Dollars and sense

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

After John Andretti failed to qualify for last Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, his BAM Racing crew took an early flight back to North Carolina. But before they left, they half-emptied their suitcases onto the team hauler, which was heading to Phoenix for this weekend's race, in order to make room in their luggage for some car parts.

As it turns out, the BAM crew needed some suspension springs for the car they'll use the following weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and since they wanted to work on the Homestead car as soon as they got home from Texas, the quickest way to do that was to bring the springs with them.

"I doubt Hendrick's crews are doing that," said Tony Morgenthau, co-owner (along with his wife Beth Ann) of the single-car BAM Racing organization.

Morgenthau is right. The boys at Hendrick Motorsports probably aren't emptying their suitcases in order to bring home car parts. If need be, they could just pile them on one of the Hendrick jets heading back to Charlotte.

This example of the haves vs. the have-nots is hardly news, especially not in the sporting world. For years, Major League Baseball has been treated like a pinata for incorporating a system where the New York Yankees can boast a payroll three times larger than some of their competitors.

But despite all of baseball's flaws, the reality is the Florida Marlins – with a $63 million payroll – can still beat the $180 million Yankees in the World Series.

Rather than baseball, the American sport that should be at the center of the haves vs. the have-nots debate is NASCAR. Not only have the have-nots such as Morgenthau been priced out of victory lane, the number of haves is rapidly shrinking.

Take this year, for example, when half of the 34 races have been won by one team, 79 percent by three and 88 percent by four. On top of that, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are duking it out for the championship, with no one else in their rearview mirrors.

NASCAR is not like Formula One racing, where three teams absolutely rule the sport, but the fear is that NASCAR is ambling down the same road.

"If this becomes a battle of money, then those people who sit in the stands are going to stop watching," said Ray Evernham, co-owner of a three-car organization. "Right now, it's not a battle of money and it needs to never become that."

The finances of NASCAR is a complicated subject, especially considering the sport's competitors – the drivers, crew members, etc. – are independent contractors. At the center of the sport's monetary debate is the idea of franchising. Should NASCAR become like every other American sports league and sell ownership in "teams," a la the New York Yankees or Los Angles Dodgers, which would make up the competitors in the "league," or should the sport remain open, as it is now, to any and all comers?

The upside of franchising is that it would give team owners a piece of the NASCAR pie, provide them a guaranteed spot in the race each week (as opposed to some teams having to qualify on speed), which, in turn, would enable them to tell sponsors, 'Yes, your logo will be on the hood of the car, in front of millions of people.' Conceivably, this would make all teams that much more viable.

The downside of franchising – it's expensive, exclusionary, prices out those who can't afford the fee and would end NASCAR's long-standing open tradition that those who want to race, can, just as long as they show up and go fast.

"The car owners have nothing of value without franchising," Richard Childress said. "I think it's something they should have done a long time ago."

What scares owners of well-established teams such as Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing is that they've sunk large fortunes into the sport that, while worth something now, could be worth less tomorrow. Because, just like automobiles, race teams depreciate unless they're maintained, and doing that costs even more money.

J.D. Gibbs, who now runs JGR, grew up watching his father, Joe, coach the Washington Redskins. J.D. said the team's owner, Jack Kent Cooke, used to complain every year that he was losing money.

"What he forgot to mention was the value of his team went up several hundred million dollars," Gibbs said. "Our hard part is getting the value to go up in the here and the later."

Gibbs said a few years ago they were pushing "long and hard" for NASCAR to establish franchises, but have backed off because there isn't a real good way to do it.

The difficulties are many. How many franchises should be allotted? Who gets them? Who doesn't? How much do they cost? Does NASCAR grandfather in certain teams?

When asked to explain his vision of a franchising system, Childress said it would take too long to "tell the whole story, but there are ways to protect NASCAR, the car owners and put a value on what we have."

But protecting NASCAR and the car owners is only part of the equation, said Chris Lencheski, a fledgling car owner who is an expert when it comes to motorsports marketing. He warns that while franchising might give team owners and sponsors some assurances, ultimately the fans will decide if the idea works or not.

"The theory of NASCAR is to bring what you've got," explained Lencheski, president of SKI Motorsports and SKI and Co., a worldwide sports marketing and entertainment firm. "If you change that, you change the face of the sport."

Franchising would entirely change the sport's dynamic to one where it's no longer the fastest who get in, but rather members of the club.

"Yes, you lock in the sponsorship interest," Lencheski explained. "But the consumers are the fans, and ultimately they decide, is that still the same NASCAR they grew to love?"

And if they stop watching, what are the sponsors locked into?

NASCAR is listening to all parties involved, but right now it has no plans on moving toward a franchise system, according to Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president of racing operations.

Rather, it's focused on curbing skyrocketing costs through innovations such as the Car of Tomorrow. The idea with the COT was to standardize the car, thus limiting the advantage of building different cars for different tracks and different races. Fewer cars results in less spending, which certainly benefits the have-nots.

"Our goal is always to have the ability to have Alan Kulwicki win the championship," said O'Donnell. Kulwicki is the last owner/driver to win the sport's championship.

"If they can't, and there's a day when there's a barrier, then we've got an issue," he continued. "Hendrick's obviously 1-2 right now, but we've got Clint Bowyer, who somehow gets lost. He's not too far out of it.

"A couple of years ago it was Roush dominating and everyone said, 'Oh, is this the end of it?' I think it moves around. It's something we focus on. It's one of the reasons we have the Car of Tomorrow."

The financial impact, if any, of the CoT won't be realized for a few years. The car has only been used on a partial basis this season and won't go into full usage until next year.

But while theoretically the CoT means fewer cars in the teams' fleets, who's to say those teams that can won't spend more money elsewhere, say on testing the CoT, like Hendrick did this year?

That's already happening, according to Evernham, who says teams are now spending more money on personnel. And while he's not yet ready to say he's getting beat by Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush strictly because of dollars, he believes it's heading that way because those organizations can afford to come in and poach his best people simply by doubling their salaries.

Evernham said NASCAR is doing the right things with the CoT, but it must start addressing personnel issues.

"Either it's got to be tighter restrictions on people through some sort of franchising, or it's truly got to become a league that's controlled," he said. "If you wanted the best quarterback, the guys from the Jets can't go over and tell Tom Brady, 'We'll pay you $10 million more to come over here and play.' That's what we've got to stop over here."

Under the current system, NASCAR has no control over how teams deal with personnel issues. That goes back to them being independent contractors.

O'Donnell said he isn't concerned that NASCAR is becoming too predictable. He insists the sport is different than Formula One because it takes into account the needs of all parties, from the track owners, to the teams, to the sponsors, to the fans.

"If we have 43 cars on the race track, with side-by-side racing that you can't see anywhere else," he explained, "if we focus on that, we think our fans will obviously embrace that."

They will. We know it because they already have. But it's not the status quo that's so concerning. It's what lies ahead.

"(The sport) can't be managed the way it was 30 years ago," Evernham said. "It's unfortunate because it's been really successful with that plan. But it's no different than my business. It grew so much that I couldn't manage it the way I did three years ago. And I think NASCAR now has to look at it philosophically a little bit different."

When asked how close the sport is to a crossroads – and more precisely, how close it is to becoming like Formula One, the kind of boring, follow-the-leader racing guys like Juan Pablo Montoya came to NASCAR to get away from – Evernham opened his eyes wide and spit out, "We've passed the street signs. The crossroad is coming."

What to Read Next