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NASCAR tries to get back on track

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of the biggest U.S. sports, NASCAR has had the toughest time battling the recession.

With the advertising dollars drying up for sponsorship of race teams, automakers' recent woes and high fuel prices, stock car racing is facing sagging television ratings and lower attendance.

With NASCAR's crown jewel, the Daytona 500, set to run Sunday, the circuit hopes to stem the losses and turn around what had been a growing sport for most of the past decade before the recession hit.

"We've got to be sure we do this together, build this back up, because we need the TV ratings up, we need more people in the stands and I think we need better competition," Penske racing owner Roger Penske told BusinessWeek. "I think the folks at NASCAR realize that."

Companies slashing advertising dollars have hurt racing teams that are heavily dependent on their sponsors to keep the high cost of running a full NASCAR schedule, and one year after inking a big deal with Ask.com, the search engine is conspicuously absent from this year's sponsor lineup.

With ad budgets shrinking, it is becoming tougher for NASCAR's teams to find money to keep fielding a full field of racers on race day.

While a sponsorship deal with Sunoco means NASCAR teams do not deal with the continuing high price of gasoline during races, the same does not apply to the cost of crisscrossing the U.S. with the teams' equipment. Nor are the fans, who traditionally drive long distances to travel to races, immune to the gasoline pinch.

With the higher cost of travel in recent years, it has been more difficult for tracks to move tickets, and as a result, ticket prices have been cut to lure fans back into the stands.

As a big concession to those tracks this year, NASCAR has reduced its purses in all events in 2010 by 10 percent, hoping that the reduced costs could help turn around sinking attendance figures.

Facing tough times, NASCAR hopes the arrival of a famous female driver can help put the brakes on their slide.

Danica Patrick, an open-wheel driver who finished third in last year's Indianapolis 500, has become even more successful off the track with endorsements. Now, while she will continue to race in the IndyCar Series, she also will take part in a dozen of NASCAR's Nationwide Series events, which usually are held the day before the Sprint Cup races.

Ms. Patrick's presence will help increase the spotlight on the sport's second-tier circuit, as she announced Tuesday that she will be making her NASCAR debut this Saturday at Daytona.

"Racing in the Nationwide Series race was my goal during this entire two-month preparation process, but we wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do," Ms. Patrick said in a press release. "The ARCA [Automobile Racing Club of America] race was a blast, and I'm not ready for my first Daytona Speedweeks to end."

After performing well in the preliminary race as she makes the adjustment from an open-wheel car to a stock car, she expects to compete in a dozen nationwide races this season, and sure to help spark interest on the NASCAR circuit.

While Ms. Patrick is expected to attract some casual fans to the sport, NASCAR is making two significant changes this season to placate hard-core fans - and drivers - who felt the sport had started to become stale.

The first change, which will be evident at Daytona's famous track this weekend, is the relaxation of a rule that now will allow drivers to "bump-draft," which is the practice of not only riding in the draft of the car ahead of it to face reduced wind resistance, but then to bump the car to maintain momentum - sometimes at the peril of the lead car.

The other change throughout the schedule will be the increase in horsepower, which will allow cars to run faster and potentially lead to more crashes.

After the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR had worked hard to improve safety in the sport, and while the popularity of stock car racing surged in the middle of the decade, an overall decline has caused NASCAR's leadership to return to a bit of the grass roots of the sport and the adage, "If you ain't rubbin', you ain't racin'."

NASCAR explained its changes last month at a media tour.

"We will put it back in the hands of drivers, and we will say, 'Boys, have at it and have a good time,' " said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.

After coming down hard on drivers who took part in confrontation on the track, NASCAR Chairman Brian France promised to "loosen it up."

"It doesn't mean that you get a [get-out-of-jail free] card," he said of the relaxation of the rules. "But it certainly means that what we are encouraging the competitors ... for their character and their personality, within reason, to be unfolded."

With a return to the old days, owners hope that NASCAR can regain some of the spark that helped it become a major player in the American sports scene in the first part of the 21st century.

"I am probably as excited about the future of racing as I have ever been," former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs told BusinessWeek. Mr. Gibbs runs Joe Gibbs Racing. "I can honestly say that everybody is pointed in the right direction, and we want this sport, we want it to bounce back and come roaring back - and we will."