Economic slowdown has Cup drivers rethinking their spending habits

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Five private planes were stacked on the runway of the small airport in Statesville, N.C., earlier this year for Denny Hamlin and four other Sprint Cup drivers to make the trip to Eldora Speedway in Ohio for Tony Stewart's annual celebrity race.

Each plane had two people aboard.

"It was the craziest thing I saw all year," Hamlin recalled. "We're all leaving at the same time for the same place. We all need to start using our head a little more."

Many are. Tough economic conditions have caught the attention of race fans who struggle to pay bills and buy tickets to events. They also have caught the attention of the millionaire drivers the fans idolize.

Greg Biffle has sold his helicopter and plans to cut back on vacation plans during the offseason. He and his four Roush Fenway Racing teammates have discussed jet-pooling to appearances such as the January fanfest in Daytona Beach, Fla., instead of flying individually.

Kurt Busch and other drivers plan to fly commercially to more places. Hamlin doesn't plan to buy a new car, as he typically does, and has stopped purchasing $1,000 sports jackets.

Others have put off buying a new motor home that becomes their track home on race weekends.

"It's stupid what we spend on motor homes and planes," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "Do we need that? No, but things have been good for us. The sport has been good. I've had success. I'm living this way because things have been very good.

"Obviously, we're having to cut back. I have to cut back, too."

And these are guys who can afford luxuries. Forbes magazine ranks Gordon 37th among in this year's Celebrity 100, with an annual income, including endorsements, of $32 million.

"Don't pay attention to what Forbes puts in there," Gordon said with a laugh. "They add a lot of extra numbers in there."

The economy, however, is no laughing matter to Gordon or any other driver. They might be more sensitive than most athletes because of the direct corporate and manufacturer support necessary to compete.

They understand that if sponsors pull out or reduce the amount they pay to have their name plastered on the cars, the trickle-down effect will come to them in terms of how much is spent on competition or what owners are willing to pay in their next contract negotiation.

They know that if General Motors, Ford or Chrysler goes under or withdraws financial support that performance could suffer.

"This is not a laughing matter," Gordon said after the season-ending banquet in New York. "It's tough times. It's something to be very serious about. We not only have to pay attention to raising money and finding companies out there to do that with, but we also have to watch our costs and not be exuberant."

Organizations already are. Petty Enterprises laid off approximately 65 people in the past few weeks and is seeking to merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in order to survive.

Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing had to merge into a four-car team, eliminating three teams and more than 100 jobs.

The legendary Wood Brothers have eliminated 22 employees and plan to run in only 12 of 36 races in 2009.

The plane is a necessity 60 or 70 percent of the time. Then you've got it, so you might as well use it. But there are short trips that I probably could drive to and save money. I'm probably a little wasteful with my plane.

-- Carl Edwards

Even stronger organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports, which won its eighth Cup championship this year with Jimmie Johnson, let more than a dozen employees go.

Gordon said there might come a time when drivers have to reduce their salaries to pay engine builders and mechanics necessary to make their cars go faster.

"It might be something we have to look at," he said. "What we try to do is pay everybody fairly. I'm not asking to be the highest-paid guy, just paid fairly. … I always say to Rick Hendrick, 'I'll do whatever it takes to have the best team we can possibly have.'

"If that means take part of my salary to keep people on or hire certain people, I'll do it."

Biffle, who arguably has more toys with motors than anybody in the garage, began cutting back months ago when it was apparent times were going to be hard. Despite a new contract, he sold his helicopter that he once used frivolously to eliminate 30-minute car trips from his home on Lake Norman to the shop.

Or to fly into Charlotte for an appearance on a weekly television show.

Now he drives everywhere locally. He also began driving out of tracks after races instead of spending $1,000 on a helicopter for the short trip to the airport.

"I just wanted to make a small difference," Biffle said.

Wednesday's announcement that the government was considering bailing out the auto dealers was good news for the short-term, although that $14 billion plan died in the Senate on Thursday night. Regardless, Biffle is concerned with the long-term. He believes it's up to people like him to help the Big Three sell cars, so he's promoting the Ford Focus he now drives.

He went so far as to say the Focus drives better than the big Lincoln he owns.

"The only thing we can do is tell people to take a second look at the three American car dealers," Biffle said. "If we get a bailout and people still buy small foreign cars, what are we doing?"

Biffle believes getting back the confidence of the American car purchaser is key.

"We don't want to tell people to buy them," he said. "We want to tell them to go drive them."

Ryan Newman doesn't know what to expect. He hasn't bought anything new this year, although he is looking for a plane.

"They say it's a good time to buy," he said.

The plane, for many drivers, is a necessity more than a luxury. It allows them to make appearances and events on short notice.

"The plane is a necessity 60 or 70 percent of the time," said Carl Edwards, who had stops in Charlotte and Las Vegas this week before flying to London. "Then you've got it, so you might as well use it. But there are short trips that I probably could drive to and save money. I'm probably a little wasteful with my plane."

And in a time when waste means money, drivers are tightening the grip on their wallets.

"You look at every way you can to save money," Hamlin said. "A lot of us had money saved up in the stock market and we're being just as affected as the everyday guy.

"Sure, we're not struggling to pay our bills. But the things we used to do, maybe instead of going to an appearance by ourselves on a plane, we'll start carpooling. We can't afford to keep burning up jet fuel just to have one person in the seat."

Hamlin doesn't talk this way to create a good perception.

"It's the reality," he said. "We understand as drivers we're in a bad spot right now when it comes to things like negotiating contracts. The owners are going to tell us 'I can't afford to pay you. I don't have sponsors that can afford to pay you.'

"We need to appreciate where we're at."

Gordon said every American and every person around the world needs to take the same attitude.

"The means I'm living within are what I became accustomed to because of my paycheck," he said. "You make plans and investments and do things for your future.

"Right now, I'm just trying to be aware of next season. It doesn't affect me this season. But I'm going to make sure I save as much as I can on flights and booking things on my plane, in my office, as a family, a race team."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.