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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

Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Raikkonen: P4 in Russian GP qualifying ‘better than nothing’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kimi Raikkonen says that qualifying fourth for the Russian Grand Prix is “better than nothing” after struggling to get to grips with his Ferrari SF16-H car at the Sochi Autodrom.

Raikkonen finished fourth in Saturday’s Q3 session, and will move up to third place on the grid for tomorrow’s race thanks to Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

Despite being in a position to lead the Italian marque’s charge against Mercedes and make the most of Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty, Raikkonen was far from jubilant after qualifying.

The Finn had been set to take third in Q3, only to make a mistake on his final qualifying lap that meant he was unable to improve his time, leaving him P4 at the checkered flag.

“The whole weekend has been tricky: for whatever reason, I struggled all the time to put one decent lap together,” Raikkonen said.

“In qualifying it was a bit better, but I was still fighting with the front end in a few places. It could have been good enough for a second or a third place on the grid, but on my last lap I completely missed the last corner and slid away.

“Obviously I’m a disappointed with what happened, but considering how difficult it has been, this result it’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

“At least we are in third place at the start, we’ll see what happens tomorrow, I think in the race it’s going to be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.