NASCAR helped GM down its path of self-destruction
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.