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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

Vettel ‘expected a bit more’ than fourth in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel says Ferrari “expected a bit more” than fourth place in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix as Red Bull moved to within a point of the Italian marque in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship.

Vettel claimed his second race win for Ferrari in Hungary last year, but was left to settle for P4 this time around after failing to pass Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo for third in the closing stages.

The result extended Ferrari’s winless run in 2016, and allowed Red Bull to pull up just a point behind in the constructors’ championship.

When asked by NBCSN if Ferrari now how to admit it was in a battle for second, Vettel said: “We never denied it! We have to fight Red Bull.

“Our target is always to fight for P1 but Mercedes is strong. It’s not big news. We try everything. So is Red Bull.

“I think we had a good package today. We expected a bit more. But we’re up against it trying to improve it. We have the best pace right behind it.

“We need to get better Saturdays to have a chance on Sundays.”

Vettel was left fuming over the radio on multiple occasions during the race on Sunday after getting stuck behind lapped cars, calling for blue flags to be respected.

“I calmed down. I don’t think they showed the bit where I said please wave a blue flag,” Vettel said after a couple of his messages were broadcast, albeit censored.

“Obviously you get the impression you lose more than others. Lapped cars are usually doing a good job.

“Mirrors aren’t that big. It’s not like a 75 inch 4K resolution mirror you’re looking into. And we’re quite a bit faster in three to four corners.

“I know that I got pretty loud in the car but I’m not going to criticize anyone.”

Gutierrez calls Hamilton ‘disrespectful’ after in-race gesture

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Esteban Gutierrez has called three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton  “disrespectful” after being shown the middle finger during Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

Towards the end of the race at the Hungaroring, leader Hamilton got stuck behind Gutierrez while trying to lap the Haas driver in the final sector.

Hamilton’s lead over Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg dropped by two seconds, with Hamilton only managing to pass Gutierrez down the start/finish straight.

While passing, Hamilton raised his hand and showed Gutierrez his middle finger, angered by the incident.

Hamilton managed to retain his lead and win the race, while Gutierrez was handed a five-second time penalty for ignoring blue flags that dropped him to 13th in the final classification.

Hamilton batted away a question about the incident after the race, but Gutierrez took to Twitter to express his thoughts.

Ricciardo feels “really satisifed” in happy return to podium

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.
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Daniel Ricciardo’s first podium of the year at the Monaco Grand Prix was soaked in disappointment, with a sure win going away thanks to a botched pit stop and a hard luck second place.

His second podium of the year, at a similar short track that suits both the Red Bull RB12 chassis and the likable Australian, brought the return of the smiling Daniel we all know and love in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

Ricciardo was the only driver to even make a remote crack at the Mercedes teammates at Turn 1, launching strongly from third place on the grid into an attempt at the lead around the outside of the corner.

Problem was, Lewis Hamilton got out ahead in the lead and then Nico Rosberg made it back past Ricciardo for second into Turn 2.

Third was always going to be the best case scenario from there for Ricciardo, and he held off Sebastian Vettel’s late-race charge to the finish en route to third place.

“It’s great to have another podium this year. First one was bittersweet but this one I can definitely enjoy,” Ricciardo said on the podium.

“I’m super happy to be here today. Three years in a row at this circuit. Thanks to the team. We’re continually getting better, and I’m having fun.”

Ricciardo’s third place is his second third place at the circuit after coming third last year, and then winning in 2014.

His result, plus the fifth place achieved by Max Verstappen after his battle with Kimi Raikkonen, has put Red Bull within one point of Ferrari for second place in the Constructor’s Championship (224-223).

Ricciardo expanded on it in a separate post-race interview with NBCSN’s Will Buxton.

“I’m so happy to be back up here. It’s been a while since I’ve left Sunday feeling really satisfied,” he said. “Podium is the icing on the cake but all weekend I got the maximum out of the car. For that, I’m pleased.

“At the time we looked quite competitive. But in the end they were quite quicker. They sucked us into that, but I held Seb behind. Anyway I enjoyed it and it was quite fun to cross the line and knowing I’m back on the podium.

“From my side it was nice to be first out of Red Bull and Ferrari. I felt I did my job. Hopefully this means second in Constructor’s later in the year.”

Raikkonen: ‘Very questionable’ not to penalize Verstappen

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Kimi Raikkonen believes it was “very questionable” of the Formula 1 stewards not to penalize Max Verstappen following their clash during Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

Raikkonen lost part of his front wing while trying to pass Verstappen for fifth place late on, the pair making contact at Turn 2.

Raikkonen fumed over his radio to Ferrari after the incident, claiming that Verstappen moved more than once while trying to defend his position.

Both drivers were able to continue, their scrap lasting to the line where Verstappen finished 0.3 seconds clear.

Speaking to NBCSN after the race, Raikkonen questioned the decision not to penalize the Dutchman.

“I think it was very questionable, but it’s not my decision to decide,” Raikkonen said.

“I’ve seen penalties for much less. It depends on the stewards.

“In the end it didn’t damage our race, but it’s more disappointing to have such a good car and not be in a better position since we started so far back.”

Verstappen had been in the battle for the podium early on, but his race was compromised when he emerged from the pits behind Raikkonen, who was running a reverse strategy after starting down in 14th place.

“It was very frustrating,” Verstappen told NBCSN after fading from the podium fight.

“We were quick but then I got stuck. Ferrari was catching me… then you get stuck behind Kimi, destroy your tires, and do your own races, and the guy behind you catches up on fresher tires.”

Of Raikkonen’s penalty claim, Verstappen simply replied: “It’s his opinion. I tried to defend my position.”