David Ragan fighting for career survival
LAS VEGAS -- David Ragan survived Halloween night on the country's most famous strip and is up early at the UPS booth in the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center promoting the sponsor that will leave him after the season.
David Reutimann of Michael Waltrip Racing is not far away in the South Hall of the SEMA Auto Show signing autographs in the Toyota booth shortly after learning his ride for 2012 appears headed for Mark Martin.
Outside the excitement of the Chase, life is harsh for many in the Sprint Cup Series, and in NASCAR in general.
For them, the future is scarier than the Halloween scenes they saw Monday night on the Vegas Strip.
And trust me, there were some scary ones.
Reutimann appeared almost in a state of shock on Tuesday morning, uttering repeatedly for me to talk to MWR owner Michael Waltrip before moving on to his next stop in this dog and pony show for automobile enthusiasts.
Ragan was more upbeat, realizing months ago his Cup future at Roush Fenway Racing was in jeopardy and that the next step of his career depended as much on his ability to market himself as his ability to make left turns at high speeds.
He actually arrived in Las Vegas with a brief case containing a laptop and copies of the business sections of USA Today and the Sports Business Journal.
"It's a tough spot to be in," Ragan says."There needs to be a program to teach us about the business and economic side of things, how sponsorships are justified. Growing up as a kid, your dad just tells you to work hard, understand the cars, learn about tire pressures.
"You don't think about this side of it."
Many, probably most, who follow the sport don't think of this side. They are concerned only with whether there is a good show on Sunday and a good soap opera the rest of the week.
They are talking about all the wrecks that happened last weekend at Martinsville Speedway and what could happen in Sunday's eighth race of the Chase at Texas Motor Speedway.
They see what happens on the track, not what happens in the lives of drivers and crew members off it. When 50 or more RFR employees are laid off, as could be the case when Ragan's No. 6 goes into hibernation after this season, it goes unnoticed by most.
Kenny Wallace recently told me he planned to drive only one more season in the Nationwide Series simply because the grind of having to sell himself to sponsors has become too stressful, time-consuming and expensive.
Ragan says he understands, as he moves through crowds from the UPS booth to the Sherwin Williams booth to the Car Crazy TV show in these seemingly endless halls.
"I'm working harder than I've ever worked on selling myself," he says. "Where in years past all I had to worry about was the race car, testing, my physical and mental shape, it seems like now all I'm learning about is the business and return on investments and all the kinds of stuff I didn't know was factored in a few years ago."
If you think the stress of the Chase is tough, now add the stress of putting food on the table.
Ragan is one of the fortunate ones. He's single and young enough at 25 that he can step back into the Nationwide Series if that is his best option, which it apparently may be. He can rebuild a career that was on the fast track three years ago with a top organization and sponsor behind him.
Reutimann, 41, has a wife and young daughter to support. His options in the premier series are going to be limited at best.
"I'm open to a competitive Nationwide car," says Ragan, adding he has several options along those lines, including possibly staying with RFR. "A competitive car means more to me than what I'm racing. If it all boils down to running a Nationwide car for a championship and trying to win some races versus start and park in a Cup car, I'm going to do what's competitive.
"If I was 45 years old and had three kids at the house, I may have to make a decision based on the dollars."
Life is hard even inside the Chase: 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth is unsponsored for next year and two-time champ Stewart has holes left on his car.
While there are more sponsors talking to teams today than there were two years ago, the economy appears about a year away from actual commitments that would allow owners to pay drivers top dollar.
I can't say enough positive things about David Ragan. Not only is he a nice guy, he's one of the strongest people that I know. ... If he has to step back in his career as a driver for a year or two ... I don't think it will hurt him. It will only make him stronger.” -- Carl Edwards
It's why Clint Bowyer is leaving Richard Childress Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing, why Brian Vickers is knocking on whatever door that appears cracked, hoping to secure something beyond this season with Red Bull Racing.
It's why Edwards is so appreciative of his position, leading Stewart by eight points and being fully sponsored for next season. One of his sponsors, by the way, is the UPS brand that's been with Ragan.
"I can't say enough positive things about David Ragan," Edwards says. "Not only is he a nice guy, he's one of the strongest people that I know. He's a very, very tough person in a lot of different ways. Mentally and emotionally he's one of the most tough, stable, strong people that I've met.
"If he has to step back in his career as a driver for a year or two ... I don't think it will hurt him. It will only make him stronger."
You have to be mentally strong to be a driver in this economy, stronger than at any other time in the past decade or so. You have to be willing to promote the team and sponsors that are letting you go with the hope of finding others to back you.
It's not easy. Imagine if your boss asked you to sell his products for a couple of months after giving you notice.
"There's teams on the outside where it looks very good, but on the inside it's very tough," Ragan says. "But this kind of thing, you have to do it. My next sponsor I'm sure I will get a good referral from UPS.
"This trip will pay off."
It has to. His future could depend on it.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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