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Jun. 1 2009 - 4:16 pm | 54 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

NASCAR helped GM down its path of self-destruction

Shot by The Daredevil at Daytona during Speedw...

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The last celebration of the late, great General Motors came on Sunday as Jimmie Johnson wheeled his No. 48 Chevrolet to the checkered flag and victory lane in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway.

One final sip of champagne for a company hours away from officially announcing its decision to file for bankruptcy amid losses of $172 billion.

As President Barack Obama talked Monday of a new, leaner General Motors, it was too early to tell what that would mean for NASCAR, a sport that depends on automakers for hundreds of millions of dollars of support each year. But there was hope.

“The products General Motors offers are the highest quality and most fuel efficient in its history,” Rick Hendrick, who owns Chevrolet dealerships in his vast Hendrick Automotive Group, said in a statement. He also owns Hendrick Motorsports, the team that has won eight NASCAR Cup championships in Chevrolets including the last three titles in a row with Johnson.

“I have unwavering faith in the company’s leadership team and our government’s commitment to support this reorganization,” he said. “After all of the efforts of the past several months, it’s unfortunate that bankruptcy has become the only option, but we at Hendrick Automotive Group and Hendrick Motorsports are certain that GM will emerge from this stronger and better equipped to compete than ever before.”

Better equipped to compete? How ironic, given NASCAR’s role in helping the auto industry race down its path of self-destruction. Major auto companies used NASCAR for years to push cars and trucks with poor fuel economy numbers. The sport, in some ways, came to symbolize America’s embrace of consumption.

Consider that NASCAR didn’t even switch to unleaded gasoline until 2007. And even today, the racecars and trucks that auto companies are marketing through NASCAR are among the least fuel efficient, from the Dodge Charger to the Chevrolet Silverado.

Auto companies are only now beginning to use NASCAR to market their more efficient cars; a Ford Fusion hybrid was the honorary pace car for the final race of the 2008 season. Still, Toyota won’t be racing its Prius in a NASCAR-sanctioned main event anytime soon.

NASCAR chairman and chief executive Brian France, when asked last month about Chrysler’s bankruptcy, said, “They’re still going to be a company that needs to sell cars and trucks. We’re still the best place in the country to do that from a sponsorship standpoint and the related benefits that you receive. And obviously, those companies are going to have to make some tough choices.

“Our hope and expectation is that we will fare at the top of the list as to things you would not want to cut. I believe that to be true.”

The same expectations will hold true for General Motors, no doubt. And Chevrolets aren’t leaving the racetrack in the foreseeable future. Johnson will still be driving that No. 48 Chevrolet each week.

But as thousands face layoffs, some in NASCAR are looking beyond the impact to the sport. Driver Tony Stewart, who became a team owner this season, fields two Chevrolets out of the Stewart Haas Racing shop. He is following the news along with everyone else, and worries about friends in the industry.

“Whatever happens, we’ll work around it,” he said last month. “Obviously, it’s big to not only our race team but a lot of race teams and the sport. But I guess my initial thought isn’t how it affects me as much as how it’s going to affect millions of people in our country. That bothers me more than us.

“The one thing about racers and race teams and race drivers across the country: There’s thousands and hundreds of thousands of drivers and teams that are underfunded but they still find a way of getting to the racetrack every week and do what they do. We’ll be no different. Worst-case scenario: If they go away and we lose that support, we’ll still be at the racetrack. We’ll still find a way.”

NASCAR without General Motors some day? It would be the end of an era.

But either way, the era of celebrating consumption is already over. It’s gone bankrupt.


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  1. collapse expand

    WTF? “How ironic, given NASCAR’s role in helping the auto industry race down its path of self-destruction. Major auto companies used NASCAR for years to push cars and trucks with poor fuel economy numbers.”

    I’m assuming you must be new to this country. I’ve lived here all my life, worked in the auto industry for over twenty years, and been an enthusiast since the age of 10, and I’ve rarely read such nonsense.

    I’m not even a NASCAR fan, but to blame NASCAR for GM’s troubles is ludicrous. GM sold millions of pickups and large SUVS because of NASCAR? Absurd. People don’t buy large trucks and SUVs because they go fast. The fact that Toyota built a Prius first is because of NASCAR? Rubbish.

    Oh, and while you’re complaining about GM selling big trucks and larger cars, don’t forget about Toyota and Nissan’s brand-spanking new plans built in the last five years, and Lexus’ $75K V8 luxury sedan. Is that NASCAR’s fault, too?

