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Slowdown May Not Be All Bad for NASCAR

Alan Kulwicki won NASCAR's title in 1992 on a budget of less than $2 million.
Alan Kulwicki won NASCAR's title in 1992 on a budget of less than $2 million. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008; Page D01

It's no secret that America's fastest growing sport is getting slammed by the economic slowdown. NASCAR teams are losing sponsors, laying off workers and, in some cases, merging with former rivals to keep from going under.

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But it's not a given that the competition will suffer as a result.

A return to frugality might be the best thing for stock-car racing, which has been transformed in the last decade by billion-dollar TV contracts and multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals that ratcheted up the cost of success.

Consider the late Alan Kulwicki, who won NASCAR's 1992 championship on such a lean budget -- 19 employees and less than $2 million -- that he scratched the first two letters from his Ford's nameplate so it read "UNDERBIRD." Kulwicki clinched the title in the season's final race on cunning rather than cubic dollars, edging Davey Allison and fending off four other challengers in what's considered the most dramatic points race in NASCAR history.

Today at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson is expected to cruise to a third consecutive NASCAR title, cheered by the roughly 500 employees at his race shop, Hendrick Motorsports, which fields four NASCAR teams -- each with an annual budget of $20 million to $24 million.

That surge in the cost of sponsoring a front-running team has enabled NASCAR owners to hire fleets of engineers, buy sophisticated equipment and build state-of-the art, 150,000-square-foot shops. But it's an open question whether it has made the races more exciting and the championship battles more compelling or simply amounted to a glitzy arms race.

"The money hasn't made the sport any better," says former NASCAR racer Jimmy Spencer, now a commentator with Speed TV. "As an old racer used to warn me about spending money, 'Just remember: Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.' "

If Kulwicki showed up in a Sprint Cup garage today, he would be derided as if he were Jed Clampett. Unlike today's top drivers, he didn't own a jet or million-dollar motor coach to lounge in trackside. He had just one college-educated mechanic on his team (himself). And he didn't even have a steering wheel and seat for each of his racecars. To stretch a dollar, he unbolted them and moved them from one car to another, mindful he could race only one at a time.

Back then, NASCAR championships were won largely on the guile of home-schooled mechanics. What engineering expertise existed was supplied by Ford and General Motors, which loaned teams Detroit-based consultants and provided automotive parts.

Larry McReynolds, Allison's crew chief at the time, remembers when the sport entered the big-time, at least in his eyes. It was the day his team's owner, Robert Yates, bought his first million-dollar piece of equipment, a CNC machine, in the early 1990s.

Until then, smart NASCAR teams took the factory-supplied aluminum cylinder heads and retooled them to suit a racecar's needs. The heads were painstakingly ground by hand to alter the flow of air to the engine -- the ports shaved one way to create more torque for short-track races and another way to create more horsepower for superspeedway races.

The CNC machine, essentially an enormous robot, could grind cylinder heads in a fraction of the time a crew member could, its blades slicing precisely as directed by a computer program, mass-producing one after another as metal slivers flew off, and each of them identical.

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