long before the season even starts. And teams aren't affected by the oft-changing fluctuations in fuel costs under the Sunoco deal.

Even so, there are critics who complain that NASCAR races are dipping into the national supply. But NASCAR officials claim the amount of fuel being used -- less than 175,000 gallons per year on the Sprint Cup Series -- doesn't come close to the 366 million gallons that Americans average in daily usage.

So NASCAR has no current plans to shorten races, as it did in the early 1970s when OPEC hoarded oil to increase prices, causing long lines at the pumps.

But the pain is still felt away from the track, where teams have noticed a significant increase in transportation costs.

From sending diesel-chugging haulers across the country to transport the race cars, to the exorbitant jump in jet fuel, costs are soaring in simply getting drivers, crews and equipment to each event.

"We're really noticing it in credit card costs," said Jay Frye, general manager of Red Bull Racing. "We're getting bills back for thousands and thousands of dollars in diesel fuel that's needed to get the haulers to the track each week. So every time gas prices go up, it affects our monthly budget because we're paying a bigger gas bill than we did last month."

With diesel fuel now over $4.00 a gallon, and each hauler holding roughly 300 gallons, fill-ups now cost more than $1,200 for a truck that only gets between 4.5 and 7.5 miles per gallon.

The real pinch, though, comes in jet fuel. Many team owners shuttling crew members, and drivers flying private planes on weekends, are considering cutting down on the luxuries.

Jeff Burton said he recently sat down with his wife, Kim, to discuss removing any nonessential travel from their plans, and in March, Childress had crew members make the three-hour drive from North Carolina to Bristol, Tenn., instead of sending planes.

"That's directly related to fuel costs," Childress said. "We've gotten rid of some planes this year and gone to some different programs to save money in that area."

Many drivers own their own planes and use them for personal and professional travel. But at about $4.30 a gallon, Carl Edwards estimated it costs him $2,000 a trip to fill his airplane -- not worth it for a spur-of-the-moment vacation.

"It's expensive, and listen, I'm a real thrifty person and I have my budget for the year before the year starts," Edwards said. "I'm good. I planned for it. But I still have trouble doing it. I'd rather just go ride my bike to get a little outside time, or just go down the river. It's way cheaper than jumping over to the Bahamas."

Many also consider themselves lucky to be at the highest level of racing. Fuel isn't free outside of NASCAR, and as high as the ARCA level, teams are paying for gas to get to the track and once they get there.

"When we were starting, it would have been really difficult for my dad and I and my buddies to go racing," Edwards said. "We'd go 150 miles each way every weekend, and it would have been really, really difficult to pay for that and all the gas at the track on top of it."

Tony Stewart has seen the pinch up close, from sagging attendance at the race track's he owns to helping the promoter at the dirt track in Talladega, Ala., dry the surface after a rain shower.

"I was down there with the track promoter just riding around in the pace car, helping try to run some of the water off the track," he said. "The hard thing is you have guys with late models rolling around trying to get the track in and the racing gas there was $8 a gallon.

"To sit there and have those guys rolling around like that and burning fuel just trying to get the track back in shape -- you know that has to hurt."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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