Paulk: Area racer gears up for NASCAR truck season
Norm Benning finds himself in the unenviable position of scrambling for sponsors as he prepares for next's month Camping World Truck Series opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Benning's situation isn't unique for drivers in NASCAR and the Indy Racing League. A still-struggling economy has unnerved corporate America and companies that once leaped at the opportunity to identify their products with the country's largest spectator sport.
Benning, a Level Green native, remains confident he'll secure the financial support required to enter his No. 57 Chevrolet in all 22 truck events this season, including the Pennsylvania Mountains 125 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 3.
The cost of competing in any of NASCAR's three series continues to rise. The cost of everything from engines to a newly developed windshield is digging deeper into teams' pockets, but it is having a greater effect on smaller operations such as Benning's.
“The economy is hurting everybody,” said Benning, who with last year's 21st-place finish in the truck standings earned a spot in the field for the NextEra Energy Resources 250 in Daytona on Feb. 22. “I'm not looking for the kind of money those (Sprint Cup) guys are to run my operation, but you can't do it without some kind of consistent budget.”
Benning's race truck, scheduled to be on display at the World of Wheels event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown next weekend, requires about $3 million to $4 million in sponsorship funding to legitimately compete for the Camping World Truck points title.
Clearly, auto racing is among the most expensive sports, considering it'll cost well-funded Sprint Cup teams more than $400,000 each week to race. But as then-rookie Trevor Bayne proved two years ago in winning the Daytona 500, even cash-strapped teams can find their way to Victory Lane.
Yet the odds remain stacked against them.
Turner Motorsports, which consists of defending champion James Buescher, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Miguel Paludo, isn't worried about the $10,000 tire bill it pays for each driver during race weekends. Or securing the $75,000 needed to compete and position its teams to chase after the checkered flag every weekend.
“The more money I have, the faster I go,” said Benning, who had a two-year deal with SoBe before the company was sold to PepsiCo. “We leased top-notched engines, so every little bit helps.”
Even though Benning has a 60,000-square-foot shop in Level Green, his $60,000 engines are built in Mooresville, N.C. In an effort to reduce costs, he sold two of his eight used engines. While some Cup teams will have a primary car and two backups at Daytona, Benning will have only a spare engine.
Still, Benning has great expectations of vying for the checkered flag.
“I'll be disappointed if I don't do a top 10, if not a top five, at Daytona,” said Benning, a commercial jet pilot. He doesn't have to qualify. “Regardless if I don't get a dime, I'm going down to win that race. I'll spend the money myself. It'll be a huge loser for me financially, but I don't care.
“It would be great to have some names on the truck, but we can win. You get a lot more TV time with names on the trucks. NASCAR tries not to put the cameras on trucks without sponsors because it makes them look bad.”
Benning didn't have all the resources he needed to compete at Talladega Superspeedway last year, but he put together one of his best races of the year. He had the fastest truck on the 2.66-mile track for 15 laps and managed to elude all four wrecks.
“We ran good at Talladega, and it was a chance to give our sponsors maximum exposure,” said Benning, who didn't have a DNF last year. “Finishing every race was bragging rights for us.”
No part-timer for RCR
In another example of how the economy has been slow to rebound, Richard Childress Racing will not field a part-time entry for Camping Worlds Truck driver Tim George Jr. George was unable to reach a sponsorship agreement despite driving for one of NASCAR's most successful owners.
Three cars for Ganassi
Target Chip Ganassi Racing will field only three cars this season, including defending Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti. Graham Rahal said on TribLive Radio that he was never comfortable at CGR, but a lack of sponsorship interest also influenced his decision to sign with his father, Bobby Rahal, part owner of Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing.
Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner, will team with his son for the second time. Graham finished 12th at the Brickyard while piloting a car for Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan in 2010.
The IndyCar Series is spicing things up this season by adding three weekend doubleheaders and standing starts (similar to Formula One).
Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay had success on the street courses but faces a different challenge now that the open-wheel series returns to Pocono for the first time since 1989.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk on TribLive Radio every Friday from 9 to 10 a.m.