MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now to the impact of high gas prices on a sport which runs on gas. For NASCAR, filling the tank is just one of many expenses that affect the sport. Scott Graf of member-station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, checked in on the state of NASCAR.
SCOTT GRAF: NASCAR is not without its problems this summer. Several weeks ago, one of three teams at Chip Ganassi Racing shut down because it couldn't secure enough sponsorship funding to cover the estimated $25 million it takes to field a top-level NASCAR team. The economy's also endangered the estimated half-billion dollar investments that GM, Chrysler, Ford and Toyota make in the sport each year.
The largest operator of NASCAR racetracks says its attendance-related revenue is down this year compared to last, but in spite of all that, Andrew Giangola, who heads NASCAR's business communications, remains upbeat.
Mr. ANDREW GIANGOLA (NASCAR): By any measure, NASCAR as a business and as a sport is very strong right now. While certainly the economy and fuel prices are affecting NASCAR, the sport's on very solid footing.
GRAF: A big reason why is because of what is arguably the most passionate fan base in America. Jeff Bixby(ph) is one of thousands of NASCAR fans who are cutting costs elsewhere so they can still go to races. Bixby drove his family 80 miles to attend this month's race near Chicago.
Mr. JEFF BIXBY (NASCAR Fan): The truck I drive is a diesel, so I would say it cost me to get here 120 bucks.
GRAF: Cost-cutting for the Bixbys includes doing away with other outings and buying more generic brands, and some thrifty race fans are camping at race tracks instead of staying in hotels.
The Bixbys cooked at their camp site and tried not to buy expensive concessions at Chicagoland Speedway. Instead of spending at souvenir trailers, fans relaxed over beers and campground games.
(Soundbite of campground)
GRAF: To sell as many tickets as possible, NASCAR tracks are getting creative. Lauri Wilks oversees day-to-day operations at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte. The track just announced this week it's cutting ticket prices and has gotten dozens of area hotels to reduce their rates for an upcoming October race weekend. The goal is to reach out to fans who are on the fence about making the trip.
Ms. LAURI WILKS (Lowe's Motor Speedway): We understand that budgets are strapped. We understand gas is higher, food prices are higher, and that discretionary income may not be there, but we want to do is put together affordable packages.
GRAF: For its two races this summer. Michigan International Speedway marketed tickets to cities outside the hard-hit Detroit area. Still, there were thousands of empty seats at the track's June race. But most tracks are doing fairly well, in spite of high gas prices. NASCAR estimates overall track attendance this year is down by only about three to five percent. Meanwhile, TV ratings, which had been down the last few years, are now going up again.
Mr. JOHN CONNAUGHTON (University of North Carolina, Charlotte): Viewership on TV is the one thing that those advertisers look at as to whether or not this is a good deal, not how many people go to the race.
GRAF: John Connaughton teaches economics at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte and studies NASCAR extensively. He says the ratings may be higher because more people are watching TV at home as a way to save money, but a sport that relies so heavily on sponsorship dollars is still seeing many sponsors pull back on their NASCAR budgets. Marshall Carlson oversees four well-funded race teams at Hendrick Motorsports and says everyone is pinching pennies.
Mr. MARSHALL CARLSON (Hendrick Motorsports): The sponsorship pool has kind of buttressed itself up a little bit. So some of those prospects are probably not inclined today to talk about new opportunities, new spend in a sport.
GRAF: Carlson and Connaughton agree that if gas prices come down and the economy improves, more companies are likely to spend money on NASCAR. But for now everyone in the sport is apparently working towards the same goal: keeping NASCAR strong in tough economic times.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Charlotte.
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