    Why won’t Toyota be racing a Prius at NASCAR. Because it’s SLOW. And, while I’m sure you wish GM, Ford, and Chrysler had showrooms full of Priuses, Prius sales so far through the end of April are down 50%–substantially more than Detroit’s overall sales.

  2. collapse expand

    I didn’t say NASCAR was to blame for GM’s bankruptcy. That is greatly overstating my point. I merely pointed out NASCAR worked with GM to promote the kind of products that ultimately helped bring down the company. To say NASCAR had no role in that — creating a series to race gas guzzling trucks in the 1990s, for example — would be naive.

  3. collapse expand

    When your headline links NASCAR and GM’s “path of self destruction”, then I don’t think the point is being overstated. Differentiating “path of self destruction” and “bankruptcy” is splitting hairs. You certainly laid part of the blame at NASCAR’s feet, and glossed over the fact that Toyota’s Tundra (a vehicle which is LESS fuel efficient than Chevy’s Silverado) has been in NASCAR for five years.

    NASCAR doesn’t promote gas-guzzling–it promotes driving fast, and, in days gone by, that meant big crude V8 engines. The days when NASCAR powertrains actually influenced what goes under the hood of an American car or truck these days are long gone. And to claim that NASCAR’s truck series–created by a group of truck racing enthusiasts–somehow created a huge demand for fullsize pickups that helped lead to GM’s bankruptcy is a conclusion lacking any data.

    There are a long list of reasons why GM filed for bankruptcy. Racing cars and trucks is not one of them.

    Good lord, I can’t believe I’m defending NASCAR…

  4. collapse expand

    Ms. Bernstein, first i must disclose that I work in the nascar racing industry, having said that, you pointed out how nascar helped GM promote trucks and cars that sent them down the drain. Okay, they did the exact same for Ford, the fusion, F-150 truck and they aren’t bankrupt, so what is your explanation for that. Further, they have promoted toyota also and they aren’t bankrupt either, so my question is did they not promote toyota and ford differently than they did gm and chrysler? Does nascar get credit for ford and toyota avoiding bankruptcy in this economy? It appears to this reader madam that you don’t care for nascar and you are peddling a weak arguement to blame them.

  5. collapse expand

    Tony Borroz over at wired.com had this to say about your post:
    “It’s all NASCAR’s fault”, or at least that’s the argument some are making to explain General Motors filing for bankruptcy. It’s all about promoting over-consumption and who’s encouraged to buy what sort of cars.

    So says Viv Bernstein in a post over at True/Slant. We at Autopia couldn’t agree less.

    If you want to know why GM tanked, Bernstein writes, take a look at NASCAR. “Major auto companies used NASCAR for years to push cars and trucks with poor fuel economy numbers. The sport, in some ways, came to symbolize America’s embrace of consumption,” she says.

    Talk about a C- answer to a misunderstood question. Of course GM used NASCAR to advertise their products. That’s what NASCAR is for. It is about marketing and entertainment as much as it is about motor racing. Chrysler races for the same reason. So do Ford and Toyota, two automakers that, though hit hard by the recession aren’t exactly failing. Hell – Toyota is the No. 1 automaker on the planet. If NASCAR is to blame for GM’s troubles, is it responsible for Toyota’s success?

    So yeah, major auto makers use stock car racing for advertising and PR, but you could also argue that major auto companies used advertising during the Super Bowl for years to push cars and trucks with poor fuel economy numbers. Does that mean that Brett Favre is somehow culpable along with ad agencies?

    It’s not the venue that GM, or any other company, uses to push its products that’s to blame, it’s the products. GM made and sold a lot of big cars and trucks and they used what ever medium that worked to push those products onto pliant buyers. Blaming NASCAR is like blaming billboard companies or TV stations or magazine ad departments.

    The majority of the blame lies with GM for making and marketing cars based on short term gains and the rest of the blame lies with troglodytic consumers who think they “need” a Cadillac Escalade to drive the kids two miles from their McMansions to soccer practice three times a week.

    NASCAR had little, if anything, to do with GM’s downfall.

    I happen to agree with him.

    I thought that your comments were one-dimensional, self-indulgent and careless. I think that as a writer you can do better to serve your readers without giving them some pedestrian piece of drivel such as you have provided here. To say that NASCAR worked with GM to promote gas guzzling products of any kind is willful blindness to the fact that NASCAR does not produce GM products. Or for that matter, neither do they produce products sold by Chrysler, Ford or Toyota. Will you be holding the IRL accountable for however Honda performs next quarter, or will you be turning your attention elsewhere?

