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NASCAR paying price

Rising fuel costs spark bottom-line concerns

Yesterday, the convoy of Freightliners, Kenworths, Volvos, and Peterbilts that spend the season ferrying Nextel Cup cars around the country pulled out of their North Carolina shops, fully gassed and aimed up the East Coast toward New Hampshire International Speedway.

Each of the transporters, which should arrive in Loudon sometime today, hauled the heft of two 3,400-pound racers, a pit box, and necessary tools and equipment. But they also wielded the burden that has weighed down the wallet and purse of every car-owning American since the touchdown of Hurricane Katrina: sky-high gas prices.

''It's affecting us and the teams like everybody else in America," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications. ''It's hurting us in the pocketbook. Everybody works off a budget. I've seen comments from team managers who said they're way over budget. When they were making their budgets last November for this season, who would have thought that gas would be $3 a gallon? It's pretty significant considering how much gas we use in our normal course of business."

Eddie Jones, general manager of BAM Racing, said yesterday that prices in the greater Charlotte area, where all the teams are based, averaged $2.90 a gallon for diesel fuel. Two weeks ago for the Sony HD 500, the Freightliner that transports Ken Schrader's No. 49 Dodge had to make a round trip, like every other hauler, to and from California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., the second-longest expedition on the Cup circuit. Jones reported that his team's transporter guzzled 1,067 gallons of diesel during the coast-to-coast-to-coast swing, averaging 4.5 miles per gallon. Jeff Miles, the hauler's driver, reported seeing prices in California as high as $3.40 per gallon. Prices dipped as low as $2.80 once the transporter left California, then rose again in Texas.

Getting to this week's Sylvania 300 isn't much cheaper for Miles, who steered the No. 49 hauler out of Charlotte at 3 p.m. yesterday. A round trip from Charlotte to Loudon is approximately 2,000 miles, the longest distance teams must travel for a Cup race other than the West Coast events at California Speedway, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix International Raceway.

''You try to have buffers in your budget -- cushions for unexpected events," Jones said. ''We knew fuel prices would probably go up, so you just go ahead and plan for it. It's a little more than what we thought it would be. It's one of those things that shows up on the long runs."

Fortunately for NASCAR and the teams, the gas they pump into their Chargers, Monte Carlos, and Tauruses on race weekends is free. At NHIS, like all other tracks, the infield fuel station resembles a typical corner gas station, complete with pumps and Sunoco signage, albeit without a register to buy snacks or scratch cards. Crew members cart red 12-gallon gas cans to the pumps and fill them with as much 112 octane Sunoco racing fuel as they need -- without swiping a credit card or giving cash to an attendant.

In 2004, Sunoco signed a 10-year marketing agreement to become the official fuel of NASCAR. Sunoco supplies the leaded gas, which is produced in its Marcus Hook, Pa., facility, free of charge for all Cup, Busch Series, and Craftsman Truck Series events. NHIS, according to public relations director Fred Neergaard, has underground tanks and receives a shipment of racing fuel before each NASCAR event. According to Hunter, Sunoco provides approximately 100,000 gallons of racing fuel for Cup races each season.

Sunoco spokesman Gerald Davis said that production of racing fuel would not be affected by Hurricane Katrina. Davis declined to answer whether production costs would rise or whether Sunoco would ever charge NASCAR for fuel. Hunter said that NASCAR's use of the racing fuel would have no impact on the availability or price of passenger fuel.

''The gas used in racing wouldn't be useable for normal everyday use," Hunter said. ''Also, it's insignificant when compared to the amount of consumption on highways by passenger cars."

Although races were shortened in the mid-1970s during the energy crisis, Hunter said that NASCAR had no plans to do so this season or in the near future. The sharpest worry, however, is how current or increasing gas prices could affect NASCAR next year, especially single-team organizations with tighter budgets than those of the multicar garages.

The Dodge teams have petitioned NASCAR for a new nose on their Chargers. NASCAR is expected to approve the appeal for the 2006 season, which would require teams to visit the wind tunnel to test the aerodynamics of the new nose. Dodge's wind tunnel is in Detroit, meaning BAM Racing, which competes in Chargers, would have to transport its machines to Michigan during the offseason in addition to tests at Daytona International Speedway.

An additional concern is how much gas prices hurt sponsors. Schwan's, BAM Racing's primary sponsor, delivers frozen foods to customers via trucks and haulers, and Jones said the Minnesota company has been feeling the effect of high gas prices. Jones did not say whether Schwan's might reduce its sponsorship money to BAM Racing, but he's among thousands of racing insiders who are hoping their budgets aren't negatively affected next year by the costs of fuel.

''It's not near the top of the list of things that bother you," Jones said. ''But overall, for the money we have to spend to stay competitive, I wouldn't say it's insignificant. Because it is significant."

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