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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

McCormack confirms Davey Hamilton Jr. for Indy Lights

Photo: McCormack Racing
Photo: McCormack Racing
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New team, new driver in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series. It’s not full-time – yet – but this is good.

The full release from McCormack Racing is below:

18 year-old King of the Wing Sprint Car Series champion Davey Hamilton, Jr. has come to terms to compete for Jack McCormack & McCormack Racing in the 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires.  The third generation driver originally from Boise, ID will be making his debut campaign in a single seater.

Hamilton hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as the latest American racer to translate asphalt Open Wheel & Sprint Car success into an INDYCAR career.  Hamilton, Jr.’s 2015 concluded with his fifth Sprint Car win of the year at Madera in November en route to the King of the Wing Western Sprint Car Series championship and third in the national championship.

His father Davey, Sr. has competed in 11 Indianapolis 500s with a best finish of fourth.  He also finished second in series points in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998.  He remarkably finished ninth in the 2007 edition of the 500 after a six year comeback from a devastating crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

“This opportunity with Jack McCormack is something I have been looking forward to for a long time,” Hamilton, Jr. said.  “We are working hard to be on the grid in March to challenge for wins and ultimately an Indy Lights championship.  We still have some work to do financially but we’re pushing hard.”

McCormack’s racing history goes back to 1966 in drag racing before a successful career in engineering and car ownership across IMSA, IndyCar, Indy Lights, and USAC.  McCormack has worked with a diverse range of top drivers such as Sam Posey, Skip Barber, Pancho Carer, Roger McCluskey, Jerry Sneva, Roger Mears, Tom Sneva, Geoff Brabham, and Dick Simon.

McCormack Racing and Hamilton have spent much of the off season testing primarily at Buttonwillow Raceway in California.  After several weeks practicing a third-generation Indy Lights car, Hamilton took controls of the current fourth-generation IL-15 for numerous testing days.  Hamilton and McCormack will make a private oval test later this month before joining the series officially on February 24th for the test on the one-mile oval Phoenix International Raceway.

The team has tentative agreements in place to compete in the entire Indy Lights starting with the Streets of St. Pete March 11-13.  Two separate Indy Lights races will be contested across opening weekend for the series.  Indy Lights’ 2016 agenda also includes oval races at Phoenix, Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Freedom 100 on Carb Day, and Iowa Speedway.

Both Hamilton and McCormack are still searching for additional funding to solidify an effort to be the seventh American on the grid this spring.

Alain Prost confirms having no role with Renault Sport F1 Team

Four-time Formula One champion Alain Prost visits the paddock area prior to the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix race at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, southern Austria, Sunday, June 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)
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BUENOS AIRES – Alain Prost has confirmed to MotorSportsTalk that he will not have a role within the revived Renault Sport Formula 1 Team’s management.

Renault will return to F1 with a works team in 2016 after five years away, having taken over the Lotus operation at Enstone in December.

On Wednesday, the team unveiled its driver line-up and management team for the season, with Prost not being announced as having a role.

Many expected the four-time F1 world champion to take up a position similar to that of Niki Lauda at Mercedes, where the Austrian works as a non-executive director.

Speaking to MotorSportsTalk in Buenos Aires, Prost confirmed that he will not be involved with the F1 operation and will instead focus on his broadcasting commitments and his role in Formula E with Renault e.dams.

“I decided for sure, not so long ago. I prefer to be away from the operational work because it’s too complicated anyway with Formula E and the ambassador role and Canal+ [in France] and maybe Channel 4 [in Britain], different things that I have to do,” Prost said.

“I cannot do things everywhere, it does not work anyway. I think also the image could create more problems than advantages, especially for the management. They have a structure.

“It’s going to be tough at the beginning. I’ll let them work and I’ll still keep my role of ambassador and different things.”

Jose Maria Lopez open to Formula E move in the future

Reigning champion of the World Touring Car Championship series Jose Maria Lopez of Argentina of team Citroen Total, attends a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, April 30, 2015. The World Touring Car Championship, will take place on the  Hungaroring circuit in Mogyorod on May 2 and 3. (Zsolt Szigetvary/MTI via AP)
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BUENOS AIRES – Two-time WTCC champion Jose Maria Lopez has expressed an interest in entering Formula E in the future, hinting that he would be open to a move for 2017.

In 2014, Lopez became the first driver from Argentina to win an FIA-sanctioned world championship since Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth Formula 1 title in 1957.

The Citroen driver added a second championship to his haul last year, but is on the lookout for future opportunities after the French manufacturer announced that it would be quitting WTCC following the 2016 season.

Speaking in Buenos Aires ahead of this weekend’s ePrix, Lopez said that he would be open to racing in Formula E in the future and giving Argentine fans a home driver to support.

“It would be fantastic for me to be part of this fantastic series, with this fantastic bunch of drivers,” Lopez said. “Today I have compromises with the brand with Citroen and also with the series I’m involved in, WTCC, we are developing the car so it’s a time of timing it’s not possible.

“But it would be fantastic because it’s a series which, [as] I’ve said before, is growing up really quick and it’s very interesting for the drivers. The fact that we have a race in Argentina, it would be fantastic to have as well an Argentinian driver.

“We will see. Today, everything is guessing because nothing is concrete and we talk about why not in 2017? It could be a good option.”

Lopez has previously substituted for the DS Virgin Racing team for a test thanks to its ties with Citroen, and enjoyed trying out a Formula E car.

“I did a small test with a team because there was no driver available and I was lucky enough to be there that day so I jumped in the car a few laps,” Lopez said.

“The first thing is you don’t have the noise of an engine. You hear everything what’s going on in the car – when the car is touching the ground, for example, you can hear the noise of the gearbox all the time, when you hit a kerb you can hear the suspension suffering.

“It’s quite a strange feeling but it’s still racing – the level of the series is fantastic, the driving is fantastic. And that is also very important. I know the drivers – I’ve been racing in the past with them.

“I’ve shared teams with Loic Duval, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Lucas di Grassi – they tell me the races are really, really, really fun, the car is fun to drive and the competition of is very very high.”

Nick Heidfeld to race in Buenos Aires as planned

FIA Formula E Championship 2015/16.
Beijing ePrix, Beijing, China.
Nick Heidfeld (GER), Mahindra Racing M2ELECTRO 
Press Conference
Beijing, China, Asia.
Saturday 24 October 2015
Photo: Sam Bloxham / LAT / FE
ref: Digital Image _SBL7972
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BUENOS AIRES – Nick Heidfeld will take part in this weekend’s Formula E race in Buenos Aires as planned after completing a trouble-free shakedown for Mahindra.

Heidfeld missed the last race in Uruguay after undergoing surgery on his wrist in a bid to remedy a recurring problem.

The German driver confirmed on Thursday that he would make a decision after shakedown on his participation, despite being 99% sure that he would be fit to race after testing an old GP2 car last week.

Shakedown took place on Friday afternoon, after which Heidfeld decided that he was happy to take part in the race as planned, as confirmed to MotorSportsTalk by Mahindra.

Two-time IndyCar starter and 2009 A1 GP champion Adam Carroll had flown to Buenos Aires as backup in the event that Heidfeld could not race, but will not be needed for tomorrow’s ePrix.