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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

Firestone: the tire that Indianapolis 500 and Verizon IndyCar Series ride upon

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More Indianapolis 500 winners have driven to Victory Lane on Firestone tires than all other tires combined.

The synergy and history between Firestone, parent company Bridgestone and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing short of legendary.

MotorSportsTalk has compiled some very interesting facts about the relationship between Firestone, IMS and the Indy 500:

* Firestone has issued tires to all teams in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 that will carry names of all the drivers who have won the 500 on Firestone rubber inscribed on the sidewalls of the tires.

* Other names included in the sidewall inscriptions include Louis Meyer (the first driver to drink milk in Victory Lane), and Mario Andretti (Voted Driver of the Century).

firestone indy 500 tires 2016

* Firestone produced over 5,000 tires with the commemorative Indy 500 sidewalls to be used during the month of may for practice, qualifying and the historic race itself on Sunday.

* Firestone has accounted for exactly two-thirds of the wins at the Indy 500 – 66 of 99 races contested to date.

* Firestone has won the Indy 500 in 1911, 1913, 1920 through 1941, 1946-1966, 1969-1971, 1996 and 1997, and 2000-2015.

* Firestone has carried more drivers to Indy 500 wins than all other tire manufacturers combined. Goodyear has won 29 races, BFGoodrich won two, Michelin won one and Palmer Cord Tires won one.

* The first winner on Firestone rubber was also the first winner of the Indy 500 – Ray Harroun in 1911.

* Tires will also carry red and white Firestone “F shield” logos that are unique to the Indy 500 and indicate which tires will go on which side of each race car: red for right side and white for left side tires.

firestone racing logo* Firestone Racing joined the IndyCar Series in 1996 and has been at every race since. It competed vs. Goodyear for four years (1996-99) until becoming the exclusive tire provider for the 500 in 2000, a position it has held ever since.

* Firestone became the Official Tire of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 in 2002. The current contract for both of those roles runs through the 2018 season (originally extended in Dec. 2012).

* Firestone also sponsors the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. It is also the Official Tire of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

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Simon Pagenaud has tunnel vision about Indy 500 — but that’s a good thing

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(Photos: IndyCar)
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To say Simon Pagenaud is a thinking man’s driver is an understatement.

The French driver has one of the most analytical minds in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It seems like he’s always thinking, always figuring out different scenarios, trying to outthink his fellow competitors.

He’s certainly had a lot to think of recently. He’s riding a three-race winning streak. He’s part of Team Penske’s 50th anniversary celebration.

But right here, right now, Pagenaud has just one race on his mind. As far as he’s concerned, Belle Isle next week is 10 years away, while Texas the week after that is 20 years away.

And don’t even ask Pagenaud if he’s thinking about winning the IndyCar championship.

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To say Simon Pagenaud is pumped up for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 is an understatement.

The only thing on Pagenaud’s mind is winning Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Not only would it be the biggest win in the Frenchman’s career, it would also extend team owner Roger Penske’s record to 17 Indy 500 victories.

“I’m thinking about the race itself, statistics are after the race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “It’s hard on the last lap if you think about it! I’m always focused on the task itself. Prepare the best we can and try to win.

“When you step into the car, you have to think about how to do the best job you can with your machine. It’s you and your machine, you and your team, let’s get the best strategy possible, make the best pit stops and make no mistakes.

“So you have to be clear-minded and focused on the task. It’s a tunnel vision thing. I’m not thinking of anything else. I’m not thinking about the 50th anniversary of Team Penske, or it being the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

“If I was, I tell you what, they wouldn’t work really well. It’s about being in the moment and not thinking about anything else.”

Even with his three-race winning streak (Long Beach, Birmingham Grand Prix of Indianapolis), preparations for the 500 have not gone as well as Pagenaud would like.

“It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who will start in eighth position, the middle of Row 3 on the starting grid. “We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. It’s not been easy to get speed out of the car. We’ve done a good job of trying, but we haven’t found the speed of the Hondas.”

But as concerned as Pagenaud may seem, Penske is more confident than concerned.

“Obviously he’s a hot hand right now and he’s shown how good he is,” Penske said of Pagenaud. “That’s the reason we hired him a year ago.

“I think he wasn’t as happy with his performance in 2015. This is a different race. This race is wide open. It’s a long-distance race. It’s four different corners, lots of strategy.

“Certainly executing in the pits, you saw how good he was last year and bumped into a back marker when he was trying to make a pass there. So I think he’s going to have a great chance. He’s certainly excited.

“John Menard (Pagenaud’s primary sponsor of Menard’s Home Improvement Stores) coming on board is probably one of the great things of the month for us because John has spent a lot of time and a lot of money here over the years.

