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Can NASCAR's stars really help sell cars? They're going to do their best

By Mike Mulhern

   As NASCAR men prepare for the upcoming season, hanging over the sport is the fragile state of the U.S. economy. And things don't seem to have changed much in the past few weeks since the end of the 2008 Sprint Cup tour.
    And much of the promotion and marketing that NASCAR's stars are doing this month are as much to promote the auto industry as to sell tickets to the sport's events at Daytona, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Phoenix.
   The automakers are tightly woven into the American economy, and the fallout from Detroit's problems would reach into nearly every corner of the country.
   One research firm has predicted that a collapse of the auto industry could eventually put as many as three million people out of work.
   Car owner Rick Hendrick knows well the implications.
   "I'm in the automobile business, and nobody is immune from what is going on in the economy," Hendrick says. "And it's been not only in our country but in the world. 
  "Charlotte has been more stable than any other state I do business in, and I'm in 14 or 15 states.  So Charlotte has survived that part well. 
  "But one of the problems for our industry is we've been on a steady growth cycle, with manufacturers coming in and new teams coming in. A couple of years ago we were probably at an all-time high.
  "Now all of a sudden the economy is forcing people to do things because of sponsorship."
   Rather lack of sponsorship. 
    "So much of what we do is driven by sponsors…and if you happen to be one of those guys whose sponsorship ran out this year, you were in an uphill battle," Hendrick says.
  "And there are so many different businesses around Charlotte that depend on our sport. I think a lot of the guys (who have been laid off by various NASCAR teams) will move into different areas.  It's no different than Wachovia or any of the other deals.
   "I hate the whole economy is going through this, but we'll survive…and I think we'll come out of this, hopefully, by the spring or summer."
    Detroit executives have been putting plenty of pressure on NASCAR teams -- drivers in particular -- to step up and help promote the automotive industry. Late last season one General Motors executive sent this letter to all his company's NASCAR teams:
   "Dear Partners,
   "I'm writing you today calling on your collective role as both an influencer and valued business partner.  I'm asking you to recognize the importance of the U.S. auto manufacturers to this nation’s economic well-being and to support a call for Federal assistance to help the U.S.-based carmakers weather this historic downturn.  It is clear to us that moderate levels of government support are a prudent investment in an important industry and, indeed, in America itself."
   And he asked for support in pushing Washington to help "the domestic auto industry...through one of the most difficult economic times in our nation's history.
  "Our nation today faces economic challenges that have not been seen since the Great Depression. ..You've read about how dire the situation is for U.S. auto manufacturers due to the fragile economy, severe credit crisis and lack of consumer confidence.  Although our aggressive restructuring and global growth has demonstrated our commitment to reinventing General Motors, industry auto sales...haven't been this low since the post-World War II era.  As a result, the U.S. auto industry – and GM in particular – is confronting one of the most difficult economic periods in our nation's history.
  "Chevrolet is a key component to GM's overall success. It's ironic given the current economic environment that we have an extremely strong product line-up top to bottom, a commitment to green technology including the Chevy Volt and a sustainable global business plan.  Chevrolet has eight models in its lineup that get 30 miles per gallon or better including three hybrids and that all our cars and trucks are backed by the GM 100,000-mile warranty.  In short, we've responded positively and quickly to address rising fuel prices and the perception of poor quality.
   "To think that the difficulties faced by the U.S. automotive sector would only impact the industrial Midwest would be a critical mistake.  U.S.-based carmakers have 105 plants in 20 states, including California, Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Maryland.  They support 14,000 dealers across the country, and these dealers in turn employ 740,000 people, with a total payroll of $35 billion a year.  The companies buy $156 billion in parts and services from suppliers in every state.  The auto companies provide pensions for 775,000 people and health care benefits for 2 million.
   "Because carmakers are so tightly woven into the fabric of the U.S. economy, the collapse of this industry would reach far beyond Detroit.  The Center for Automotive Research, an independent research firm in Ann Arbor, predicts that a collapse of Detroit carmakers would lead to widespread failures of supplier companies.  This in turn would shut down the transplant factories owned by Toyota, Honda and other non-U.S. companies ultimately putting up to 3 million people out of work.  The ripple effects of this would be felt by virtually every industry in the country.
   "...Talk to your friends, neighbors, and colleagues to ask for their support....  Consider using your platforms to spread the message by bringing to bear the unique influence the motorsports industry can have on your consumers.  Leverage your websites to support the messaging, post a blog or agree to be interviewed by the media. 
  "At a minimum when you're ready to buy a new car or truck, buy American!"

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