We’re told that NASCAR’s serious this time. Really. Cross its heart. It’s not just kidding like it was last year. And the year before. And the year before …
As Nationwide team owner Gary Baker said around this time last season: “Every year we hear that NASCAR is going to do something to help us, but the years come and go and the situation stays the same.”
Baker, who co-owns Baker Curb Racing with Mike Curb, may be forced to park one of two Nationwide cars due to lack of sponsorship. Even the team’s primary car is operating virtually race-by-race without full-season backing.
Baker has warned for years that the series is headed for trouble and now trouble has arrived.
“It’s very frustrating,” he says, “but we’ll keep going somehow.”
NASCAR implemented a program to throw a few bonus bucks into a handful of stand-alone Nationwide races as a token of its concern, but that hasn’t made a dent in the problem.
What Baker and most other Nationwide-only competitors would like to see are restrictions placed on participation by Sprint Cup full-timers who have taken over what was supposed to be the sport’s developmental division.
For over a decade, Cup drivers have won virtually every Nationwide race and every Nationwide championship. A Nationwide victory by a Nationwide driver is almost unheard of nowadays.
While Cup entries in some of the smaller Nationwide races may consist of only four or five drivers, in the bigger (i.e., higher-paying) events the lineup is flooded with Cuppers.
It’s not just the prize money they siphon off; as Baker pointed out, the real damage is the loss of corporate sponsorships. Every sponsor that a Cup driver lands is one less that a Nationwide team might secure.
In fairness there’s little that NASCAR can do about the sponsor situation. Sponsors like – and often insist on – having a big-name Cup driver carrying their Nationwide decals. Sponsors are in it for the exposure, and a Cup star draws more attention. NASCAR can’t legislate that.
Likewise there’s no denying that track owners and TV producers like to see Cup drivers in their Nationwide races. They sell tickets and boost ratings.
At Nashville Superspeedway, track GM/VP Cliff Hawks makes no apology for using Cup drivers to advertise his two annual Nationwide events. His job is to attract attention and sell tickets, and the Cup stars do it best. Again, that’s out of NASCAR’s control.
The way it’s going there may not be a full-fledged Nationwide Series for much longer. Tickets, sponsorships and TV ratings will be a moot point. Baker Curb Racing is just one of a number of Nationwide-only teams in distress.
The costs of running a team continue to rise, and when more money gushes out than trickles in, that’s a fatal combination for any business — be it race team or chicken farm.
That’s NASCAR’s dilemma: keep the Nationwide Series from being smothered to death by the kudzu-creep of the Cuppers, while continuing to reap the benefits of those same drivers.
It is, as the English say, a sticky wicket.
Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org