“(It was) great to see his car in the Winner Circle at the Angie’s road race here a couple of weeks ago. I think (Pagenaud’s) on his way to a championship. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”

Winning the biggest race in the world would also help Pagenaud’s countrymen.

“It’s great news that there’s a lot of interest (in France) in IndyCar,” Pagenaud said. “They’re showing races there. It’s big. There’s also half a large plane coming to the race from my hometown (Poitiers, France).

“I know it’s an American sport, but it’s a worldwide event. The last time a Frenchman won in Indy was 1920. It was Gaston Chevrolet, and I’m driving a Chevrolet! Hopefully, it’s my year.

“What would it mean (if he won)? I don’t know, to be honest. It wouldn’t be a bad time. We’re having a tough time in France right now, so a little bit of joy from the sport would be good.

“It’d be awesome to go back to France with that trophy and that ring on my finger.”

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

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Honda bullish ahead of pivotal Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet,  drives  on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr feels bullish about the manufacturer’s chances in the 100th Indianapolis 500, believing all of its cars stand a serious chance of winning Sunday’s race.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe ended a long drought for Honda in qualifying last weekend, claiming its first pole position since Simon Pagenaud won the Verizon P1 Award at Houston in 2014.

Sunday’s ‘500 is a pivotal one for Honda given the occasion and its standing among its numerous motorsport programmes, and is made all the more crucial given its winless start to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We weren’t expecting the outcome of the first few races that we got this year,” St. Cyr conceded.

“We thought we were going to be OK. But obviously when we first came out at St. Pete, especially Phoenix, we had to focus on those, as well.

“I wouldn’t say the beginning part of the season went according to plan. But we kind of know what we have right now and where we’re going with this one.

“We’re working and the other side is working as well to try to improve as much as you can.”

The Honda-powered cars impressed throughout practice and qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appearing to make a significant step up in performance from the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis two weeks ago.

Besides Hinchcliffe getting pole, the Andretti Autosport cars regularly ran quickest through the speed trap with Ryan Hunter-Reay qualifying third, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal has looked strong in race trim.

“The Indy 500 is a major focus for Honda. We really worked hard for 12 months on this particular race,” St. Cyr said.

“We used two of our three allocated boxes from an aerodynamic standpoint on this race. We have a pretty major upgrade of our engine specification for this race.

“As you’ve seen, it’s fairly competitive at this point. Really our whole goal is to get all of our teams with a package that is capable of winning this race.”

And providing such a package is something that St. Cyr believes Honda has achieved.

“It’s pretty great,” he said. “The Andretti guys, the whole Andretti team, all five of their cars, have been fast. They unloaded fast. They typically do really well here. We expect good things out of them.

“The Schmidt Peterson Racing group, all three of them have just had stellar months. You want to give some shouts out to Dale Coyne and those guys who have shown pretty good speed, with people that don’t have a lot of experience running around this track.

“A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato showed something at the end of qualifying. They qualified third in the last group, right? Graham, we expect him to have a real good race, as well.

“All of our teams have legitimate contenders to win this race, so we’re actually really thrilled about that.”

PWC: Bentley confirms Andrew Palmer sustains head injury

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Photo: Bentley Team Absolute
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Following an accident in practice ahead of today’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock Park, Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer has sustained a head injury following contact with another car, an Aston Martin driven by Jorge de la Torre.

Just after 6:30 p.m. ET, Bentley released the following statement:

“Bentley Motorsport can confirm that Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer will remain in hospital following an incident at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut earlier today. He has sustained a head injury and is being closely monitored after treatment by specialists.

“Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, Brian Gush, comments: “Everyone at Bentley Motorsport is thinking of Andrew and we all send him our best wishes. We are a close-knit community and we have team members at the hospital with him and his family. We will continue to offer our support to them at this difficult time. Our thanks go to the trackside team at Lime Rock Park and the medical professionals who have helped Andrew so far.”

“No further update is expected today. Bentley Motorsport will release another statement in due course.”

An additional statement came from WC Vision just before 10 p.m. ET:

“As an update to the earlier released news on Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre:

“Both drivers remain under treatment at Hartford Hospital. Bentley has provided the statement below regarding Andrew Palmer. WC Vision will release further information on the condition of both drivers when Hartford Hospital provides any updates.

That came after the first update issued by World Challenge officials which read as follows, and was released after 1 p.m. ET:

“Both Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre were transported to Sharon Hospital where they were stabilized for transportation to Hartford Hospital.  That is all we know at this time.”

K-PAX Racing driver Alvaro Parente won his second race of the weekend in his No. 9 McLaren 650S GT3 in the afternoon, although the results of which matter little in the face of Palmer’s accident and injuries.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to the drivers and their families affected at this time.