Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: NASCAR Stars Weigh in, for Better or Worse, on Big-3 Bailout Debate

The growing worldwide financial crisis seems to be growing larger, more confusing and more controversial every day. While not be a topic particularly appropriate for the sports page NASCAR, more than any other major sport in the U.S., is directly related to the business world. One look down pit road is a colorful exhibit of corporate logos and company colors attesting to how important corporate sponsors and good economic health are to NASCAR.

In the past couple of decades it has been a darn good relationship for both corporate America and NASCAR. The sport provides to the corporate world sophisticated billboards capable of speeds reaching 200 mph at venues that can be seen by fans and potential purchasers of their products throughout the country and by millions more 38 weeks a year during national television broadcasts.

In return, some of the country’s most successful and well-known companies have poured tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of the sanctioning body, track owners and team owners. Seemingly a win-win arrangement for everybody concerned, at least until now.

Tough times have arrived for U.S. corporations, and thus NASCAR as well. This has prompted some of the sport’s best known and respected personalities to come to the aid of stock car racing’s most important partner – the U.S. automobile manufacturers. As the heads of the Big-Three car builders gathered in Washington D.C. yesterday with hats in hand to beg for further financial aid to stay afloat, a “grassroots” campaign kicked off within the NASCAR community to encourage fans to support Chrysler, Ford and GM in their quest to be the next segment of the U.S. economy to get in on the new trend of taxpayer-backed loans.

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General Motors is leading the charge. The 2008 Sprint Cup manufacturers’ champion has called on the most successful team owner in the business, Rick Hendrick, and some of the Chevy brand’s most popular drivers to appeal to their fanbase to rally around the bailout notion. Drivers such as Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and 2008 Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson are lending their support to the cash-strapped auto seller’s cause.

Said Johnson in a press release from General Motors in conjunction with NASCAR’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, “I have been with Chevrolet my entire racing career, and I honestly can’t imagine what our sport would be like without them, let alone what our country would be without Chevrolet. I’ve raced their Silverado trucks in off-road and both the Monte Carlo and Impala SS in NASCAR. Our personal and business relationship has grown over the years and now includes Jimmie Johnson Kearny Mesa Chevrolet near where I grew up in southern California, so it is far-reaching for me.

I hate to see all these economic troubles and we are all affected by the current situation. We need to reach out. I hope everybody will contact their congregational representatives and ask for their help and support in this current economic crisis for Chevrolet; in fact, for all three U.S. automakers.”

Does Johnson’s statement seem just a tad self-serving? Would anyone, based on the three-time champion’s statement contact a U.S. Senator or Representative because Chevrolet has been good – apparently real good – to Johnson? The other drivers issuing statements in support of government financial assistance for the Big Three were pretty much on par with Johnson’s, not much in the way of substance on a very complicated and far-reaching issue. The message to fans was more that if you like me as a race car driver – please do what I ask in this political matter.

The sport’s most popular personality, Earnhardt, stated, “All I ever raced is Chevrolet. They’ve been with me throughout my entire career and have supported everything I have done. Now I want to do everything I can to support them. I have awesome fans and I hope they will reach out to our leaders in Washington to help Chevy and our other domestic car makers. There is nothing more American than Chevrolet and we need to make sure it stays that way.”

Would any NASCAR fan, based solely on not much more than testimonials by their favorite driver as to how much a manufacturer has meant to their career really lobby their government representative to commit to billions of dollars in risky loans to any U.S. automaker?

We can only hope that the answer is no and that NASCAR fans are smarter than that.

That’s not to blame GM for trying. These guys are clearly getting desperate. Estimates have them running out of operating cash sometime in mid-2009. Heck, they have been a big supporter of NASCAR and it doesn’t hurt to try and get a little of the love back.

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You really can’t fault the drivers either, or for that matter a team owner such as Rick Hendrick, owner of many GM/Chevrolet dealerships, that have decided to throw in with the manufacturer(s) on this issue. What the heck, they might as well protect their good standing with the automaker – it can only help if they are successful and are around for years to come. And besides, regardless of what they truly believe is the right thing for Congress to do with regard to the bailout, they probably know that their influence in the final outcome will be negligible.

There is nothing wrong with a fan loyal to a particular driver supporting the sponsor that allows the driver to compete. Shoot – spending a few cents more for a box of laundry detergent to say thanks to the soap company for financing a driver’s race effort is understandable. When a fast-food franchise that supports a fan’s favorite sport is located next door to one that doesn’t, which drive-in to choose is understandably not difficult.

Loyalty though has its limits. The decision to make billions of dollars more available to the U.S. auto industry at a risk to the tax-paying public is not quite the same as a fan’s choice to purchase wall paint at Home Depot instead of Lowe’s because of a driver preference. Certainly the good of the country trumps any loyalty to NASCAR or its drivers.

Whatever the thought process was for General Motors to solicit the support of NASCAR personalities in their efforts to avert the bankruptcy courts – it is a futile effort. Fans of the sport will not unquestioningly follow the advice of a driver on such an important issue without fully investigating the facts and weighing the various pros and cons that exist in the matter.

At least I hope so.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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