Racing loses traction in hard times

The start of the motor sports season is on the horizon, and the outlook is bleak.

Racing should not be immune from an economic downturn worse than Kyle Busch's fall during last year's final 10 Cup races.

Some say those of us who write about racing should focus on the positive nature of the sport. I'm not ready to change my name to Pollyanna.

NASCAR -- America's high-speed juggernaut -- is feeling the pain.

The brain trust at the NHRA -- drag racing's premier sanctioning body -- still seems to have its collective noggins buried in the sand near its Southern California headquarters despite losing some of its marquee professional drivers in the past two months.

At least NASCAR eliminated most testing for its major series to save teams money.

The Indy Racing League's IndyCar series stubbed its toe when it opted to take what has been reported to be millions of dollars from a Brazilian-based ethanol cartel in sponsorship money and fuel after a U.S. ethanol group that ushered the alternative fuel era into the IRL couldn't pony up the bucks this year.

NASCAR and the IRL have laid off some workers and trimmed expenses.

It doesn't seem that the NHRA has, and the only pruning that should be done there is to paychecks of top administrators and board members at the not-for-profit organization.

Desert racing enjoyed a boon the past few years but is losing teams.

The popular Championship Off Road Racing series is a bleached carcass in the desert, dead before last year's season was over. Las Vegan Brian Collins' ballyhooed Mopar sponsorship for his SCORE Trophy-Truck team lasted one year; it fell to the wayside when Chrysler slashed its marketing budget.

Like Ford and General Motors have done.

The notion is false that Toyota is perched in NASCAR like a portly vulture waiting to pounce on teams supported by other struggling carmakers.

"The culture of our company is to not take advantage and be predatory of other people's difficulties," said Lee White, president and general manager for U.S.-based Toyota Racing Development.

He added, "There is probably not anything on this earth that Toyota is involved with now that is not under some level of review regarding budget expenditure."

In a demented way, it's good to know Toyota is hurting like its U.S.-owned counterparts.

The most problematic categories in racing are loss of sponsorship revenue for series, tracks and teams; diminishing commercial sales to fund TV coverage; and the fans' financial difficulty to buy tickets.

The NHRA and NASCAR could help by putting a moratorium on exclusive deals with its sponsors.

In the NHRA, new pro tour sponsor Full Throttle energy drink should be convinced to allow competitors such as Red Bull and Rockstar to sponsor teams. Midway through the season, when traditional Top Fuel fields of 16 fall to eight, the newly named Full Throttle NHRA Drag Racing Series could become Half Throttle.

NASCAR should get Sprint to allow other cellular services back in the Cup series. It also should allow condom manufacturers to sponsor cars. Viagra was OK.

Several tracks have announced reduced prices for a limited number of Cup tickets in sections that rarely are filled.

Deals aren't expected to be offered by Las Vegas Motor Speedway for its March 1 Shelby 427 Cup race, but that's because nearly 70 percent of its tickets were renewed halfway through last year. And it's not fair to someone who bought a ticket for full price to sit next to someone who received a last-minute deal.

Sorry, but the oil pan -- at best -- is half empty.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at throughout the week.