November 27, 2008
By Doug Demmons
Thereís an easy way to tell when the economy has gotten so bad that people are having trouble just hanging on.
Check the loose change in your pockets. Especially the pennies.
In good times youíll get a lot of shiny pennies from the last couple of years. The U.S. Mint usually churns out billions of them every year because most people just throw them in a jar.
But these days you are more likely to get worn pennies -- and pennies that still have some of that shine left but were minted in the 1970s. Thirty-year-old pennies that still have mint luster have been in somebodyís jar for decades.
When people have to raid those penny jars, times are tough.
Likewise, if you heard about a company that was trying to save money by not replacing the batteries in its wall clocks, by canceling voice mail and by switching from mechanical pencils to cheaper No. 2 pencils, you would know that times are really tough.
Thatís where General Motors is these days.
On Monday GM laid off Tiger Woods. By Tuesday, Fred Couples was reported on the way out after 16 years as a Cadillac spokesman.
Things are so bad at GM the clocks have stopped for lack of batteries, the escalators are turned off at 7 p.m. in its headquarters building and it has changed the kind of paper towels it uses to reduce its "cost per wipe."
If things donít improve rapidly, it is only a matter of time before GM parts ways with NASCAR.
And yet, if you listened to one of NASCAR Chairman Brian Franceís recent press conferences you would come away with the impression that things are a little tough but not anything NASCAR hasnít seen before.
If one or more manufacturer withdrew from the sport, NASCAR would get along just fine, he said. There was a time when there was no manufacturer support at all, he pointed out.
Thatís true, but itís also ancient history. NASCAR can no more realistically go back to the days of no manufacturer support than it can return to the days when teams grabbed a car off the showroom floor, made a few modifications and went racing.
NASCAR also sees no need to bail out any of its cash-strapped teams, France said. Besides, NASCAR is taking steps to save everyone money, he stressed. Thereís that Car of Tomorrow thatís going to kick in with savings any day now. And a money-saving edict was issued banning all testing at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks. Teams were so impressed by that they accelerated layoffs.
Realistically, it isnít NASCARís place to be bailing out struggling teams. Itís survival of the fastest.
But NASCAR should be thinking about bailing out its fans. People who have to raid their penny jars arenít going to fill the grandstands or buy as many hot dogs or souvenirs.
Perhaps on this Thanksgiving Day NASCAR could show its thanks to its suffering fan base by declaring 2009 to be the Year of the Fan.
How about spending the entire 2009 season telling the fans how much they are appreciated? Oh, not in words. NASCAR does that all the time already. Words are cheap.
How about something more tangible? How about a 50 percent across-the-board cut in ticket prices at all NASCAR events? How about more aggressive measures to keep hotels from gouging race fans?
Promoters donít like cutting prices in lean times because it makes it harder to raise them back up when conditions improve. They prefer to keep the price the same but add on goodies like special access and discounts on this and that.
But these are not normal times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Yes, it would cost NASCAR, International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports a bundle. They could think of it as an investment.
Or maybe just a way of reassuring old friends they arenít being taken for granted.
Doug Demmons is a writer and editor for the Birmingham News ~ he writes daily and weekly auto racing columns ranging from NASCAR to open wheel to Formula One, local tracks and more... you can read Doug's columns online at Blog of Tommorow