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Autos, economy threaten NASCAR sponsors

NEW YORK (Reuters) - NASCAR’s sponsorship revenue will grow at a slower rate next year, or even decline, as the professional stock car racing circuit gets hit by the economic slowdown and hard times in the auto industry, the racing organization’s chief executive warned on Tuesday.

The U.S. racing circuit has held discussions with some corporate sponsors about either pulling back or withdrawing from their roles completely, Brian France said at the Reuters Media Summit in New York.

NASCAR also has had talks with some potential new sponsors, he said, but declined to identify companies in either case.

NASCAR’s sponsorship revenue rose this year by about $150 million -- or in the low single-digit percentage range -- growth that will not be repeated in 2009, France said.

“Next year, we will not obviously make that kind of a gain. The question is, are we going to back up?” he said.

Later at the summit, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig also downplayed expectations for 2009, saying the game is no longer recession-proof. He called it a time of “economic disorientation” in declining to offer predictions for his sport’s revenue or attendance next year.

Unlike most U.S. sports, NASCAR is heavily dependent on sponsorships, with corporations such as DuPont, Coca Cola and the three major U.S. automakers holding long associations with the sport. General Motors Corp -- which is already cutting NASCAR-related spending -- Ford Motor Co and Chrysler are big backers of the sport.

Dozens of smaller sponsors spend millions to have their names linked with a team, race or track.

GM, Ford and Chrysler failed two weeks ago to obtain a $25 billion bailout from U.S. lawmakers who were unconvinced that taxpayer money would be well-spent considering the industry’s horrible financial prospects. Democratic leaders had asked them to return this week with retooled plans focused on viability.

Brian France, CEO of NASCAR, speaks at the Reuters Media Summit in New York, December 2, 2008. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

France said NASCAR needs the automakers to succeed not only because they are financially supportive, but also because their employees are big fans.

“They’re obviously feeling an enormous amount of pressure,” he said of the U.S. automakers.

Officials in the industry have warned lawmakers of the broader pain a failure by any of the U.S. automakers would have on the U.S. economy overall and not just NASCAR, France said.

“We’re not lobbyists,” he said. “We’re going to be as expressive as we can to our leaders to do the right thing.”

France added he would welcome another automaker to NASCAR, but has had no formal discussions with another company. Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp also supports NASCAR race teams.

He noted the economic slowdown is putting pressure on advertising for its television partners, including News Corp’s Fox, and has placed on hold any plans for NASCAR to expand to cities like New York, Seattle or Denver.

“We’re having to adjust to falling advertising revenues,” he said.

France said there will not be fewer race tracks operating in these “extreme times,” but fewer team owners are likely and the sport is working to cut costs for teams.

He also said NASCAR could benefit from more emotion from its drivers which would draw additional fans and thus please sponsors. Three-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been described by some observers of the sport as having a vanilla personality.

“He’s a very nice guy, a cool customer, obviously very talented in our sport ... but he’s not gonna do a lot of things that are gonna wow you or stun you or surprise you in the way that sometimes other athletes make their mark,” France said.

“You lose sponsors because your fan base isn’t big enough or growing. That’s why we want them to stimulate their own fan base,” he added, referring to the drivers.

The France family owns NASCAR as well as a 68 percent voting interest in race track owner International Speedway Corp (ISC).

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Additional reporting by Paul Thomasch, editing by Matthew Lewis