MILLVILLE - Jim Lowe can't remember ever being a spectator at a race. Today will be a first.
Lowe, a Linwood-based neurosurgeon who is also an owner/driver in the Grand-Am Rolex series, had to shut his team down for all but two races this season due to financial concerns. Today's Verizon Wireless 250 at New Jersey Motorsports Park didn't make the cut, but he'll be here promoting his team.
"Frustrating is probably a pretty mild description for it," Lowe said in a phone interview Thursday. "I'm not personally really looking forward to the event."
Lowe is one of a number of drivers who have had to cut back on races during the recession. There are 31 entries in today's race. Last year, there were 42. Last week's race at Virginia International Raceway also had significantly fewer entries.
"It's affecting the whole paddock, and we just hope that the economy starts turning around," driver Brian Frisselle said.
Lowe estimated it costs about $60,000 to run a car in a short race such as today's. That includes labor, travel expenses for the team, parts and fuel.
The biggest expense besides labor, Lowe said, is tires. They cost around $1,800 per set, and drivers go through about one set for every hour on the track. Including practice, that adds up.
Sponsors hard to find
So sponsors are crucial. And in this economic climate, they're hard to come by.
Shortly after the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, Lowe lost half his budget when two primary sponsors notified him that they would not be able to meet their financial commitment to his team. He declined to name them.
Lowe said he hopes the situation is temporary. The only other race he'll enter this season is the July one in Daytona Beach, Fla., because it will help prepare for next season's Rolex 24 at Daytona.
"The teams that survive are the teams that are not ignoring (the economy), they're being proactive," Lowe said. "They're taking temporary steps backward to address it."
Lowe isn't the only one. Even the bigger teams are feeling the crunch.
Reigning series co-champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas drive for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Ganassi also owns teams in IndyCar and NASCAR Sprint Cup, where Stafford Township native Martin Truex Jr. is one of his drivers. Ganassi has laid off dozens of employees and cut back his Sprint Cup operation to two cars.
Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype and Grand Touring cars are both cheaper to run than other series like American Le Mans and Sprint Cup, drivers say. Still, teams are being more careful than ever with their spending.
"Our budget's a lot tighter," Rolex 24 at Daytona winner David Donohue said. "It was tight before, but there's not much wasted here."
Downsizing personnel and using parts and tires for longer are the most common cost-cutting measures.
Still, there's somewhat of an all-or-nothing attitude. Lowe refused to give a half-hearted effort just to field a car today at his home track. Ganassi cut back his Sprint Cup operation to just Truex and one other team.
"Chip came and told us early on that either we're going to do it at the same level we're doing it, or we're not going to do it," Pruett said. "It's too hard to be in a situation where you're not running at 100 percent so people come away from it going, 'Wow, I wonder why they're not competitive.' So you're better to step out as a competitor if you can't compete at that level."
The irony is that while sponsors are becoming few and far between, the series is flourishing in terms of exposure.
Record crowds in 2009
Grand-Am does not have exact attendance figures for the first two races of the season, but officials said each one easily drew record crowds for those events.
Also, Grand-Am became a part of NASCAR after last year. That's allowed the series to increase its budget. And from a marketing perspective, that's helped immensely as Grand-Am is able to use research that it never could have afforded on its own.
"I think that what we're doing as an organization and with NASCAR's involvement is nothing but growing the sport, and I think every venue that we go to is just going to continue to get better and better," Pruett said.
The racing might be better also. Some drivers say the shrinking entry fields are just survival of the fittest.
"I think a lot of fake companies and people will disappear," said driver Max Angelelli, the 2005 series champion. "It's going to be a little bit like a cleanup. And then when the economy will be back on, I think the majority will be good companies, solid, with true people, rather than just blah, blah, blah."
The flip side of that is that smaller teams have a harder time getting better. Lowe, who is in his fourth year and has run just 16 career Rolex series races, had been steadily improving as a driver. Now, he's just trying to find cheap track time for testing to compensate for the fact that he'll only run in two races this season.
"Clearly there's a big disadvantage because the longer I stay out of the car, the more stale I get," Lowe said.
Grand-Am does not provide any financial relief for teams, believing that would be nothing but a quick fix. Instead, the organization has provided teams with research and training for how to attract sponsors. Continuing to improve the overall product is also a key.
"The best way we can help all the teams is by us bringing in the large crowds, increasing TV ratings, building the fan base and really showing what being a sponsor in the series can return to a partner or a vendor," said Kevin Hindson, Grand-Am's vice president of marketing and communications.
That part is crucial. Sponsorship, in theory, is supposed to be profitable for businesses through the returns. Citibank's sponsorship of the New York Mets' baseball stadium despite the bank's financial troubles is an example of the type of attitude Grand-Am teams hope to see more often.
"The reality is (money) is anything but wasted for most sponsors," Lowe said.
Drivers and series officials agree that as long as the product keeps improving, sponsors will return.
"Even though the economy's not exactly where we'd like to see it right now, we're still having growth as a following, so I think that's all the pieces together," Pruett said. "The NASCAR piece of it, the competition side of it, the TV side of it – all those pieces together."
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