By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With the start of the 2009 racing season upon us, NASCAR faces perhaps its most challenging season in over 30 years.
Not since the energy crisis of the 1970s has the sport of stock car racing been forced to endure significant downturns in corporate sponsorship and fan attendance.
In addition, there's also over 1,000 team members that have been laid-off in the last three months – and most are still looking for a new job in the radically downsized industry.
Without question, NASCAR's very future could be at stake, and how the sport weathers the current global economic crisis poses the most significant challenge yet of Brian France's 5 ½-year tenure as the sport's chief executive officer.
If NASCAR is able to withstand the economic downturn better than most other general industries, France will look like a corporate whiz kid. But if attendance and ratings – which have dropped close to 20 percent over the last three years – take more dramatic hits this season, France's legacy as only the third person to run NASCAR could be forever tainted.
While the sport is trying various incentives such as convincing race track promoters to lower ticket prices, cutting concession stand prices and attempting to get most hotel chains to waive three-to-five night minimums on race weekends, the bottom line is that for NASCAR, the buck ultimately still stops with France.
And he's more than well aware that folks are watching very carefully now – and will continue to scrutinize his leadership in the coming months.
"It goes with the territory," France said. "I understand it and that's part of it."
Long a follower of leaders in other sports, particularly the NFL and Major League Baseball, France finds himself in a potential leadership rather than a follower role because NASCAR has arguably been hit harder by the economic downturn than any other major professional sport.
How he leads the sport through that downturn could potentially wind up being one of the most significant elements of France's eventual legacy as an effective leader and shepherd of the sport. But his legacy is the last thing he's concerned about.
"I think there's a general sensitivity that our sport does have to the economy, and I would hope most sports in this situation would be extra sensitive and work extra hard to earn the business of their customers," France said.
During his tenure, France in many instances has sat back and watched how things have evolved. But not this time. He's being proactive rather than reactive.
"The road we can go down is working with all the stake-holders in the sport," France said. "Everybody is very interested and understands what they're up against, whether it's the tracks, team owners or drivers.
"I met with some team owners in the off-season, and I'll be meeting with all of them over the next two weeks to talk about what we all can do together to weather the storm," France said.
The sport is sailing into uncharted waters of sorts in that the gross excesses involved in operating teams -- a price tag that typically runs $20 million-plus for the most successful teams -- have been scaled way back.
Even Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful team this decade with four championships since 2001, has not been immune from having to cut expenses and even lay off a handful of employees.
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who has driven for HMS since 1992, says it's up to everyone in the sport to rein in expenses and to be more prudent in making financial decisions, such as whether to fly coach or use a company jet.
Gordon recently went to South America to compete in an exhibition race. The resident of New York City could have used his own plane, but he elected to fly commercial -- albeit first-class -- for the first time in several years.
Still, just the effort that Gordon made to cut costs illustrates how there's a new save-save-save mindset where for far too long that mindset has been spend-spend-spend.
Being as high-profile as he is, Gordon can relate to the increased scrutiny that France and his leadership will be placed under during these difficult times.
"Certainly, it's going to be scrutinized," Gordon said. "It's a big sport and a big business, and the economy is affecting everybody, not just NASCAR. We're obviously driven by a lot of corporate sponsors. Our fans are the most loyal out there, and they're all going to be tested during this time.
"So, leadership and the decision-makers are going to be scrutinized, but they're going to be critical, as well. I think one of the things NASCAR has done is they've got a great group of people that run this. It's never just one person. It's all about the team (France) has behind him, but I'm confident that they're going to do the right thing."
Some of NASCAR's cost efficiencies have not been popular, most notably a testing ban that for the entire year that prohibits Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series teams from testing at race tracks that are host to NASCAR-sanctioned events in those three series.
While most teams have grumbled about that ban, NASCAR's edict ultimately will save them substantial amounts of money. Some teams have estimated that eliminating testing could save up to a million dollars or even more in 2009.
There are also the efficiencies resulting from the second full season of the new-style car (formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow). Designed to be state-of-the-art in terms of safety, the new car also has helped cut down on the number of cars teams need to build, as well as related savings in engineering, staffing and equipment back at the teams' main shops.
This season also brings a significant change in attitude and direction of the sport's stance on substance abuse. Until now, NASCAR has relied on a loose network of sorts where drivers or team officials suspected of illegal substance use were first counseled and then underwent treatment if they had a problem.
The downside of that was if someone indeed had a problem, it was rare that they'd step forward and out themselves to NASCAR. Typically, competitors would approach NASCAR officials with suspicions against other drivers.
That's how former competitor Shane Hmiel was found out as an illegal substance abuser. And even though he received several chances to seek treatment, Hmiel ultimately was banned for life from NASCAR competition for substance abuse nearly three years ago.
But NASCAR's new substance abuse policy is radically different. Every driver, crew member, crew chief and team official – as well virtually every official and administrator in the sanctioning body itself, including France and president Mike Helton – is subject to not only testing this week but are also subject to random testing at every race this season for the three series.
"Yes, absolutely," three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said when asked if mandatory testing is necessary. "We need to be proactive. We need to separate ourselves from other sports. We need to be on top of this stuff especially when the issues that popped up through the years with the illegal drugs we absolutely need a policy and I’m glad it’s in place."
As of Thursday afternoon, NASCAR said it was unaware of anyone testing positive for banned substances thus far. Because teams had several months to prepare for the reality of testing, most took the test as a necessary evil to maintain integrity – and especially safety – in the sport.
"It was kind of odd to go into a room with another man and have him watch you pee in a cup; it was one of the first times I experienced that," Johnson laughed. "But outside of that, they did the screening process and (he spent) an uncomfortable three or four minutes trying to go to the bathroom. That was about it."
If only the new season – with all the challenges facing France, Helton and the sport as a whole – could be so easy.
But for now, while it's easy to be a pessimist due to the current economic climate, the main thing is NASCAR racing is back for its 61st season and optimism rides high for a strong year, one filled with hopes of plenty of excitement, attention and fans – the current woes of the economy be damned.
"We know where we are with the economy," France said. "We're looking to get cars on the track and do what we do best. There's a lot of drivers with new teams and I'm anxious to see how that's all going to work and play out. That's going to be the best tonic for ourselves and race fans."