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CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY | LONGSHOT

Budget Crunch : Driver-Owners Such as Dave Marcis Lag Behind Rivals Who Have Big-Money Sponsorship Deals

June 18, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He pulls up to the trailer in the rented compact car at Brooklyn, Mich., and unloads the groceries: two loaves of bread, some cold cuts, a bunch of bananas, five bags of ice. It's lunch for a crew of four, plus the assorted hangers-on who have come in from Wisconsin and Florida for the weekend to schlep tires and fill gas cans, their pay the assumed panache of being part of Dave Marcis' Winston Cup crew.

Fifteen trailers away, Ron Miller sits in an office and plans the work of the seven caterers and their helpers who will serve Sunday brunch to 2,500 or so employees of the sponsors of Jeff Gordon's race car and its 30-plus crew.

Marcis only hopes he'll still be at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. It will mean he qualified for the Miller 400 and has a chance to make some money.

It always comes down to money.

"I love racing," he says. "I've been in it all my life, but it's really getting tough to make ends meet. I don't know what to do. I get mixed emotions all the time with the team, whether to go on or not. It's tough."

And getting tougher. The week before, his hardy band was at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., where Friday was spent with a slow qualifying time and practice. Saturday morning, his nearly new Chevrolet qualifying engine blew, and another was installed. All the data from Friday's practice was out the window, and Saturday's qualifying time was even slower.

Too slow to make the field, as it turned out, so the Marcis Racing Team packed up and went back to Asheville, N.C., no money in and thousands of dollars out for the third weekend this season.

"He races everybody as hard as he can every lap," says Richard Childress, one of NASCAR's "haves" as owner of the Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner cars, and also a Marcis benefactor. "If he was 20 years younger, he would be a million-dollar driver."

But Marcis is 56, and he has earned $264,214 this season, more than half of that at Daytona and Texas. Childress has helped him get a hunting apparel company as a sponsor, but it's not Gordon or Earnhardt or Rusty Wallace money. Marcis is grateful . . . and frustrated.

"We get by on whatever we can get," he says. "I guess, realistically, a couple of million or $2.5 million is what I feel like we can do a super-good job on.

"I get support from Chevrolet, I get support from Goodyear and I scrape by on whatever I can get. I think the big teams are operating on, I hear, $3 million to $5 million and up. You see, the thing is I just . . . well, we have sponsorship and we don't have what we need, but I don't want to bad-mouth anybody."

His $3 million-$5 million estimate is low. Geoff Bodine, like Marcis a driver-owner, spends $5.5 million. Childress spends $6 million on each of his cars, and others spend more.

One source says Marcis is making do with about $1.5 million with his third sponsorship in three years. Companies don't like investing money in cars that finish 32nd and sometimes don't even make the race.

He supplements his sponsorship and purse money by testing cars for Childress, because Earnhardt doesn't like to test. In return, Childress gives Marcis engines for the four restrictor-plate races, two at Daytona and two at Talladega.

He also tests tires for Goodyear and tests cars for the International Race of Champions, which brought him to the new California Speedway on Monday.

Besides the four full-time employees he had at Michigan Speedway, he has four others back at the shop, near Asheville, working on cars and trying to get ahead. That gives him eight, against the big guys' 30-60.

Marcis figures he needs four or five more people, but he also needs the $200,000 or so to pay them and provide benefits. Marcis gets youngsters, teaches them the business and then loses them to teams that can pay more.

"I can't match their salaries," he says. "I sometimes feel like all the extras I do . . . to help fund my operation, that it's not appreciated. I do work to try to keep money in the operation to keep paying them. There's not much loyalty."

Every decision is based on dollars, and mistakes are costly.

He qualified fifth at Dover, Del., and the team's spirits soared at the prospect of a big payday. He bought seven sets of tires at $1,500 a set to run the 500-mile race, and he finished 25th, earning $19,540, because he should have bought eight.

"That's the difference between the little guy and the big guy," he says. "The big guy buys everything he needs. The little guy always says, 'If I had done this or if I had done that.' It's a lot of ifs.

"You second-guess yourself. The big guy doesn't do that. If he thinks he needs 12 sets of tires, he buys 12 sets of tires. I might try and buy seven and get by with them and then think I should have bought eight.

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