Skip to content

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

Jul 17, 2014, 4:28 PM EDT

nascarlogo

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

Latest Posts
  1. Azerbaijan to host Grand Prix of Europe from 2016

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT

    Baku

    Baku set to host a street race from 2016.

  2. David Ragan leads 1st Nationwide practice at Indy

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:18 AM EDT

    Subway Firecracker 250 - Practice Getty Images

    The Sprint Cup regular topped out with a lap of 181.043 mph on his 12th and final lap of the session.

  3. Hamilton unconcerned by rumors linking Vettel to Mercedes

    Jul 25, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    Lewis Hamilton AP

    Mercedes driver confirms that talks about a new deal have not yet begun, but suggests that it is merely a formality.

  4. Hamilton tops second practice in Hungary ahead of Rosberg

    Jul 25, 2014, 9:31 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    The Briton continues to dominate at the Hungaroring with his teammate in tow.

  5. F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

    Jul 25, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    HungaryPresser AP

    News and interviews from around the F1 paddock ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix – it’s the latest edition of the NBC Sports Original Digital Series “Paddock Pass.”

  6. WATCH LIVE: FP2 for the Hungarian Grand Prix

    Jul 25, 2014, 7:45 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    Can Hamilton double up in FP2 at the Hungaroring?

  7. Mexican drivers delighted with return of home grand prix

    Jul 25, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez delighted by the news, calling it a “dream come true”.

  8. Rossi hoping to run in most practices including Austin (VIDEO)

    Jul 25, 2014, 6:30 AM EDT

    © Marussia F1 Team © Marussia F1 Team

    First run-out for Marussia will come at Spa; set for Austin in November.

  9. Hungarian GP highlights 30+ hours of motorsports coverage across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend

    Jul 25, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Previews Getty Images

    The final race before the summer break in F1 highlights a jam-packed weekend of motorsport across the NBC Sports Group network.

  10. Hamilton quickest in first practice for Hungarian GP

    Jul 25, 2014, 5:31 AM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Previews Getty Images

    Another one-two for Mercedes during first practice, with Hamilton leading Rosberg.

  11. WATCH LIVE: FP1 for the Hungarian Grand Prix

    Jul 25, 2014, 3:45 AM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Previews Getty Images

    The first chance for teams to get in some running at the Hungaroring comes this morning at 4am ET.

  12. NASCAR AMERICA: NASCAR returns to Indianapolis

    Jul 24, 2014, 6:09 PM EDT

    (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images) Getty Images

    On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR AMERICA, Jeff Burton joined the crew to discuss what makes racing in the Brickyard 400 unique. Burton says NASCAR is a guest at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway due to the history IndyCar has made at the track.

  13. NASCAR AMERICA: Sam Hornish Jr. explains what it takes to win at the Brickyard

    Jul 24, 2014, 6:04 PM EDT

    (Photo: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images) Getty Images

    On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR AMERICA and in preparation for this week’s Brickyard 400, Leigh Diffey talked with 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. on what it was like to win the third closest finish in race history. Hornish also discussed some of the keys that drivers will need to succeed at the Brickyard 400.

  14. Tony Stewart: ‘Definitely feasible’ to have Sprint Cup, Nationwide race at Eldora

    Jul 24, 2014, 5:52 PM EDT

    (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

    After two years of huge success with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series racing at his Eldora Speedway, Tony Stewart would love to eventually see the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series come to his little half-mile track, as well.

  15. WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA at 5 pm ET — Eldora highlights, Brickyard surprises and history

    Jul 24, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT

    140724-nascar-america

    On Thursday’s NASCAR AMERICA, Leigh Diffey is the in-studio host and is joined by Sam Hornish Jr. (2006 Indy 500 winner and current Nationwide Series driver and winner of the 2014 Iowa Nationwide race).

  16. Paul Menard offers ride-alongs for Make-A-Wish/Indy Racing Experience this week

    Jul 24, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    (Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Indy Racing Experience has partnered with Make-A-Wish® Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana to enhance two wishes during the Kroger Brickyard Super Weekend that takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway July 24-27, 2014.

  17. IndyCar: RHR earns second quarter Driver of the Year award

    Jul 24, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

    Ryan Hunter-Reay AP

    Ryan Hunter-Reay earns another award after his Indianapolis 500 win.

  18. Button pleased with McLaren progress; no word on 2015

    Jul 24, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Previews Getty Images

    McLaren driver no closer to deciding his future, but is happy with how things are going in recent weeks.

  19. PWC: Cindric, Bove to race for charity at Mid-Ohio

    Jul 24, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    SOWF

    Pirelli World Challenge President/CEO Scott Bove and 15-year-old rising star Austin Cindric to race a GTS Ford Mustang Boss for charity at Mid-Ohio weekend.

  20. Sutil feeling confident about Hungary and his F1 future

    Jul 24, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Hungary - Previews Getty Images

    Sauber driver pleased with his pace in Germany, and cares little for the question marks about his future.

Today on NASCAR AMERICA

More from NASCAR America

What makes Brickyard 400 unique?

Featured video

Inside the Hungarian GP
Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches