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

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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

Conor Daly, Jack Harvey crash out of Indy 500

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Conor Daly and Jack Harvey have crashed out of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on lap 65.

Daly, in the No. 4 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet, was working his way through traffic and attempted an outside pass on Charlie Kimball entering Turn 3.

However, Daly’s car broke loose on the outside in the middle of the corner. He corrected, but drifted too high and impacted the wall exiting the corner. He immediately took responsibility over the radio and apologized to his team before exiting the car on under his own power.

Jack Harvey, in the No. 50 Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda, was an innocent bystander and spun to avoid debris off Daly’s car. However, he spun to the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. He, too, climbed from his car unhurt, although on replay it appeared his car was not far removed from one of the Holmatro Safety Team rescue vehicles.

Jack Harvey was an innocent bystander in Conor Daly’s accident. Photo: IndyCar

Both drivers were checked, cleared, and released from the infield medical center.

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Dixon OK after airborne crash with Howard; Indy 500 red-flagged

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Polesitter for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Scott Dixon’s race has come to an early end.

Jay Howard hit the wall coming out of Turn 2 and rolled through the middle of the straightaway with a broken car, with his right front suspension askew. Dixon was coming out of the turn and was unable to avoid the wreckage of Howard’s car.

Dixon bounced off and went airborne, turning over once before landing on all four wheels. Somehow during all of that, Helio Castroneves was able to sail under the airborne Dixon and was not involved in the incident.

Both drivers climbed out of their cars and were taken to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield care center.

The race was red flagged on Lap 55 to allow safety teams to clean up a significant amount of debris from both cars, as well as to repair safety fencing on the inside of the track.

Former two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso is scored in first place, followed by last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato.

Dixon, mercifully, was OK.

“Yeah just a little beaten up there. A bit of a rough ride,” Dixon told ABC’s Dr. Jerry Punch. “I’m bummed for the team and for Camping World. We got a little loose on the first stint. We were a bit light on downforce. I’m just bummed for them and glad everyone is OK. Definitely a wild ride. Thank you for Dallara and the safety status.

“It’s tough. I was hoping Jay would stay against the wall. I’d already picked that way to go and there was nowhere else to go. I’m glad he’s OK too. You believe in the safety progress of these cars.”

Howard told Punch, “Yeah, I’m fine. Credit to INDYCAR, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the safety team, Dallara for building this car. I’m fine thanks to them. I’m really glad Scott’s okay. He was a victim of this. It sucks.”

Howard said he wasn’t sure what caused him to hit the wall, whether a part broke in the suspension or something else. But he did blast fellow driver Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“Hunter-Reay gets a run on me, I lift to let him go, try to be a nice guy, he moves right over on me and cuts me into the gray and all the marbles and the rest is history, he causes a massive accident,” Howard told ABC. “To say I’m unhappy is an understatement.”

Both Howard and Dixon have been checked and released from the care center and cleared to drive.

The race was red flagged for 19 minutes from 1:09 p.m. to 1:28 p.m. Engines have now been restarted as the field completed Lap 56.

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Hamilton exceeds Mercedes’ expectations with fightback to P7 in Monaco

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Lewis Hamilton was left pleased with his fightback from 13th on the grid to finish Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix in seventh place, going some way to limit the damage of Formula 1 title rival Sebastian Vettel’s victory for Ferrari.

Hamilton qualified a lowly 14th on Saturday in Monaco after struggling with setup and tire management, but gained one place on the grid following Jenson Button’s penalty.

Hamilton passed just one car in the opening stint of the race and struggled to keep up with the cars ahead, prompting Mercedes to extend the Briton’s ultra-soft run for as long as possible.

Hamilton was able to find some clear air when the cars ahead made their pit stops, giving him the chance to lay down some rapid laps that vaulted him up to seventh thanks to the overcut, where he would finish the race.

“I’m really, really happy that I was able to fight back to seventh. The strategists said P10 was probably the maximum today, so it feels great to have beaten that target,” Hamilton said.

“To score six points, considering where I was on the grid after a disastrous day on Saturday is a good recovery. Today it was impossible to overtake and I tried everything to get past Carlos [Sainz] at the end!

“I’m just grateful to have ended up in P7. I went on the radio at the end there to make sure the team know that this battle isn’t over.

“We’ll be sure to push those red cars hard next time out in Canada. We’ve got a real fight on our hands, but there are still 14 races to go.”

With Vettel’s victory, Hamilton now sits 25 points behind in the F1 drivers’ championship with 14 races remaining this season.

Raikkonen disappointed as strategy calls costs him shot at Monaco win

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Kimi Raikkonen was left disappointed following Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after Ferrari’s strategy call cost him a shot at his first victory for the Scuderia since 2009.

Raikkonen took his first pole for almost nine years on Saturday in Monaco and led the early part of the race from teammate Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari pitted Raikkonen just before half distance, but opted to keep Vettel out as the German put in a series of quick laps to get the overcut on his teammate.

Vettel emerged from his stop ahead of Raikkonen on-track and retained his advantage to the checkered flag, clinching Ferrari’s first win in Monaco since 2001.

While P2 marked Raikkonen’s best result of the season so far, the Finn was careful with his words in the post-race podium interviews, his disappointment clear to see.

“Hard to say really,” Raikkonen said when asked how he was feeling.

“Obviously… you know it’s still second place, but it doesn’t feel awful good. This is how it goes sometimes.

“We go for the next race and try to do better. One of those days that you wish you had a bit more.”