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Sense of urgency spurs team owners

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Jul. 31, 2010

LONG POND, Pa. – The NASCAR owners-only meeting held this week at Hendrick Motorsports was significant in its origins if not the changes it may produce.

"In the old days, two owners meeting was called collusion," joked Felix Sabates, who attended Tuesday night's meeting on behalf of Earnhardt Ganassi Motorsports.

"Brian France has changed a lot of things in the sport for the better. Having the owners work with NASCAR is the thing to do," Sabates said in an interview with Sirius Satellite Radio.

Representatives of the 10 biggest teams met for a brainstorming session, primarily conducted to find areas of consensus in trying to hold down costs while not affecting "the product" on the track.

NASCAR officials did not participate, but encouraged the owners to meet and later deliver common-ground ideas.

"Cost containment is a key issue in our sport (and) we are always open to additional ideas," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said.

The ramifications are significant.

In Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, only 30 of the 43 cars in the field are fully funded – or close to it.

Tracks, teams and NASCAR have implemented a variety of measures as the economy has worked to rebound from what many are calling the Great Recession.

"In our sport, just like in any other industry, I think it's time for a reset," said Marshall Carlson, the Hendrick Motorsports president. Carlson did not attend the meeting, but helped prepare for it with team owner Rick Hendrick.

"Where is the true value in what we do? We're accountable to race fans and our sponsors. We have to serve them well to help sustain ourselves."

Carlson said the difficulty for race teams is that they, fans and sponsors are all challenged by current economic problems.

"We must all continue to produce a superior product, but we are doing that now with less revenue," he said. "We are just now to a situation of where we can work our way back out of this."

According to several of those at the meeting, issues that did not quickly produce consensus were passed over in favor of those on which common ground could be found.

Among them:

How to make the anticipated move to fuel injection most cost effective;

Cutting the length of races;

Limiting the number of crew members at the track;

And searching for alternative revenue as sponsorship money gets harder to find.

"Our whole meeting was based on budgets, how we can cut back without hurting the quality of the sport," Sabates said. "We do have some influence on the money part of it."

The owners-only meeting is similar to the town hall-style meetings NASCAR began convening last season at which proposed changes were debated.

"I'll be honest. I was really overwhelmed when I walked in there," said Stewart, co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing.

"That was probably one of the coolest things I've ever got to do in my NASCAR career was sit in there with car owners, and the different levels and years and knowledge of racing. That was very flattering just to be in that group."

Stewart said there were a number of objectives.

"It wasn't just about saving money for the car owners," he said. "It was trying to figure out how we can do things to make it better for the fans and to make the sport better."

Many of those in attendance have been reluctant to reveal specific ideas. Carlson cited the recent launch of NASCAR Teams Licensing Trust, of which HMS is a member, is an example.

The trust explores merchandising opportunities in four key categories – apparel, collectible die-cast, toys and trackside retail. Membership is optional and open to all national-level NASCAR teams.

"Merchandising is one area where maybe we can figure out how that can be a better revenue source for all of us," Carlson said.

Sabates warned that continued sponsorship woes would likely bring drivers into the discussion.

"The escalating costs will stop at some point because sponsors will stop paying the money," Sabates said. "The guys who are going to make sacrifices are going to be the drivers.

"Drivers' salaries have gotten out of hand. Drivers deserve to be paid as much as they can get, but they also need to be sure they have cars to drive."

In the weeks ahead, the recommendations that find consensus will be shared with NASCAR officials.

"We're just looking for a better way to navigate," Carlson said. "There is a sense of urgency. We need to turn the tide as quickly as possible."

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