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Not a good sign: Lawyers getting involved between NASCAR, new Race Team Alliance

Jul 17, 2014, 4:28 PM EDT

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When the new Race Team Alliance introduced itself to the world July 7, everything seemed like sunny skies and good feelings going forward in the world of NASCAR. Everyone spoke positively, optimistically and seemed to be full of confidence that all — owners, drivers, teams and NASCAR — would benefit.

Even NASCAR president Mike Helton said during an impromptu press conference last Friday at New Hampshire that there was no animosity between the sanctioning body and the new upstart ownership group.

“I wanted to dispel the perception of animosity to start with and then back that up with saying we’re going to do business as usual,” Helton said. “I think everybody in the garage area knows how we do our business and the role they play in it, and so we’ll continue to do it that way.”

But less than a week after Helton’s comments, the first salvo of what potentially could become an eventual antagonistic relationship has been fired, and it boils down to what oftentimes is one of the nastiest words in professional sports:

Lawyers.

The amicable original intention of the RTA has now been responded to by International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s sister company, as well as NASCAR itself. Both sibling companies have made it very clear to the RTA that if there is to be any communication between both sides, it will be through attorneys, not man-to-man between RTA boss and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France or second-in-command Helton.

As the old saying goes, can you see where this could potentially go to hell in a handbasket very quickly when lawyers are involved?

Kauffman, at least publicly, doesn’t seem overly concerned, according to an interview with Bob Pockrass of SportingNews.com late Wednesday.

“It’s not an animosity thing, it’s just a formality thing,” Kauffman told Pockrass. “NASCAR is a big company and they’re very sensitive legally. They’ve had experience (with antitrust) and they want to be very formal and correct in the initial stages. … It’s understandable. Hopefully as time goes on and both sides get used to each other a little bit, those barriers (will) tend to go down. I think it will be fine.”

The RTA’s original intention of pooling resources, cutting expenses, etc., is quite noble indeed. Even with countless cost-cutting measures, including large-scale layoffs in recent years, plus teams folding throughout all three primary NASCAR series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – the cost of operating teams remains extremely expensive.

Only 10 years ago, the average team operational budget in Sprint Cup was in the $10 to $15 million per year range – just to competitive.

Today, that number is more in the $20 to $25 million per year range — again, just to be competitive. And when you have multiple teams within an organization, that cost can quickly reach upwards of $100 million for a four-car group like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing and up to $75 million for a three-car operation like Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing.

For all the good things NASCAR has done to reduce costs, including the one-engine rule, the interchangeable Car of Tomorrow and its Generation 6 successor, it still costs a lot for team owners to remain in the game.

That’s why it’s not surprising some teams have folded or suspended operations, including at least two Sprint Cup teams this season already.

That’s also why so many sponsors have come and gone over the last six or seven years, and have forced teams to go from having one primary sponsor all season long to a number of different primary sponsors for only a certain numbered block of races per season.

The reason: overall, sponsoring a finite number of races (anywhere from, say, six to 16) is much cheaper and an easier pill to swallow for sponsors, particularly when questioned about return on investment by their shareholders.

And with significant changes likely to come to the sport next season, including a revamped schedule, the possibility of several venue changes within the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as more rules and equipment changes, the nine initial owner members of the RTA are understandably looking out for themselves both individually and collectively.

But with lawyers now involved, the hoped-for amicable relationship gives the appearance that things are already starting to tug at the seams.

Few have discussed the power the RTA could potentially amass in its one-for-all, all-for-one mantra. It’s not unthinkable that if NASCAR continues to struggle at the box office and in TV ratings, that RTA may try to exert and wield some pretty powerful clout:

  • Like forcing NASCAR to deviate from its “our way or the highway” mindset that has been in place for 65 years.
  • Like forcing NASCAR to give team owners significantly more power, perhaps a prelude to the long-talked about possibility of adding franchising to give owners more of a say in the way the sport operates.
  • And the biggest potential possibility of the RTA: If the owners stay united and take a hard line stance and force the issue, they could eventually demand the power to oust or retain key NASCAR officials, including France and Helton.

That last possibility could also potentially be why both sides are now starting to lawyer up. While the intention is supposed to be amicable and formal, the end result could be something entirely different.

