Big crowds, a fat television contract, record revenues, and unparalleled equality in the professional sports world all paint a rosy picture for NASCAR this year and beyond. Without a doubt, NASCAR has positioned itself to be the standard to which all other forms of motorsports-including Formula 1-compare themselves.

But NASCAR's continued rise could just as easily stall if a number of issues just below the veneered surface gain momentum. Sponsorship and safety concerns, a new television contract, and driver and societal matters are all simmering issues NASCAR faces as it races full-throttle toward its goals of remaining a major sports entertainment entity and achieving mass cultural acceptance.

Here's a look at five issues on the NASCAR radar-some starting to gain in NASCAR's rearview mirror, others tucked right up under its rear spoiler. A slip in any of these areas could mean a freight train ride to the back.

Sponsorship
A study of starting fields for most NASCAR races, whether it's a Nextel Cup, Busch, or Craftsman Truck Series race, indicates a lack of sponsorship among the divisions. The number of cars and trucks with no decals or limited funding is increasing, and that is having an eroding effect on the races.

Unlike organizations in other sports, NASCAR race teams are almost totally dependent upon corporate sponsorship to survive financially. While race purses contribute to the kitty, the fact is even the winning team doesn't break even most of the time when it competes at a NASCAR event. If you finish 43rd in the Cup race at Richmond, for instance, your take is $34,398, including the TV money. If you're a team owner and you look at your annual operating budget for a year and the breakout is $200,000 a race, you just took a big hit if you don't have sponsorship.

The underfunded teams either fold or try to press on as best they can. That leads to sub-par efforts at the racetrack with the bottom third of the field not competing at full strength. Even worse, many teams now work the provisional starting position rules to gain entry into the field and then park after the first couple of laps. These "start and parks" or "field fillers" are taking what money they can to try to get by while not abusing what little equipment they have. NASCAR has pledged to review the provisional rules as well as the possibility of adjusting down the number of cars or trucks that start each race for 2005. The second of these possibilities means even more race teams will shut down.

So how did this sponsorship crisis come about? The spiraling cost of competition has, over the past decade, drastically increased the sponsorship dollars required by Cup teams-from $3-$5 million in 1994, to $15-$20 million in 2004. While the sponsorship dollars are up, some teams have experienced more than a 20-fold increase in the cost of operation in that same decade. More events, more travel, and exotic, high-cost aerodynamic wind tunnel and engine development programs all have contributed to this increase.

Ten years ago, when NASCAR wasn't a marketing machine, "gentlemen owners" annually ponied up three million or so to own a Cup team. There were a lot of teams with sponsorship, but it was still affordable enough that someone could run a team without it. As the cost of competition skyrocketed in the last decade, independent owners went under or sold out as the five- and six-car teams used multiple sponsors and economy of scale to survive.

Meanwhile, the news in the Busch Series isn't much better as sponsorships there have swelled to the range of $3-$6 million. In the Truck Series, a 25-race schedule pares the numbers down to $1.5-$4 million.