As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, with its annual running of the Indianapolis 500, investors in motor-sports companies are wondering when their stocks will beat the S&P 500.

Shares of International Speedway (NASDAQ:ISCA), Speedway Motorsports (NYSE:TRK), and Dover Motorsports (NYSE:DVD) continue to trade closer to their 52-week lows than their 52-week highs.

Over the last five years, these companies, which own many of country's most famous racetracks, trail the broad market index. Even in a 12-month race, the S&P 500 gets the checkered flag.

Recession rattles racers
These companies are producing checkered results thanks to the recession, which has cut into attendance. The economy has also sideswiped corporate sponsorships, which play a big role in the sport.

International Speedway earned $0.56 a share for the three months ended Feb. 28, excluding special items, or $0.05 below Wall Street estimates. The company also cut its fiscal year earnings and revenue guidance.

Speedway Motorsports reported January-March earnings from continuing operations of $0.50 cents a share, beating Wall Street estimates by two cents. Revenue fell 14%.

Motor-sports companies have responded to the recession by reducing some ticket prices, allowing fans to pay on an installment plan, and making deals with area hotels for room discounts and other specials.

And International Speedway is exploring the gambling business. It should hear from state regulators later this year about a bid with a joint-venture partner to build a casino entertainment complex next to the company's auto track in Kansas City, Kan.

Tracking interest
The companies are counting on television to get them through the tough times. The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), the sanctioning body for auto races, has a contract with network and cable TV outlets that runs through 2014.

However, viewership and Nielsen ratings were down substantially for the first 10 races this year on the Fox TV network, owned by News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWSA), according to the Sporting News Wire Service.

And many of NASCAR's largest advertisers -- including Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors (NYSE:GM), and Toyota (NYSE:TM) -- aren't portraits of financial health.

Analysts worry about reduced corporate spending. Argus Research recently speculated that a slowdown in corporate sponsorships could prompt Fox, ESPN, and/or the Speed Channel cable network to renegotiate their deals with NASCAR.

No quick turnaround
Racing fans are loyal, but TV and corporate largesse rule the sport. In the first quarter, for example, admissions accounted for 29% of International Speedway's revenue while TV, sponsorships, hospitality rentals and other "motor sports related activities" contributed 62%.

Industry executives say the financial woes will persist this year, and International Speedway warns that a hoped-for recovery in 2010 will be "very gradual."

How the companies manage the recession and exploit a recovery will determine if this eroding economy represents a lengthy pit stop for shareholders -- or simply the pits.

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Robert Steyer doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.