Skip to content

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

Jul 17, 2014, 4:28 PM EST

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. Horner praises “exciting and dynamic” Red Bull line-up

    Feb 1, 2015, 9:00 AM EST

    Red Bull - Meet The 2015 Drivers Getty Images

    As the post-Vettel era begins at Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat prepare to step up to the plate.

  2. Mercedes leaving no stone unturned in bid for a second world title

    Feb 1, 2015, 8:00 AM EST

    Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg AP

    Technical chief Paddy Lowe working on improved reliability in 2015 after some issues last season.

  3. Mercedes and Williams unveil 2015 cars as F1 testing begins

    Feb 1, 2015, 5:00 AM EST

    F1 Testing In Jerez - Day One Getty Images

    F1 pre-season gets underway in Jerez with the first public test.

  4. Red Bull RB11 launched in camouflage testing livery

    Feb 1, 2015, 4:35 AM EST

    F1 Testing In Jerez - Day One Getty Images

    Something out of the ordinary from Red Bull as pre-season testing begins in Jerez, Spain.

  5. Jimmie Johnson likes new Chase format, but misses the one that brought him six championships

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:09 PM EST

    jimmie johnson 2015 media tour AP AP

    Given the way the 2014 season turned out for him, Jimmie Johnson would have preferred to see the old Chase for the Sprint Cup format rather than the new elimination format.

  6. NHRA: Alan Johnson Racing moves forward without Al-Anabi

    Jan 31, 2015, 5:13 PM EST

    Alan Johnson (Photo courtesy AlanJohnsonRacing.com) Alan Johnson (Photo courtesy AlanJohnsonRacing.com)

    With Al-Anabi Racing now defunct, team owner Alan Johnson has picked up the remnants and intends on racing one Top Fuel dragster, with 2013 champ Shawn Langdon behind the wheel, in at least the first two races of the 2015 season.

  7. Jeff Gordon: Chase Elliott is ‘right guy’ to keep driving No. 24

    Jan 31, 2015, 4:01 PM EST

    jeff gordon no. 24 Getty Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon wanted to see his successor continue on the legacy of the No. 24 car. Chase Elliott is happy to continue that tradition.

  8. Gutierrez enjoying life with Ferrari in third driver role

    Jan 31, 2015, 4:00 PM EST

    Ferrari Car Launch Getty Images

    Mexican driver is excited for the return of his home grand prix in November, even if he won’t be racing.

  9. Indy Lights notes: Juncos leads oval test, Chilton digs ovals, Piedrahita confirmed

    Jan 31, 2015, 3:30 PM EST

    Photo: Indy Lights Photo: Indy Lights

    News and notes after Indy Lights wraps up its week of testing in Homestead.

  10. Richard Childress Racing settles lawsuit with Matt McCall, Jamie McMurray’s new crew chief

    Jan 31, 2015, 3:21 PM EST

    Matt McCall (Image courtesy racing.quickenloans.com) Matt McCall (Image courtesy racing.quickenloans.com)

    Richard Childress Racing and Matt McCall have reached settlement on a lawsuit that sought to keep McCall from becoming Jamie McMurray’s crew chief for the 2015 season.

  11. Perez “extremely motivated” for new F1 season

    Jan 31, 2015, 3:00 PM EST

    Mexican Driver Sergio Perez Visits Hermanos Rodriguez Circuit Getty Images

    Mexican driver feels that Force India’s hunger can take the team up the grid this year.

  12. NASCAR: Kenseth’s DeWalt sponsorship schedule revealed

    Jan 31, 2015, 2:30 PM EST

    Sprint All-Star Race Qualifying Getty Images

    Kenseth and DeWalt are back together, and the six-race sponsorship dates are revealed.

  13. Report: No get-out clause in Fernando Alonso’s McLaren contract

    Jan 31, 2015, 2:00 PM EST

    McLaren-Honda Announces New Driver Line-Up For 2015 Getty Images

    Ron Dennis makes clear that Alonso is locked into his new contract with the British team.

  14. In interview, Franchitti reflects on life without driving, a full year later

    Jan 31, 2015, 1:30 PM EST

    Dario Franchitti (right) has embarked on a new career path as a consultant for Target Chip Ganassi, with particular emphasis helping his hand-picked replacement and defending Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan. (Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Herald Scotland checks in with Dario Franchitti on his new life outside the cockpit.

  15. Rosberg and Hamilton ready for the rematch in 2015 (VIDEO)

    Jan 31, 2015, 1:00 PM EST

    Germany F1 Stars and Cars AP

    Prepare for round two with Hamilton and Rosberg as they set their goals for the season ahead.

  16. Preparation key for all-rookie Toro Rosso line-up in 2015

    Jan 31, 2015, 12:30 PM EST

    © Toro Rosso © Toro Rosso

    With a combined age of 37, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. forge the youngest line-up in F1 history in 2015.

  17. NASCAR AMERICA: Drivers predict Super Bowl XLIX winner (VIDEO)

    Jan 31, 2015, 12:00 PM EST

    superbowl_nbc

    Patriots or Seahawks? NASCAR’s top drivers make their picks for Sunday’s Big Game.

  18. Watch how Ferrari’s new F1 challenger gets stickered up (VIDEO)

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:30 AM EST

    Ferrari Car Launch Getty Images

    Watch a time lapse video of how the Ferrari SF15-T gets stickered up in advance of the 2015 season.

  19. Toro Rosso reveals STR10 ahead of Jerez test

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:21 AM EST

    © Toro Rosso © Toro Rosso

    Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. lift the covers from the team’s 2015 car, marking its tenth year in F1.

  20. NASCAR: Xfinity driver Daniel Suarez, ex-NFL WR Willie Gault win Gridiron Challenge (VIDEO)

    Jan 31, 2015, 10:30 AM EST

    NASCARGridiron

    Highlights from the special event featuring NASCAR drivers and former NFL stars.

Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches
  1. C. Elliott (1762)
  2. J. Gordon (1277)
  3. R. Blaney (1241)
  4. C. Custer (1223)
  5. C. Eggleston (1214)
  1. B. McReynolds (1190)
  2. R. Chastain (1171)
  3. N. Drake (1150)
  4. A. Almirola (1067)
  5. K. Larson (1025)