The financial repercussions of the coronavirus shutdown will affect every industry across the world—motorsports included.
There is a too common assumption that everyone who works at the highest levels of the sport makes six figures and that the industry is in a position to build a safety net for an act of God scenario. That’s simply not true.
Most fans only follow the exploits of those who race for championships on television and social media, painting the most marginal of pictures of the larger motorsports economic landscape.
The reality is that every paddock and garage is primarily populated with those living paycheck to paycheck. It’s no secret that motorsports was heavily impacted by the perfect storm that was the 2008 credit crunch and corresponding downturn in popularity.
As the old adage goes: The best way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a large one.
But countless drivers, mechanics, engineers, public relations professionals, media and photographers continue to pursue cars going in circles because it is their dream: Financial stability be damned.
For example, Wisconsin stock car racer Josh Bilicki has made 13 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series but primarily applies his trade in the Xfinity and Gander Truck divisions. Unlike the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, Bilicki doesn’t have any discernable income unless he is on the track representing his various partners.
Bilicki was already financially insecure due to the expenses of starting a new season—licenses, updated gear and launch fees. Perhaps, if this had happened later in the summer, there would be a slight buffer, but the 24-year-old is already looking for work just in case NASCAR can’t resume by May.
“I’ve been in contact with a few people interested in becoming a sponsor for my iRacing efforts, so I think that’s pretty cool and shows how big online racing has become,” Bilicki said. “If nothing comes through, I’ll have to go back to work in construction for a few weeks or find another job, which isn’t ideal, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
And even if NASCAR is able to return by May 7 at Martinsville, there is no telling how much damage will have been done to the economy and the ability to spend on sports sponsorship.
“Many of my partners and sponsors are small businesses and have seen a hit in business in the last week,” Bilicki added. “Some even had to suspend operations for a few weeks. I’m not sure how this will affect the races we had planned on later this year, but right now we’re all a bit concerned.”
Crew chief Matt Weber has worked in the Truck Series and ARCA garage for nearly a decade. He captured an ARCA championship with Mason Mitchell in 2014. He currently works for Niece Motorsports.
And right now, he’s starting to get nervous.
“Ultimately if this social distancing goes longer than two-three weeks it could get really bad for myself,” Weber said. “I haven’t been in a position to accumulate much in the way of savings the last few years due to the industry money crunch, and my need to stay employed meant taking what is offered.
“If we go past the May 3 time frame and don’t have a definite date we are going back racing, I see things getting desperate for the industry as a whole, not just myself.”
The same can be said for Xfinity Series mechanic Gabriel Wood of JD Motorsports, who took exception to the sentiment that NASCAR mechanics are all six-figure engineers.
“I’ve got enough saved to live for a month or so, but around then is where it gets rough,” Wood said.
Tommy Joe Martins says his family owned NASCAR Xfinity Series team has cut all but one employee.
“It’s a very tough situation,” Martins said. “We’re expecting this to go until at least May and maybe further. The hardest part is not knowing an exact date. It’s almost like we have to stay ready for something we’re not sure is actually happening yet. There is still so much we don’t know.”
In a Tuesday media teleconference, NASCAR president Steve Phelps said he is working to get money to teams in the midst of the shutdown. He did not elaborate, and it’s unclear how much he can do beyond providing aid to the Cup Series teams that are guaranteed money as a result of the ownership charter system.
“No specifics around the financials about what will happen with our race teams and how we’re going to work with our race teams at this time,” Phelps said. “Are we concerned about teams broadly and their financial health? Of course we are. We want to make sure that each of our teams gets through this, each of our stakeholders in the industry gets through this crisis as well as we all can.
“Lots of things on the table. No specifics at this point that we are prepared to discuss. Financially, we need to make sure that our financials are handled with obviously the stakeholders separately, make sure that we are all aligned with what that’s going to look like.”
Meanwhile, IndyCar has proactively released the first payment of its Leaders Circle contingency sponsorship to NTT IndyCar Series teams, but that doesn’t help those organizations on the Road to Indy ladder system.
Checking in over at the NHRA, a Don Schumacher Racing representative says the organization’s shop remains open—employees are adhering to physical distancing—but they are aware a long-term shutdown could change that.
Back in the stock car world, Derek Pernesiglio has been the longtime pit road reporter for the ARCA Racing Series, K&N Pro Series and Whelen Modified Tour. There is, once again, a perception that television personalities will be safe through this due to their prominence.
That’s not true at the highest levels of the sport, which has already cut back on attending reporters, and it’s certainly not true below the national touring level.
“We don’t make what network talent makes, so it’s necessary having other forms of income,” Pernesiglio said. “Some of us work as producers, PR, social media managers or content creators in the racing business.
“We rely on having events for income, and the not knowing when we’ll be going back to racing again is a very scary and unsettling time. Not taking away anything from the network talent, because I’m sure they are going through a difficult time, too.
“On top of that, industry standard as freelancers usually get paid 30 days from a submitted invoice. Even when we return to work, we’ll still have another month to sweat it out waiting for our first freelance check after this hiatus.”
The same goes for freelance photographers—even those who work at the highest levels of the sport.
Daylon Barr of Port Orange, Florida, operates his own photo agency and represents several organizations across every level of motorsports. He worked the Rolex 24, Daytona Speedweeks, World Series of Asphalt and NASCAR’s West Coast swing prior to the shutdown.
The lack of a steady paycheck is exacerbated by the excessive equipment costs of working in photography to start with. That doesn’t even include the expensive licensing fees photo agencies must purchase from the sanctioning body to conduct their business.
He is looking at a loss of $25,000 in postponement income.
“I front-load all my travel to try and get the best deals for flights and hotels, and not having money coming in this early in the season keeps me from paying,” Barr said. “I get paid race by race and wait about three weeks after the races to get a check.
“So, some money will come in, but barely enough to keep me afloat. By next week, everything will be paid, so I’ll really see what kind of hole I’m in at that point. I was trying to put money towards a down payment on a house. By the second week of April I will have to pay off $6,500 on an engagement ring that has been ordered, and I have no way out of that.
“It’ll take everything I have saved up because I was counting on Atlanta and Homestead money to be there. Rent for May is looking sketchy right now, plus student loan payments and ultimately credit card interest because I can’t pay off my statements.
“Even once we get back racing, I really won’t see the money coming back in until three weeks after the first race back, and with that being Cup only, it won’t help me much. Realistically four weeks with Trucks the following week, if we end up racing at all.”
Tim Packman has served in a variety of roles over the past decade following a successful stint as a media member. He was the director of communications at Richard Childress Racing and then had track president stints at Lancaster Speedway in New York and Memphis International Raceway in Tennessee.
He had transitioned back to news during the offseason and is completely on the sidelines right now with no idea what to expect when the threat of the virus ends.
“Myself and a few other ‘unemployed and seeking’ individuals have been put on hold in regards to hiring,” Packman said. “Just when we were close to finding full-time, freelance or contract work, that process has now stopped.
“My personal hope is that when things do get going again, there will be a spot for us to help get going again. A sliver of silver lining, if you will, is not feeling so alone not being involved right now.”
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