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NASCAR should close 'start-and-park' loophole

4/28/2010

We all know the Texas Rangers have been in financial trouble for a while now and Major League Baseball has been forced to provide money to keep the team in operation. It got so bad in 2009 that the team cut back watering the outfield, which turned visibly brown. Would it have been alright for the team to trot off the field after the third inning against the Yankees in a game in which the fans paid full price?

No, of course not.

And that is my problem with the “Start-and-Park” teams in NASCAR.

Let me be clear: “Start-and-Park” organizations have found a legal loophole but, as a result, are taking advantage of race fans, speedways and the integrity of the sport. I don’t necessarily blame them, but it is time for NASCAR to close the loophole to preserve our sport’s integrity. I know the team owners and drivers of the “Start-and-Park” organizations, and they are good people ... racers at heart. The drivers are among the best in the world. If they had their way they would be racing for the win every week.

But circumstances have dealt them a hand where they have surveyed the landscape and realize the way they can make the most money is to field a “Start-and-Park” organization, not a competitive race team. Remember, as in most arguments, always follow the money.

Note those key words: Make the most money. If these organizations raced, they would not net as much money. The difference between running the same engine week after week, a set or two of tires, minimal parts and pieces, etc., required of a “Start-and-Park” organization is drastically different than a team racing for position, even those racing only in mid-park. As a result, these organizations run a few laps at the back of the field and park their cars, collecting last-place money. One of these organizations employs five people. A mega-team like Hendrick Motorsports employs well over 500 people.

The last four finishers in the Samsung Mobile 500 a couple of weeks ago were from these organizations. Again, the drivers and mechanics are well intentioned and want to race. But for reasons I just explained they are in the “Start-and-Park” category. These four places paid almost $320,000 -- almost $80,000 per position. One ran only 20 laps. How long did it take you to earn $80,000 this year?

We’ve always proudly said that our sport was a microcosm of the American free enterprise system. Where else could a grease monkey independent driver like Richard Childress build his team into a multi-million dollar organization, win championships against the big guys and start some highly-recognized ancillary businesses, including a respected winery? This is not a social program.

To go a step further, “Start-and-Park” organizations undermine the integrity of the sport. A fan that plunks down their hard-earned money has the right to expect every team in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race to try their darnedest to win. Just because the economy is tight is no reason to compromise these principles. In fact, now more than ever we owe the fans the best, purest product we can offer in exchange for their money.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “race,” as “the act of running,” and, “a contest of speed,” among others. Clearly these organizations are not participating in a contest of speed. They may well be “acting” like they are “running.” But they are not racing and that is the essence of this sport.

Some will say that this type of back-marker has always existed in this sport. Wrong. Even though Jimmy Means, Cecil Gordon, J.D. McDuffie and others couldn’t keep up, they raced hard amongst themselves and didn’t park after 40-50 laps. They earned their keep.

"Start-and-Park” organizations do not add to the quality of the race. The race would be no different if the number of cars starting were reduced so as to eliminate the “Start-and-Park” organizations.

At a time when all smart businesses are tightening their belts, we have to be smart in how we run our businesses. Texas Motor Speedway has cut its budgets over the last few years, just like many other businesses. We’ve not fired anyone, but we have failed to fill positions when some staff members have left because we simply can’t afford it. This is what smart businesses do in these times.

Worse, we have been forced to cut back on some services for our fans, although we hope you haven’t noticed. We have had to place capital improvement projects on the shelf for the time being, again not providing everything we can for our fans.

That’s why it hurts to hear a “Start-and-Park” organization owner in the NASCAR Nationwide Series brag about how he netted $600,000 last year so he moved up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year where he can make more money.

That organization took plenty of money out of Texas last week. That’s a shame.

It’s time for NASCAR to close the loophole.