With the economy on the skids, Joe Nemechek has been forced to slow down, an unthinkable impulse for a race car driver.
To save money, Nemechek will compete Saturday in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on used tires. He pushes his engines for 1,400 miles instead of 700, repairs his cars with second-hand parts and employs a skeletal crew of five, one-third the size of those working the pit for stars Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski or Dale Earnhardt Jr. In a sport that burns money as quickly as it burns gas, Nemechek pieces together a patchwork of backers, including Sasquatch adventure tours of Alaska. The bumps in the road NASCAR has endured in the past five years – declining sponsorships, a 20 percent dip in TV ratings and lagging attendance – hurt low-budget drivers such as Nemechek more than the corporate-bankrolled “super teams.” But he is determined to ride it out. He still loves America’s home-grown sport despite the dwindling financial rewards. “What’s most frustrating is knowing what you need to do to run in the front but not having the money to do it,” said Nemechek of Lakeland, Fla. “It’s not a question of skill; it’s a question of being able to afford that extra speed.” NASCAR fans Larry and Shelly Barbarossa have also been pinched by the recession. But the Homestead couple still takes vacation every year during championship week, buys a ticket package and faithfully seeks out Tony Stewart in his garage to wish him luck and show him photos of their Yorkie named Smoke and the multiple rooms of their house decorated with NASCAR memorabilia. “We have a Tony Stewart door, NASCAR stickers on our ceiling fans, towels, clocks, a crockpot,” Shelly said. Loyalty is what keeps NASCAR going years after its growth peaked. The loyalty of Nemechek, 49, whose brother John died in an accident on the track here in 1997 and who hopes to pass his operation on to son John Hunter, 15, a junior champion. The loyalty of fans who drive their RVs hundreds of miles to follow drivers who remember their names. The loyalty of icon Richard “The King’ Petty, 75, still roaming the garage area in sunglasses, boots, jeans, cowboy hat and finely trimmed mustache, pausing to chew the fat with anyone who approaches him. “The economy has messed up everything, taken everybody’s spending money,” said Petty, who lamented the impending withdrawal of Dodge; he used to race in a Dodge Charger. “It’s disappointing to have three manufacturers instead of four, not as healthy as it could be. But we’re coming back. NASCAR is resilient.” The commercialism can’t obscure NASCAR’s roots in Southern moonshine-running. The logos plastered everywhere can’t hide the colorful history. When Gordon and Clint Bowyer wrecked and brawled last week in Phoenix, TV ratings spiked and it brought back memories of the 1979 Daytona 500 when Donnie and Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough exchanged punches and kicks on the infield. “That type of fight is what got people interested in the sport when they thought it was just cars going around in a circle,” Barbarossa said. “In the past two years there has been more drama, more passion, and that’s reviving the personalities in the sport.” Many in NASCAR wouldn’t admit it, but they are glad that Johnson is not likely to win a sixth title Sunday. A great driver, his public persona is too bland and corporate to ignite the imagination the way black-hatted Dale Earnhardt used to do. The combative Keselowski, who Tweeted from his car until officials banned it, holds a 20-point lead and clinches with a finish of 15th or better. When Stewart, another outspoken bad boy, was sponsored by Home Depot, the Barbarossas dressed their dog in an orange apron and took him to the store with them. When Old Spice was Stewart’s sponsor, Larry bought loads of Old Spice. Shelly is so fond of Stewart that she could barely sleep Thursday night. “I knew nothing about racing but the first time I met him, we bonded,” said Shelly, who went with Larry to a Pembroke Pines Office Depot earlier this week at 6:30 a.m. to get in line for a 4 p.m. appearance by Stewart. Accessibility to drivers at the track and their down-home authenticity continue to make NASCAR different from other pro sports where the athletes are distant mega-stars. The Barbarossas think NASCAR will also get a boost next season when redesigned cars will look more like street cars. But that redesign will cost Nemechek $300,000. He’s only got a budget of $1.2 million – a third of what he had in the booming 1990s and early 2000s when he got his nickname "Front Row Joe," and a sixth of what the glamour teams spend. Engines can cost $90,000-120,000. The tire bill can run $30,000 per weekend. Nemechek has earned $2.6 million in prize money this season. Nemechek has tried to remain competitive in Sprint Cup where he was a four-time race winner but failed to qualify on Friday. When money is tight, he and other drivers have to resort to the “start and park” strategy – racing two dozen laps to maintain exposure and pulling out to save wear and tear on the more expensive, higher-tech cars. Nemechek has relied on his ingenuity to cut costs and land sponsors, including Lowery Plumbing of Texas (crossed wrenches, like crossed swords, adorn Nemechek's cars), AC General of Alaska, SWM from the Texas oil industry, DAB Constructors of Florida and AMFM Energy.com, a Virginia company that sells wood and pellet stoves – a frugal way to heat the house. “When the economy crashed and everyone started chopping wood, they came out with an awesome product, and they’ve got a grill coming out next,” Nemechek said, sounding like a marketing exec. In the flush days, when Nemechek was 1992 Busch series champion, he had sponsorships from Bellsouth Mobility and Cellular One. Today, sponsors such as Red Bull, General Mills and Aflac have pulled out of the sport or cut back. The federal government almost cut the U.S. Army's sponsorship. “We’re probably too honest,” said Randy Usher, Nemechek's general manager who also carries tires when needed. “Whatever we commit to, we do – visibility, entertainment, building business relationships. Racing is only part of this if you want to survive.” Nemechek has become known as the master of doing more with less. Danica Patrick was taken aback when he told her he raced on used tires. “She said, ‘Really? No way!’” Nemechek said. But in his No. 87 Toyota, he’s also known as a masterful driver. He is 11th in the Nationwide standings and could move up after Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300. His love affair with NASCAR in turn fuels that of its fans. “I’ve spent a lot of my savings to keep things going,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done with what we have against the Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs teams. If only we had that extra set of tires or fresh motor. We could beat most of these guys on what they throw away in the scrap heap.”