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Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Will downturn put brakes on Nascar?

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Daytona, Florida

Daytona International Speedway, Florida
The Nascar racing season starts at the Daytona speedway in Florida
Across the states of the Old South, where the first hesitant warmth of spring is starting to make itself felt, the air is filling with the smell of barbecue smoke, burned tyres and brake-fluid.

America's favourite motorsport - Nascar - is back for another season powered as always by a rich cocktail of beer, testosterone and high-octane gasoline.

For 70 million or so Americans, this is car-racing as it should be - a world away from Formula One, which many Nascar enthusiasts find effete, over-regulated and out of touch with driving in the real world.

Nascar is tuned for the American palate.

Cars which are essentially over-muscled versions of the vehicles you drive yourself are packed together on to an oval track and raced over hundreds of miles until a winner emerges.

The speeds are dangerous (over 200mph), the spectacle gladiatorial and the passionate crowds extraordinary.

The Daytona International Speedway, where the season starts with a 500-mile challenge, holds nearly 170,000 - and millions more will watch the opening races of the season on TV.

Sponsors

It is a loyal, largely blue-collar demographic, concentrated in the sport's south-eastern heartland but found throughout the US.

Daytona International Speedway, Florida
Nascar tends to attract sponsorship from all kinds of advertisers

No wonder that sponsors have always flocked to it - and not just the obvious sponsors like Ford and Chevrolet.

Advertisers like sports where it is easy to grasp the profile of the crowds; so they love Nascar. It is a vehicle for selling everything from whiskey and beer to cheese-flavoured crackers and indigestion tablets - at least it always has been until now.

Car sales have plummeted in the US in recent months and the leaders of the big three auto-makers (Ford, GM and Chrysler) have been exploring the chances of a federal bailout.

So can they afford to keep pumping dollars into this money-guzzling sport, when those dollars might come from the American tax-payer?

Jenna Fryer, who covers the sport for the Associated Press, says she doubts it. "It's very hard to justify spending $10m, $15m or $20m a year on a race car going round and round right now... they've got to be very careful how it's perceived in Nascar."

Ailing car industry

American sport in general, for all its astonishing capacity to generate and spend money, will not be exempt from the national downturn - the most serious economic crisis since either World War II or the Wall Street Crash (everyone has their own favourite historical benchmark to fit in at the end of that sentence).

The issue has already surfaced briefly here and there.

Juan Pablo Montoya
I think the situation is hard on everybody, not just Nascar and F1, but every sport
Juan Pablo Montoya

Alex Rodriguez, the big-hitting third baseman for the New York Yankees, is probably lucky he got the team's owners to sign his 10-year, $275m contract a few months before it became clear that the national economy was falling off a cliff. (And before it turned out he had been pumping up his batting average on steroids, back in 2003.)

And Citigroup, one of the now bail-out-funded family of humbled American banks, appeared to hesitate before confirming that its $400m sponsorship of the new home of the New York Mets would be going ahead.

But Nascar is particularly vulnerable to recession - its fortunes, after all, are inextricably linked to the fortunes of America's ailing car industry.

In the old days, when the cars you saw racing on the track were basically the same vehicles you saw in your local Ford or Chevy showroom, the link could not have been simpler: "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday", the old-timers will tell you.

There are plenty of cars likes the Oldsmobile 88, the Ford Galaxie and the Chevy Impala 409 that got a flying start in the American imagination through their performances on the Nascar track - and racing success still makes a huge difference to sales. Hence the readiness of the Big Three - and their Japanese rivals - to spend big on Nascar.

But if those car makers aren't shifting product, and customers cannot afford to buy cars - will the flow of money into Nascar dry up?

Recession's impact

I went down to Daytona Beach, Florida, for the season's media launch and put that question to some of the drivers who were wheeled out to meet the media.

Martin Truex Jr
Driver Martin Truex Jr believes Nascar is resilient enough to survive

To be fair to the star racers, they were really there to answer questions like "Are you looking forward to this season?", but they were polite enough to answer.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who just made the transition from Formula 1 to Nascar, said simply: "I think the situation is hard on everybody, not just Nascar and F1, but every sport... you always hope the grandstands will be full and so far people have come."

Rising star Martin Truex Jr said the sport was resilient even though the economic situation was making itself felt: "I think it's changed drivers, sponsors and owners... but it's still going to be the elite racing series in the world, no matter what."

Those effects are real though. There are rumours that ticket-sales and prices for TV advertising slots are down.

And perhaps the biggest sign of how the economy is hurting is that the winter schedule of testing - a costly ritual that keeps the fans interested during the off-season - was scrapped.

Nascar president Brian France said that decision had been taken for the overall good of the sport - effectively acknowledging the impact of recession.

"Our decisions impact so many people - race fans, track operators, TV partners and sponsors - that has to be reflected," he explained.

As the season proper kicks off with the Daytona 500, how will the downturn affect this vibrantly American, cheerfully consumerist sport?

In the best recent movie about Nascar, Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell plays a down-on-his luck star driver whose team is struggling to attract sponsors - at one point in place of the usual oil company and soft drinks logos on his car, he is reduced to taking personal ads.

No-one is suggesting that Nascar is quite there in real life - but this is going to be a tough season around the oval theatres of dreams.

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