Gary Baker, who once during his driving days at more than 200 mph cracked the concrete at Talladega, says stock car racing has hit a similarly hard economic wall. And he’s unsure when, if ever, it will recover from the jolt.
“I’ve been involved in this sport for 40 years as a driver, track owner, marketing official and team owner,” says Baker, a Nashville attorney and co-owner of Baker Curb Racing. “It’s worse than bad. It’s brutal.”
Baker lost long-term sponsor Kimberly Clark at the end of last season along with veteran driver Jason Keller. Last week he signed Greg Biffle to drive a partial schedule in the Nationwide Series starting next month at Daytona.
He and other Nationwide team owners are struggling to survive in NASCAR’s second-tier series that is being smothered by Sprint Cup interlopers. Cup drivers win all the championships and most of the races. They drain off the prize money and leave Nationwide regulars scratching for crumbs and leftovers.
Biffle’s car will be sponsored by Red Man Moist Snuff, hardly a Fortune 500 company. Baker’s unsure how many races he can run with the limited financing — maybe 10 or 12 of the season’s 34.
Meanwhile, NASCAR continues to twiddle its thumbs while the series collapses before its eyes.
“Anyone can see what the problems are,” says Baker who for years has lobbied to limit Cup-driver entries in Nationwide races. “You bet it’s frustrating.”
The presence of Cup stars boosts Nationwide media coverage and TV ratings and helps sell tickets. But to what avail if it eventually kills the series? Teams like Baker’s are hanging on by their fingernails, struggling to run part-time schedules with dwindling resources.
Baker has seen hard racing times in the past. He owned Fairgrounds Speedway during its glory years but saw the track’s fate sealed when the city let its two Cup races get away in 1984.
He also has been involved in the ups and downs of sports marketing as he has tried to help son Brad get his fledgling racing career off the ground. And he knows that frustration and setbacks are part of the sport, but he’s never seen a climate as grim as the current one.
So why does he press on, spending millions in hopes of finishing 10th on a good day?
“I’ve always been an optimist,” Baker says. “I got it from my dad who taught me to look on the bright side of things. I don’t see much sunshine right now but I’m not ready to give up. There’s always tomorrow.”