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NASCAR 2009: Two races down and the sky hasn’t fallen yet.

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With the world economy in such obvious trouble just now, it was easy to expect the worst for auto racing this year. NASCAR is the big player in America and we started hearing about teams cutting back, laying off people, merging and shutting their doors before the final race was run last fall. It seemed reasonable to expect a pretty dismal season of racing this year.

But, so far, it hasn’t turned out quite like that. Yes, there are fewer of the big-buck teams committed to run the full season and many of the sponsors have reduced or ended their support of these big spenders. Remember, in recent years the entriy lists have been oversubscribed so much that just making it into the starting lineup was a victory of sorts – and finding your way into the security of a top-35 guaranteed starting spot was pure bliss. Now, with some of the teams gone or cut back, it looked like the days of sending drivers home might be over.

What we did see was the emergence of new or revitalized second-tier teams such as Tommy Baldwin’s. These teams may be operating on a shoestring budget and with semi-volunteer help but now that their odds of making it into the race were much better, it was worth the gamble. The 43rd-place finisher in the Daytona 500 took home about a quarter of a million dollars. That’s a pretty big incentive.

Stock car racing is inherently a low cost form of racing. The top teams change most of the engine parts after each race as insurance against mechanical failure. The second-tier team can buy up these slightly used parts and run them for several races at minimal cost. The cutbacks in the big teams meant that some of the “new” (“COT”) cars came onto the market at fire-sale prices. Most of the ARCA teams have been racing on this kind of bottom-feeder budget forever – now we are seeing a bit of this approach in NASCAR.

So it was no surprise to see all three races oversubscribed at Daytona – proximity the North Carolina home base and big purses. But what about California? A long, expensive haul and smaller purses. Yet, once again we saw all three races oversubscribed.

If this trend keeps up through Las Vegas next weekend, and it looks like it will, surely most of these teams will hang in there when the tour returns closer to home with races at Atlanta, Bristol and Martinsville. The financial hit of failing to qualify for a race may mean that we will soon see an end to these oversubscribed entry lists - but I expect we will see nearly full starting lineups at the races for a while – maybe all season. “Start and park” may take on a whole new meaning this year. Remember it’s not that long ago that the maximum number of starters at a short track was about 36 cars – and that, even if only 25 cars were to start a race, that’s more than many other series have seen for years and plenty of cars to put on a good tough, competitive race.

What about the dire predictions about empty grandstands? The first signal that ticket sales had softened came when almost every major race track started offering some kind of discount deal on tickets. The crowds for the supporting races at Daytona and Fontana were pretty sparse, but, come the Cup race, both venues saw pretty much a full house. Things aren’t as bad as they had seemed.

In fact there may be some good in all this doom and gloom. It sure sounds like there are some bargain tickets to be had and, perhaps, some better deals on motel rooms. Maybe, like trips to resorts in the sunny south, there will be bargains for people who are flexible and who can wait until the last minute to book their rooms and buy their tickets. At least, maybe you will be able to buy tickets for the hot races like the Bristol night race that were always totally sold out from one year to the next.

I say it’s time for NASCAR fans to forget about the doom and gloom and enjoy what looks like being a great season of racing – perhaps with tough times creating a few upsets. Enjoy!

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