NASCAR made it official yesterday, announcing the release of a long-discussed, single piece composite body for its Grand National Division (Busch East and AutoZone West Series) teams. The move has been in the works for more than a year, and is seen as a cost-cutting measure, allowing teams to avoid the weekly expense of repairing steel bodies during the series' predominantly short-track schedules.
My friends on the Busch East Series say it costs approximately $10,000 to hang a Nextel Cup-style steel body on their cars, and repairs aren't cheap, either. Now, teams will have the option to run a molded synthetic composite body, which comes in one piece for easy replacement. The composite bodies will be mandatory in 2007, with an estimated cost of $7,500 each. That seems a bit pricey for a racing body -- considering there are short track bodies on the market for a fifth that price -- but I'll do a little research on exactly why the price tag is so high before drawing any conclusions.
Don Hawk, NASCAR's Director of Regional Racing Development, commented on the new bodies yesterday, saying, "As we continue to restructure NASCAR’s regional touring series, cost containment will be a top priority. This new composite body has the potential to drastically reduce costs in the long term."
South Carolina's American Fiberglass will manufacture the bodies to NASCAR specs, and while the bodies are fundamentally the same for all makes and models, teams will be able to customize window openings and decals to resemble their preferred make of car. Veteran driver Kenny Schrader -- who does a lot of racing on the AutoZone West Series in addition to his Nextel Cup duties -- has already taken delivery of a new composite body, and says it is a welcome change. “I think it’ll be a tremendous help,” said Schrader. “The cost savings of this body versus a metal body, plus the cost of buying templates, is huge."
NASCAR says the composite bodies are just one part of their "comprehensive approach to lowering the costs of racing in the Grand National Division." Sources say the next step may be the introduction of low-cost "spec engines" to the Busch East and AutoZone West Series' within the next 1-2 years. NASCAR is reportedly planning to issue teams a list of approved engine parts, allowing them to asemble the motors themselves, within strict assembly and machining guidelines. Currently, a competitive Busch East or AutoZone West engine runs between $40,000 and $45,000. The new spec engines are expected to come in at approximately $15,000; a savings of 66 percent.
In my opinion, that move cannot come a moment too soon.
Make no mistake about it, NASCAR's Grand National Divisions are in serious trouble right now, with dwindling schedules and diminished car counts across the board. The 2006 Busch East schedule includes just 10 races -- ranging from Loudon, NH to Greenville, SC -- and with the front-running teams now spending in excess of $400,000 per season, it's tough to get much of a return on that kind of investment. The AutoZone West Series has just 11 races on its 2006 schedule, and while the average per-team expenditure is reportedly a bit lower on the Left Coast, its still difficult for racers to commit to a series that runs less than a dozen times a year.
NASCAR recently announced that it is pulling the plug on its AutoZone Elite Series -- Midwest, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest -- at the end of this season, citing the increased cost of competition, dwindling car counts, and a lack of interest from local promoters. All of those problems currently afflict NASCAR's Grand National Tours, as well.
One by one, local short track operators have said, "no thanks," to NASCAR Touring events, because the cost of the show precludes them from turning a profit. As one former Busch East track owner told me during SpeedWeeks in February, "I lost money three years in a row. If I got a beautiful, sunny day, I could draw enough people to break even, or maybe turn a modest profit. But if the weather wasn't perfect, I was in serious trouble. Last year, it took me the entire season to recoup what I lost on the Busch east race."
Comments like those are common among northeastern track owners, and they are echoed by their colleagues in the west, as well. The writing is on the wall for NASCAR's Grand National Divisions. Cut the cost for racers, cut the cost for promoters, jazz-up your program for the fans, or prepare to go the way of the dinosaurs, following the AutoZone Elite Series down the road to ruin.
Composite bodies are a step in the right direction, but they're not nearly enough. NASCAR needs to roll out the spec engine option for 2006, making it mandatory in `07. They need to implement an "eight tire per race" rule, effective immediately. And while they're at it, cut those deadly-dull, two-day programs in half; qualifying at 2 p.m. and racing at 8:00, with a free driver autograph session in between. Stop counting caution laps -- highway robbery in a 150-lap race -- and invert the starting field to ensure that the winner passes someone on his way to Victory Lane.
Do all those things -- quickly -- and there may yet be time to save NASCAR's Grand National Divisions.