NASCAR president Mike Helton has the difficult job of trying to steer the sport through a troubling economy. Teams have laid off more than 700 employees, and other organizations have closed their doors.
Helton responded by outlawing testing in 2009, a restriction that could save each team $1 million. He also said NASCAR is looking at other ways to keep the sport solvent. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: By restricting testing, how much can teams save?
Helton: We don't know what the number is per team. We don't know what the collective number is for the industry. We do know or have a pretty good feel through the due diligence that we've done that this is in the range of tens of millions to the industry. When I say the industry, I'm talking about the garage areas all combined.
Question: Did the bad economy force the decision to stop testing?
Helton: It came along collectively between the conversations that we began having with teams back at the end of June about how to go into testing in '09. And there were a lot of conversations that were being held about a lot of different options as that dialogue unfolded. Along the way, with the economic conditions turning the way they have turned recently, not just in our industry but worldwide, we began to think a month or so ago differently about testing as we were considering different options and different topics that we could look at in an effort to help the economic part of the sport collectively from race teams, racetracks, and the other stake holders in the sport. So it came kind of together.
Question: Was it important to show sponsors and fans that NASCAR is aware of economic issues?
Helton: I don't think there was much to this around perception. I think most of this decision is around real. Testing is a real element. The cost attached to testing is a real element. The cost of racing, any form of motorsports is expensive and has different elements that come with it. So this decision was made based on the culmination of all of those real elements. I think it all falls in line with NASCAR's goal over the last few years to do major things that it can do and has the ability to affect by making changes around be it a single engine rule, be it limiting tires or different things that we have done. This falls in line with that.
Question: Is the current economy the biggest threat in NASCAR's history?
Helton: Well, you go to all of your stakeholders, including guys like Jim Hunter, Jim France. But you also go to stakeholders that are currently involved in the sport, because it's their sport today. So you talk to the sponsors, the racetracks, the car owners, the drivers, the crew members we have a lot of experience that we can attach ourselves to. But there are stakeholders in this sport whose livelihood and their involvement in the sport are impacted by the decision we make. So we spend a lot of time with the current stakeholders in making these decisions.
Question: Will there be any consideration to shortening the racing weekend to save more money?
Helton: Not today. Except to tell you that starting next week, we, NASCAR have the opportunity to sit down and catch up on topics that will be timely for '09. And in reviewing that we will have things over the off season and maybe into January where we can come back and say these are things that we're doing in different series or all the series. Hopefully, there are other things we can accomplish and put forward to address the issues and the future of the sport. But, in the meantime, we have to protect the quality of what goes on on the racetrack because at the end of the day, you don't want to cut into the muscle. You have to whatever your decision is whether it's your own media outlet, or your own household or whatever business you might be in, whatever stake you've got to watch after, it's important to make forward thinking and good decisions. But it's also important to not lose sight of the fact that things are different.
Question: Will the new restrictions only help the four richest teams get better since they can afford more exotic engineering?
Helton: You can make that argument. But I think there is another side of that. I think that you still in order to utilize engineers and seven-post machines and all of that, you've got to have good data. And the best data that you can get is going to the racetrack and getting it. So I think you could also make the argument that maybe it closes that gap some. But the decision was made based on having to come up with the test policy. Oh, by the way, we're going to go into '09 with some challenging economic circumstances around us. That was the driving force behind it at the end of the day.