Economy threatens to put damper on Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- According to NASCAR, there could be as many as 55 entries for next month's Daytona 500. For many, the race will be a desperate attempt to craft a miracle against impossible odds.

Of that group, only half have full-time sponsorship deals in place for the 2009 season. A handful of other teams have partial funding, but at least 15 are headed to Daytona without any financial backing.

Daytona offers a pot of gold like no other race. Teams in the starting lineup are guaranteed at least $250,000. For a team with no sponsorship, that's enough to keep the doors open for another month.

While NASCAR continues to steer attention to the action on the track, it admits it's impossible to ignore the economic problems that tower over the sport.

NASCAR said it's working with everyone in the sport to construct better business models. That's led to industry wide layoffs, mergers and liquidation. More than 700 shop employees are unemployed, six teams have joined forces to become three teams and Bill Davis Racing, which won the 2002 Daytona 500 with driver Ward Burton, has closed its doors. "This is a work in progress," NASCAR President Mike Helton said. "It starts with listening. It starts with listening to tracks. It starts with listening to teams."

"We offer up what we know to teams to help them make decisions, but the independent businesses that make up NASCAR, the team owners, the track owners, they make their own business decisions at the end of the day. What we do, though, is we learn from listening to them what we might be able to do ... to help them along the way."

The problems facing the sport apparently are going to get worse before they get better. On Monday, four major players in NASCAR -- title sponsor Sprint Nextel, Caterpillar, General Motors and The Home Depot -- all announced crippling quarterly losses, and all said thousands of workers will be laid off.

Track owners have set midseason as a target for the economy to show signs of recovery. If ticket sales continue to lag and car counts drop by the July 4 race at Daytona International Speedway, that could be a sign the sport faces more than a healing process.

Several tracks have shifted into survival mode, offering discounted tickets and other perks.

"You know that when you read the stories like I do and know what's going on, people are worried about their jobs, they're nervous," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. "People have lost their jobs. And I think that's what you're seeing, the tracks trying to be sensitive to that. The NFL cut their playoff tickets, the pricing for those, trying to do everything we can. The tracks are leading that charge, and they're just trying to be sensitive to their best customers."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

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