After all, team owners in NASCAR have the least power overall of any other major professional sport. Unlike in other sports, NASCAR team owners don’t have the ability to hire or fire the sanctioning body’s top executives, don’t have voting privileges when it comes to sanctioning body decisions, have no say in what rules can be changed (although owners do have input, NASCAR doesn’t have to listen to them), and have only the limited power that the sanctioning body gives them.

Up to this point, the France family-run and privately-owned business model has worked well. Well, let’s clarify that: it’s worked well up until about 2008, when the economy went south and NASCAR’s fortunes, popularity and TV ratings began to go with it.

But I’m not saying France, Helton and others have been the cause of NASCAR’s downfall in recent years. On the contrary.

France and Helton and those under them have done a good job when faced with some very trying circumstances and situations – certainly circumstances and situations that most other sports leagues have not had to deal with as much.

NASCAR’s top officials have worked diligently to improve safety, control costs as best they can, brought parity to the performance of race cars and trucks while also making the overall racing better, and have worked hard to attract new sponsors and businesses to the sport.

They’ve worked at trying to convince hotel chains and chambers of commerce in various locales that NASCAR visits to not gouge fans for room costs on race weekends, lest that not only hurts the fans, it also hurts the overall sport and the businesses themselves.

They’ve worked to keep the sport viable and relevant. They’ve worked at alternative ways to get the sport’s message across when countless media outlets have all but forgotten coverage of NASCAR events and news. Whereas particularly newspapers used to devote hundreds of column inches to yearly NASCAR coverage in the past, now most of those same papers will run maybe a paragraph or two at best (some even less, giving nothing more than a one-sentence “report” of who won that week’s race).

Sadly, while NASCAR certainly loses in that instance, it’s the fans that lose the most because they’re deprived of the kind of expansive media coverage that helped make them fans in the first place.

While I was optimistic and hopeful that the RTA and NASCAR relationship would be good for the sport, the fact that we will now have third party attorneys doing the “communicating” between both sides is both foreboding and ominous.

We can hope for the best, but right now the best is starting to look quite concerning.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. manik56 - Jul 17, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    The motorsports model is backwards. In an entities like the NBA and the NFL, the team owners mostly have agreed to do business for the benefit of each other and share in the profits and losses. The owners own the league. If the owners band together and form their own league, or NASCAR sells interest in the sport to them, then they would be more along the lines of what is better for the teams.

    The CART/IRL split did not work because the teams did not own IMS and IMS is IndyCar. NASCAR has no such track. Daytona may be the biggest, but it does not dwarf all the other tracks. Bruton Smith could be a big player as he owns half the tracks they currently race on. If you take his tracks and some other ovals that the France family does not own (IMS, Pocono, Dover, Nashville) you could get a schedule that is good enough and cuts the France family out. If Smith doesn’t play ball, the schedule is much tougher to formulate. I think it would work. Hendrick and Gibbs etc. are bigger than the France Family at this point in stock car history.

    Regardless of what happens, this is fascinating.

    • buckie16 - Jul 17, 2014 at 9:46 PM

      Close, but no cigar, lol. Facts check: International Speedway Corporation (ISC) (the France family) owns 13 active tracks that hold 19 of the 36 Cup events. Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) (the Smith family) owns 8 active tracks & hosts 12 of the 36 Cup events. Furthermore the concept of a RTA & Nascar split seems exceedingly premature. And, on what grounds do you stipulate HMS &/or JGR is bigger than Nascar?

  2. pitpenguinsrulez - Jul 17, 2014 at 5:34 PM

    Brian France has done more harm than good for Nascar in his tenure. I still enjoy Nascar a lot but it’s not to what it was up to 2009. Now if Big Bill France was still alive then I’m petty sure the RTA wouldn’t exist. I don’t have a problem with it. The lawyers are were things get nasty.

  3. smokinaces69 - Jul 17, 2014 at 7:31 PM

    NASCAR in the end has the leverage. They have the TV rights and at this point that’s where the big money is at. Any sports bottom line is dollars. Sure the big teams could start there own racing league, but with out TV they’re nothing. NASCAR is going no where so it’s best for all parties to come to a mutual agreement. Without team owners there is no NACSAR, without track owners there is no NASCAR. They all have to work together in the end. Media can turn it upside down and around all they want but in 20 years it will still be NASCAR…

    • manik56 - Jul 17, 2014 at 8:11 PM

      The teams would negotiate their own TV deal and they would get more of the money for themselves. People don’t watch NASCAR for Brian France, they watch it for Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Dale Jr.

