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Ingram: Gold Brickin’ At NASCAR Tracks?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 1 2010
The checks which drivers receive in Victory Lane will be shrinking this year. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The checks which drivers receive in Victory Lane will be shrinking this year. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

I guess I’m stuck between a rock and a gold brick when it comes to the announcement by NASCAR that it’s cutting back on the race purses.

I’ve said all along during the Great Recession that the Sprint Cup teams will manage to get the cars around the track without 200 employees per entry. Last year at least one team managed to be competitive all season long and hover around the top 35 with only 10 full-time crew members and a crew chief.

I wasn’t advocating layoffs and firings, rather a realistic approach to a sport that had become bloated by financial largesse.

With last week’s announcement from NASCAR that purses are being cut, I now find myself defending the teams, in no small part because the reduction in their income will mean fewer new hires and possibly more layoffs.

I’m not buying the “everybody’s got to tighten their belts” approach.

I’m sticking with the idea that race tracks have been practically minting money since the unified TV deal began in 2001. The only thing driving up the costs at International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports Inc. – the two dominant players in the NASCAR market – has been spending sprees to expand their racetrack holdings. But even so, I can’t imagine the debt service getting out of hand.

The dirty little secret in the track ownership business came as a surprise to me when I took the annual financial statements of then privately held Charlotte Motor Speedway to an accountant. The track owner was in a divorce proceeding and the statements became public. The gross profit margin at Charlotte was 60 percent and the profit before taxes was 30 percent.

That’s quite high, folks, in any line of business. Or downright lucrative. And those were records from the late 1980’s.

When the TV contract kicked in, a hefty boost in TV revenue was added to the money from ticket sales and sponsorship with virtually no increase in overhead. In other words, owning a track where the Sprint Cup appeared twice a year went from lucrative to incredibly lucrative. No wonder majority SMI shareholder Bruton Smith is always pushing for a second date in Las Vegas.

It’s a funny thing that right before the TV contract went into effect for 2001, there was a sudden “land grab” by ISC and SMI to expand their track holdings. They bought, built and swapped facilities at a rate equivalent to roughly $100 million per Sprint Cup date. I’m not an accounting genius, but I bet those bills were quickly paid down by a surge in money from the TV contract, which is directed primarily to tracks (65 percent), then the purse (25 percent) and to NASCAR (10 percent) on a per event basis.

I might wager the same lucrative TV contract was the incentive behind the expansion in holdings by publicly held ISC and SMI. (Let’s not dally on the subject of purchases being made by ISC in an advance of a policy shift by NASCAR, which involved two companies under the same ownership. It wasn’t monopolistic, because SMI did the same thing. It was just, as they saying goes, convenient.)

Even before the Great Recession, I argued that ticket prices were too high. They were high because fans were willing to pay the freight, often thinking that much of the cash went into the race purses. Well, if the profit margin at tracks was as high as 30 percent before the TV boom, a lot of the cost of tickets was going into the pockets of promoters. Sponsors were paying the purses.

Nice work if you can get it. But as is inevitably said, those who take the risk and have the wherewithal and vision to build and maintain tracks should profit commensurately. If so, they should suffer if they paid too much for their facilities in anticipation of a rich TV contract and with only a blue sky economy in mind.

The racing fan has been gouged all along – and long before improvements in a lot of facilities. Now that the Great Recession has hit, fans have realized the prices are too high. Tracks have come to the same conclusion in trying to keep their facilities full by lowering ticket prices, which also helps the ancillary benefits of concession and souvenir sales.

I suggest the tracks sustain lower ticket prices if they would like the important backdrop of full grandstands during those lucrative TV telecasts and cablecasts. On the other hand, deciding that promoters need to maintain their extremely lucrative margins at the expense of teams, as NASCAR has done, is a form of profiteering in gloomy economic times. And it’s bogus.

Round The Clock: During the week of the 24-hour race at Daytona, the Heritage Exhibition in the fan zone where vintage race cars are on display is one of the more charming touches to the sports car event. Previous winners and some compellingly unique cars are on display from over the course of four decades.

Perhaps I’d missed it before, but one I found evocative was a Lotus Cortina, built by Colin Chapman for the British Saloon Car series in the 1960’s. A tiny car with a relatively broad, stocky body that sat on skinny little tires, the four-cylinder Ford Cortina was all window glass and civility in appearance. But it went like proverbial stink with a Chapman-devised suspension underneath it in the hands of drivers who understood how to cock it sideways in the corners such as Jimmy Clark. To me the Lotus Cortina at speed in the corners was a little like a short fat lady with dainty feet who suddenly looks sexy when she starts dancing. And I’ve only seen the photos and heard the stories!

If I had a wish list, it would be a chance to see up close again NISMO’s Nissan R91 CP, a prototype driven by four Japanese drivers to the all-time distance mark at the Rolex 24 in 1992. It was a technical marvel that appeared at the end of the GTP and Group C era. It set the mark for distance using the fuel rules established by the FIA, which meant the fastest car ever in the Rolex 24 set the mark while restricted on fuel quantity.

This occurs to me on the heels of Chip Ganassi’s contention that innovations such as his new Delta Wing Indy car are mandatory equipment in motor racing, a sport that needs to be relevant.

All of this is quite ironic in the sense that the Daytona Prototype class that annually puts on an excellent 24-hour race is relatively static when it comes to technology – and when it comes to the sport’s own heritage.

It was a welcome break this past weekend to see a privately developed Porsche V-8 win a major sports car race for the first time in a project launched by Brumos Porsche – which had several of its Porsches in the Heritage Exhibition. The V-8, of course, was derived from the Porsche Cayenne SUV, itself a technical pace setter.

But one wonders if the Daytona Prototypes, which may be powered only by V-8 engines in the near future, will ever evolve beyond engine brand swaps and if so in what direction?

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 1 2010
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Richard in N.C. says:

    ISC, SMI, and Dover are all publicly traded corporations, so you could have checked their financial statements before just flinging something up in the air. Ever heard of return on investment?

  • Paul Denton says:

    Sounda to me Two things
    1- you should’nt write about Nacsar because in your articles it’s nothing more than complaining about every thing they do
    2- I believe you don’t have the story right on the Nascar decesion
    That’s not how anyone else has read into it ,please check your story for accurate information