    If you are going to state that NASCAR had a role in GM’s and Chrysler’s self-destruction, then you should also be giving them credit for Ford’s and Toyota’s success. Ford requires no help from our government and Toyota is the number one auto manufacturer in the world. You need to give credit where credit is due.

    Moreover, there are thousands of people who are employed by NASCAR who might be insulted by the fact that you have just told them that they are partially to blame for what has happened to GM. You may not have actually said the words, but I can imagine that that is how it will be interpreted by someone who works at NASCAR’s offices in Charlotte. I know that if I worked there, I would take offense at this article…

    …and I would be demanding an apology.

    • collapse expand

      First of all, to Mr. Borroz, I never stated that GM’s bankruptcy was “all NASCAR’s fault.” That’s vastly overstating what I wrote and a weak tool to use to promote an argument. GM was headed down that path; NASCAR’s culture of consumption and efforts to promote gas guzzling cars and trucks merely aided the decline. It hardly caused it.

      As for the suggestion that I am blaming NASCAR’s many Charlotte employees for causing GM’s bankruptcy, that’s ridiculous. Don’t put words in my mouth. I never wrote anything of the sort.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    Everybody go back and read the article again. The buzzword to look for is “consumption”. Lady Viv is really upset about consumption she just chose NASCAR as her sacrificial lamb. It doesn’t matter that Toyota’s Tundra pickup gets worse gas mileage than Chevy, Dodge, or Ford. I believe our government helped GM to bankruptcy as well. Have you noticed all of the Suburbans and Caddy limos in DC? Viv darling, do us all a favor and go back home. I promise we will write.

  7. collapse expand

    Gee, you got beef with NASCAR? This is a first, I have heard quite a few things blamed in the fall of the Big 3 but this is the first time NASCAR has been included. I thought the reason the Big 3 were involved were to help with their sales, “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday”. I didn’t realize their motto was “Bankrupt the Big 3, Brainwash the Customer”.

  8. collapse expand

    What is all this BS about how it’s the auto industry’s own fault? You sound just like the idiots in Washington, especially this administration. I suspect there are morons that buy into the claim it’s Detroit’s own fault, but anyone should be able to see…NOTHING MUCH is selling right now, I don’t care WHAT it is. The only thing to “blame” is the fact, there are TOO FEW OF DECENT JOBS! Not many can afford a new car of any type. Wrong kind of cars??! You idiot, no kind of car is selling very well right now!! It won’t matter what Detroit builds…if no one car afford it, it will not sell! Simple as that. Every problem this economy has can be pointed squarely at the fools that allowed un-balanced trade with China that have eliminated too many jobs, and the chain-reaction that has been going on for several years. If there were more jobs in the US, then Detroit wouldn’t have a sales issue, now would they? Unless you are saying NASCAR and GM should give the MILLIONS of unemployed workers a job, then I don’t see the connection you are lamely trying to make.

  9. collapse expand

    Hmm… Did NASCAR “aid in the [auto industry's] decline” (as Ms Bernstein is saying now) or “help the auto industry race down its path of destruction” (as she stated originally)?

    Too many unanswered and unaddressed questions:
    1. NASCAR doesn’t make a profit on any vehicle sold by anyone, nor are their sponsorship fees tied directly to vehicle sales; if they were, the sponsorships would have dried up long ago. There were no “efforts to promote gas guzzling cars and trucks” on NASCAR’s part.
    2. NASCAR is a culture of speed, not consumption. And, unfortunately, speed achieved using fifty-year-old pushrod V8 technology is pretty cheap. The high-tech goodies you seen in other racing events are far more expensive. This is racing for the ‘real guy’ (or girl).
    3. And what about Toyota and Ford? Arguably, Toyota is a newer entrant, but Ford’s involvement in NASCAR was no less than GM’s.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C., a Yankee transplant in a Bible belt town that is home to Billy Graham, TARP-infused banks, stock-car racing and that signature Southern culinary abomination: Barbeque.

    I write mostly about sports as a regular contributor to The New York Times. I was a staff writer at the Detroit Free Press, Hartford Courant and other newspapers. Over the years, I have written for many publications and Web sites, covering everything from the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500. When it comes to sports, I am usually irreverent, occasionally indignant and sometimes intolerant of folks who take this form of entertainment too seriously. It's supposed to be a game, you know.

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