Economy dominates at NASCAR event

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The skidding economy was the main topic at the fourth annual Sound and Speed Fan Festival combining drivers and country music stars in a two-day event.

"The economy will be the white elephant in the room wherever we go with the Cup series this year," Kyle Petty said. "Anybody that says it is not is full of crap."

Fans paid $20 for the annual kick-off of the NASCAR season Saturday, which included autograph sessions with a number of drivers and country music artists. Not surprisingly, the biggest draw was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

No attendance figures were given, but T-shirts for the event were marked down an hour before closing time. Fans were given the opportunity to have question and-answer sessions with the drivers and artists. Money issues were a major part of the discussions.

Petty's plans for the 2009 season include driving in some Grand American races and continuing his television work. He also would like to obtain a Cup ride, but he knows that his efforts could be harmed by the economic downturn.

"I think the days of the $15-to-20 million sponsorship in this sport are a thing of the past," said Petty. "We are all sitting around and twiddling our thumbs to see how the bailout is going to affect the contracts already in place with the auto manufacturers. Speedways have already seen corporate sponsors begin to pull back. Some of the teams have seen some of their sponsors cut them 15-to-20 percent because it is all they can afford."

NASCAR averaged 120,000 fans at Cup races last season. Petty thinks the crowds, if not smaller, will have a different make-up due to a reduction in disposable income.

"The economy is going to make each race a local race," said Petty. "People are not going to be traveling from Oklahoma to Talladega. You are going to see people there from Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia who can drive over for the day and go home."

Racing teams are also feeling the pinch. Petty's father, Richard Petty, has been involved with a merger that also includes Petty Holdings, which has Boston Ventures as the majority shareholder, and Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

"I think the merger is a plus for Richard Petty and a plus for Petty Enterprises," Kyle Petty said. "We have not spoken about it or how he will fit into the organization. The less I know about it the better off I am. I have not been a part of the organization for the past five or six months."

Another person who has distanced himself from the same merger is Ray Evernham, a former NASCAR team owner. He has retired from the day-to-day operations of the team, retaining only a small minority interest.

"I'm not burned out," said Evernham, who will have a small ownership stake in the new Petty team. "I'm not done with NASCAR. There is still plenty left for me to do. I'm just not sure what it is."

Evernham has built a new facility in Mooresville, N.C., which includes a museum and a garage area. He has also purchased East Lincoln Speedway, a short track in North Carolina. And he is working with Doug Herbert, a drag racer, on an attempt to break the land speed record.

"I will consult if they need me," Evernham said. "The name Petty needs to be in our sport. I wish them well. If he and George [Gillett] can find a way to get the Petty name back to victory lane it will be a really good thing for NASCAR in general."

Evernham expects each race this season to feature a full field of cars, but he is afraid economic issues could alter the competition level.

"It's brutal out there," said Evernham. "The level of competition might end up between three or four owners. It wasn't that long ago that we had 18 or 19 different winners in a season. I don't know if we will see that again."

Both Kyle Petty and Evernham think the biggest economic challenges for NASCAR might occur in 2010.

"It seems like [in NASCAR] we are a year behind where the economy is," said Evernham. "I am afraid that in 2010 there will only be 11 cars that have a chance of winning."