Tuesday, July 1, 2008
With Ganassi pulling the plug on a team, question remains: Will it get worse?
By David Newton
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- John Fernandez left for his office at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates on Tuesday expecting a normal work day.
It was anything but.
By 2:30 p.m., his title officially read "former managing director." He was one of 71 employees caught in the backlash when owner Chip Ganassi shut down the No. 40 team of Dario Franchitti.
Ganassi said the move came due to lack of sponsorship. He said he couldn't afford to keep running "this out of my pocket" at the cost of hurting his other two teams: the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya and No. 41 of Reed Sorenson.
"I had to put a stop to it," Ganassi told The Associated Press.
The shutdown reinforced what many have been saying for months, that the Ganassi organization is in disarray, lacking a sense of direction and continuity among the three teams that now have been reduced to two.
That Montoya went through three crew chiefs in less than two months should have been a hint.
But what happened at Ganassi was only a microcosm of what is happening in NASCAR. Tough economic times have left organizations struggling to find sponsors willing to pay the $20 million to $25 million it takes to run a top-notch program.
It has left many with pockets not nearly as deep as Ganassi's struggling to find sponsors willing to pay $10 million to $15 million.
It has made the gap between the haves and have-nots wider than ever. Unless NASCAR can find a way to keep costs down -- and opening up testing is not one of them -- we are looking at a day in the near future when only 43 cars, maybe fewer, compete for the 43 spots.
"I do think the sport as a whole is going to struggle," said Fernandez, who was the head of Dodge Motorsports before moving to Ganassi less than two years ago. "The economy definitely is affecting it.
"If you look at what's going on in the sport, you've got three teams dominating: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing. For organizations like Ganassi and Penske and everybody else
it's very difficult."
Those three top organizations have won 11 of the first 17 races heading into Sunday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. They represent eight of the 12 teams currently qualified for the 10-race playoff.
The rich are getting richer.
The rest are getting left behind.
"It's very difficult when three organizations are winning 75 percent of the races," Fernandez said. "You don't get revenues because you're not running at the top of the board. You don't get sponsors because you're not running at the top of the board.
"It's like baseball was a few years ago when they ended up having to do revenue sharing."
It doesn't help that NASCAR has an agreement with its title sponsor that is running top sponsors such as AT&T (Jeff Burton) and Alltel (Ryan Newman) out of the sport.
Ganassi thought bringing Franchitti from the IndyCar Series would help solve his problem. Between the driver's star power as a former Indianapolis 500 winner and his famous wife, Ashley Judd, there were expectations sponsors could be clamoring from the U.S. and abroad.
It didn't happen.
In the end, Franchitti didn't bring in much more revenue than David Stremme, who was released at the end of last season to open the seat.
Stremme actually may have brought in more. He had seven finishes of 14th or better last season. Franchitti's best finish was 22nd at Martinsville.
So if Ganassi struggles to sell sponsorships for Franchitti, one can imagine how hard it has been for Yates Racing to sell sponsorships for Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland.
Were it not for Roush Fenway Racing's support, those two teams likely would have faced the same fate as Franchitti's team long before now.
Red flares should be flying all across NASCAR Nation with Ganassi's announcement.
Yes, television ratings are up, in part because most believe high gas prices and tough economic conditions in general are keeping die-hard fans on their couches instead of the track.
But the overall climate is not good for the sport. It's not good for any sport.
It certainly wasn't good for Fernandez on Tuesday.
"I had no clue," he said. "I knew there were sponsorship problems with the 40, but I didn't know it was this bad."
And it likely will get worse.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you look at what's going on in the sport, you've got three teams dominating: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing. For organizations like Ganassi and Penske and everybody else ... it's very difficult.
-- John Fernandez