      • helpful55 - Jul 17, 2014 at 9:15 PM

        Right manik. Of course it would be a mess for all and maybe not work out, but exactly, the fans will mostly go where the best racing action is and the best drivers. nascar itself may be done in that scenario because truth is, we the fans are nascar. Every dollar however it gets there is from the fans. But also like smokin says the best thing is for everyone to come together and fix this mess that france has made and bring sanity back to his understanding how this boat floats.

      • schaefer692002 - Jul 17, 2014 at 11:07 PM

        True Story! I just think France Jr.has become an ass! Sorry IMO that is how it is! Greed,money and power, going to peoples heads, is how WARS get started!! I think the owners and drivers are getting sick of rules being made up as you go along, 1 week a rule is changed,the next its changed back! And that costs ALOT of money! Helton is starting to believe he is GOD! When a team gets a fine, or penalty,.and has to appeal the penalty to the person who handed it down in the first place,guess what happens?This was bound to happen! I personally wouldn`t mind having North Wilkesboro back on the schedule! There are ALOT of tracks out there, (with just about the right amount of seats ) That would love to FILL the grandstands again! Look at the NFL,If the owners didn`t have the say they did,Rodger GODell Would be the all mighty ( Even more than he is already ) Wich France & Helton are becoming in NASCAR! Times they are a changin`!

  4. buckie16 - Jul 17, 2014 at 10:50 PM

    Move along, move along… nothing to be concerned about here kids!

    Pooling resources & cutting expenses is the RTA’s primary function, in regard to teams primary internal tasks & duties. Beyond that, the RTA never gave meaningful indication it would attempt to wield influence in Nascar’s (or ISC’s) decision making process. They indicated the possibility of developing an inclination to angle that way, PERHAPS, but also clearly indicated what their primary processes would be. And clearly indicated that they had more than enough work to do within the confines of those primary functions.

    The thought that RTA, Nascar, ISC & MSI would all snuggle up in a big warm & fussy huddle is a concept interjected by sensationalizing media-types. Here we speak of “few have discussed the power the RTA could potentially amass” because THEY HAVE NONE, nor will they ever! …as one, or as a group. In case you have not been paying attention, THAT IS NOT HOW NASCAR WORKS. And we are speaking of completely foreign things, like somehow interlacing race teams with some unknown never tested form of franchising & race teams controlling Nascar’s executive branch. Wth!? These are simple ABSERD & DERELICT concepts, which are precisely the kinds of alien introductions that both parties are properly & abruptly seeking to protect themselves from (via legal teams). I admit it, Jerry did it!

    Just chill out people! Please allow the RTA time to define itself before condemning all of motorsports to hell-in-a-hand-basket! Please? I mean really, we have NO IDEA what we are talking about here!

  5. camino409robert1026 - Jul 18, 2014 at 3:19 AM

    Now they are going to make the lawyers rich & the owners,drivers, fans, & NASCAR will be paying these lawyers to do nothing. Put the lawyers on an old ship & tow it out to sea & use it for target practice! NASCAR is not perfect by a long shot but lawyers will finish it off!!!

  6. dcollins22585 - Jul 18, 2014 at 7:48 AM

    Auto racing has to be a dictatorship to work. Indy car racing has always been to car owner centered to be successful.

  7. tampabayirish - Jul 18, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    The drivers are the stars. People pay to watch them drive. I can easily see a scenario where a group of owners and drivers breaks off from Nascar to start their own racing league. Their track selection would initially be limited. However, there are so many television platforms that need sports content that I think they would be able to find someone to televise their races. The key is the drivers. If they jump ship, the new racing league may survive and eventually thrive. Whoever gets Dale Jr will win. NASCAR has been dictatorial since it’s inception. Perhaps it is about time that they learned to share power …or get passed by history.

  8. krag76 - Jul 18, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    As Rome burns……………

  9. gbpckr34 - Jul 18, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    Can we stop it with the split talk? I can’t believe how many people are in favor of an owner split from NASCAR. A split is what killed CART/IRL and don’t think it won’t do the same to NASCAR. The reunited IICS still no where close to what open-wheel racing once was.This RTA needs to work WITH NASCAR, not against it.
    If they were to break away, TV rights and an already low viewership would be divided, sponsors would flee faster than they already are, and that would be the end of major stock car racing in America. Changes are needed, yes, but hopefully that’s what RTA is trying to do. Let’s all just calm the heck down and see how it plays out for a few years before we start screaming for a damn split.

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