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Changing Times Could Alter Auto Racing As We Know It

Charlotte, NC – With gas prices skyrocketing to record levels and American automobile industry sales figures plummeting, Detroit car companies are scrambling to reinvent their product lines. With those changes underway, you have to wonder how long it will be before auto racing in this country experiences a significant overhaul as well.

Racing isn’t going to change significantly any time soon – the sky isn’t falling – but in as little as two and certainly in five years, the sport is surely going to look a whole lot different than it does now.

Whether you like it or not, things change over time. It’s a constant you can always count on. Over the past three decades, that change has seen auto racing has grow to epic proportions. Thanks in large part to the marketing efforts of NASCAR, the sport is now as main stream as stick and ball sports.

But as rapidly as NASCAR and the rest of the sport has gained widespread public acceptance, it could just as easily fail in today’s uneasy global energy and economic times.

Consider the following –

Thanks to record gas prices – expected to top the $150 a barrel mark by July 4 – the American economy and automobile industry are in the pits. In May, General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler LLC all posted double-digit sales declines from the previous year. In the case of GM, the downturn proved to be an epic 27 percent while Chrysler was off 25 percent and Ford sales fell 19 percent. The sales drop comes on the heels of a bloody April for Detroit automakers where sales were the worst they have been since August, 1998.

In a seismic consumer buying shift, the Honda Civic and Accord, as well as Toyota’s Camry and Corolla sedans, all outsold Ford’s F-Series pickup truck – the automotive industry’s top selling vehicle since 1991. In all, 193,559 more cars than light trucks were sold in May. Meanwhile, overall vehicle sales in the United States were 1.4 million, down 8.4% from May 2007 totals.

The downturn in sales – accompanied by record financial losses and bloated inventories – has Detroit-based automakers scrambling to cut costs and come up with more fuel efficient vehicles. Just last week, GM announced plans to close four pickup truck and sport utility manufacturing facilities in North America after its stock hit a 26-year low falling to just $17.38 a share.

The cuts at GM were made in large part thanks to flagging sales of the larger, gas guzzling full size pickups. A vehicle that has provided strong profits for years to all Detroit automakers, pickup truck sales literally went in the tank in 2007 as gas prices soared. According to sales numbers released last Thursday, Ford’s F-series truck sales fell 13.2 percent in 2007 while sales of Chevy Silverados were off 2.8 percent in 2007. Even Toyota missed its sales target of 200,000 new Tundra pickups in 2007 while others like the Honda Ridgeline (off 15 percent) and the Nissan Titan (9.2 percent decline) also fell far short of pervious sales figures.

The drop in the pickup truck market comes on the heels of a SUV market segment crash where sales are down more than 30 percent from their peak in 2002. This is all bad news for the American auto industry, which has long relied on the truck and SUV market segments to supply large profits.

In short, high gas prices, a downturn in the U.S. housing market, and a sputtering economy have formed a perfect storm for American automobile producers who are caught in a vortex of having full product lines of inefficient vehicles that suddenly nobody seems to want.

So how does all of this affect auto racing?

Those old enough to remember the saying ‘as GM goes, so goes the country’ – and those who realize the financial contributions of Detroit to American motorsports – know the answer to this question.

The answer is ‘significantly.’

The fact is the manufacturers have already cut their support of auto racing. In NASCAR for instance, manufacturer support of the Nationwide Series is all but nonexistent. Should truck sales continue to fall, you have to wonder how long will it be before GM, Ford, Dodge and Toyota abandon their support of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, a division that was founded on the strong sales and marketing backbone of the pickup truck.

Should GM or any other manufacturer curtail or eliminate their financial support of the Sprint Cup Series, the results would be crippling. A stoppage or significant reduction in sponsorship money paid to the sanctioning organizations or for the funding of team research, development and racing programs would sink the sport.

Not that we think this is going to happen any time soon, but there’s a changing of the guard in Detroit. Uneasy financial times have automakers completely re-evaluating the way they approach things. The rush to introduce new ‘green’ or hybrid models is just one indication of this new direction.

Meanwhile, many industry analysts are predicting the demise of large SUV’s and family sedans in favor of smaller, more fuel efficient ‘crossover’ and hybrid vehicles. They also predict that large pickup trucks will soon return to their roots as utilitarian commercial vehicles manufactured in significantly smaller numbers as the daily driver market all but disappears.

So don’t be surprised of racing will soon reflect those changing trends. NASCAR ‘downsized’ it’s race vehicles in the mid 1980’s when Detroit offered smaller models and could possibly do it again to meet changing times. There might not be a NASCAR Hybrid Series in the near future, but you can be sure that if engery costs continue to soar and things in the automobile industry continue to change, it’ll be on the drawing board soon as the real ‘Car of Tomorrow.’

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John Close covered his first NASCAR race in 1986 at Bristol. Since then, Close – a former Associated Press newspaper sports editor – has written countless articles for numerous motorsports magazines, trade publications and Internet sites.

His Close Calls column appears each week on www.CloseFinishes.com, www.MotorsportsAmerica.com and www.RacingNation.com.

Close has also authored two books – Tony Stewart – From Indy Phenom To NASCAR Superstar and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – From Desert Dust To Superspeedways.

Close is a weekly guest every Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern on Tradin’ Paint on NASCAR SIRIUS Channel 90.

You can follow John Close on Twitter @CloseFinishes and on Facebook at John Close.

Be sure to visit John’s website – www.closefinishes.com