Downturn hits sponsors

DEAN MCNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

The economic woes that have forced the big American auto makers into a painful spiral of job cuts and plant closings now is having a significant effect on motorsports.

Earlier this week when General Motors boss Rick Wagoner announced further cuts among its white-collar workers, he also hinted that the once sacrosanct $150 million US the company spends each year on racing also would be on the table.

GM Racing director Mark Kent confirmed that all levels of motorsports supported by the automaker were now under scrutiny.

"Racing is not exempt (from cuts)," Kent said. "We are looking at ways to be even more efficient ... looking to see if they are genuinely positioned for a positive return on investment."

GM's racing budget supports not only the top NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, but racing across the sport including NHRA, American Le Mans Series and regional racing series such as the KONI Challenge Series that competed last month at Mosport International Raceway.

The effects of GM's cuts already are being felt at the sponsorship level where contracts with Sprint Cup teams bring in as much as $30 million a year for top Chevrolet drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick.

Jan Thomas, who is GM's point person on the NASCAR circuit, told the Detroit News that some of the NASCAR teams GM sponsors already were on the telephone trying to find out how the cuts might affect them.

"Everyone understands the market that we are in," she said. "We don't have any specifics. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

While Ford, Chrysler and Toyota all have issued statements of their continued support for their racing programs, individual teams under their umbrellas are feeling the heat.

Michael Waltrip Racing is said to be under pressure to reduce its three-car Toyota program. Big MWR sponsor UPS already has hinted it will move its multi-million racing budget to Richard Childress Racing next season.

Even the iconic Dale Earnhardt Incorporated outfit isn't immune from the tightening of sponsorship budgets.

Last season it lost Budweiser from its No. 8 Chevrolet and now it is rumoured that the U.S. Army will take its money out from the team.

A major problem facing auto manufacturers in NASCAR is that the one-time brand loyalty that was the centre of its race-funding focus has been losing its sheen.

The manufacturers have been calling on NASCAR for years to take the sport back to its roots, where the cars racing at Daytona and Michigan weren't far removed from those sold in car dealership showrooms.

The old saw that automakers used to use to justify big spending in NASCAR, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" no longer holds true when the only visible differences between Jimmie Johnson's No 48 Chevrolet Impala SS and Kyle Busch's No. 18 Toyota Camry are the paint jobs.

ROOKIE WOES

The 2008 Sprint Cup season may prove to be the least successful class of rookies ever in NASCAR's top loop.

So far this year, there hasn't been a single rookie finish in the top 10. It is the first season in 36 years that a rookie class has so underachieved after 19 point races.

TRACY LIGHTS THE FUSE

Canada's Paul Tracy has a well-earned reputation as a risk-taker on the race track but he also has a flair for self-promotion that is equal to any in the sport.

Put the two together and next week's Rexall Edmonton Indy could resemble a giant fireworks display ready to explode with Tracy holding the match.

Danica Patrick already has served notice she won't be intimidated by the Thrill from West Hill, but just by saying so, hasn't she already put a target on her No. 7 Andretti Green Racing Dallara for Tracy to hit?


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