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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

NHRA: Riding almost 200 mph is the Arana family business

Hector Arana Jr. is a chip off the old block when it comes to racing motorcycles in the NHRA.
(Photos courtesy Geiger Global Media and NHRA)
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Some men follow in their father’s footsteps.

Hector Arana Jr., however, followed in his father’s tire tracks.

That’s as a full-time competitor in the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle ranks.

Hector Arana – Junior’s father – won the 2009 PSM championship and both have been consistent entrants in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, as well as racing down dragstrips from New Jersey to California at nearly 200 mph.

The senior Arana is in his eighth straight Countdown, while his son is in his sixth straight playoff. As the NHRA circuit moves into Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa., this weekend for the Dodge Nationals, father and son are both looking to making some significant jump upward in the standings.

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Hector Arana Jr.
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Hector Arana

Hector Jr., 27, is seventh in the standings, 145 points behind points leader and defending series champion Andrew Hines. The younger Arana has finished in the top five in each of the last four Countdowns: fourth in both 2012 and 2013, third in 2014 and fifth in 2015.

The elder Arana, who turned 58 on Sept. 17, is right behind his son in the point standings, in eighth place, 153 points behind Hines.

Son leads father in overall wins on the two-wheel circuit, 11 to seven. But they’re also each other’s biggest cheerleaders and work on each other’s bikes to make them as quick and fast as they possibly can be.

Both are big fans of Maple Grove and are looking forward to returning there this weekend.

Hector Arana
Hector Arana

“It’s important for both of us to do well in the playoffs,” father Hector said in a media release. “I’m liking our chances. Both bikes are running well and we feel like we have the ability to win any of the races we enter.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I don’t think it’s ever been tougher than it is right now in this class, but that makes it more challenging and more satisfying when you do well. Hopefully this weekend is a big one for us.”

Not only does Hector Jr. get his racing genes from his father, he also shares in the Arana family patriarch’s optimism about this weekend.

“If weather conditions are just right, we could see national records this weekend,” said the younger Arana, who won at Reading in 2011. “We would really like to be in the mix to run those kinds of numbers. We have the power to do it; we just need to put it all together the right way.

“We’ve had a decent year and even got to the final round at Indy earlier this month but we want more. Reading would be a great place to win. I know I’d be happy to get it done.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA Prototype title battle pits AXR teammates against each other

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype standings couldn’t be tighter heading into Saturday’s season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

Dane Cameron and Eric Curran currently lead the standings in their No. 31 Whelen/Team Fox Corvette DP, holding a razor-thin 286 to 285 point lead over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP.

“It will certainly be business as usual – that’s the best way to put it, for sure,” Cameron said in the team’s advance release. “We can’t afford to race any differently or be conservative.

“We need to be on attack to try to win the championship. We’re going to be putting it all on the line to try to get this championship. We’re taking on our teammates – the two-time defending champions – and you can’t leave any stone unturned.

“In the big picture, it’s a great accomplishment for the whole Action Express Racing organization to have both cars first and second in the points. That’s something to be really proud of, two great seasons from our race cars.”

Whichever team accumulates more points in Saturday’s race will be the 2016 Prototype champion. And besides the one-point difference, things have been tight in other ways, as well.

In the last IMSA race for Prototypes, Sept. 17 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Cameron and Curran finished second, with Barbosa and Fittipaldi right behind in third.

What’s more, prior to that the Action Express pairs have recorded three consecutive one-two finishes: Cameron/Curran and Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 at both Road America (Aug. 7) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (July 10), while Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 ahead of Cameron/Curran at Watkins Glen International (July 3).

“We had a great test in Atlanta,” said Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson.  “There were other Corvettes that we ran against so we were able to evaluate our cars against others that we’re going to be racing this weekend.

“We ran over 700 miles per car, over the two days, and we made a lot of long runs. We really feel a lot of confidence and we’re excited about the race coming up at Road Atlanta.”

As if things weren’t interesting enough, Cameron and Curran are pulling out all stops by adding brand new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud to their team for the 10-hour endurance race.

Pagenaud raced with Cameron and Curran (and Johnny Adam) in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the team finishing sixth in class.

Pagenaud competed full-time in the American Le Mans Series from 2008 to 2010, earning eight wins in that period and the 2010 series title, before moving full-time to the IndyCar circuit.

In this race last year, Barbosa and Fittipaldi, along with another IndyCar driver, Sebastien Bourdais, captured the championship, while Cameron, Curran and Max Papis finished third.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi have their own ringer of sorts, Filipe Albuquerque, who was part of their team that wound up with respective fourth place finishes in each of the first two races of this season: Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

“Doing Petit Le Mans with three drivers is almost the same as doing it with two drivers at the Glen, maybe a little bit longer,” Fittipaldi said. “It’s pretty straight forward and we won’t need to make any adjustments.

“In the series you have to be prepared no matter what, and ‘be on’ all the time.  We only have 10 races and it doesn’t matter if it’s Daytona or Sebring or Road Atlanta — you just have to be on it all the time.”

Added Barbosa, “Everything in the race really comes down to preparation in the shop. Our race cars are very strong and very reliable and we can push the car all the time for the whole 10 hours.

“This is going to be the last race for this Corvette Prototype, so hopefully we’ll be able to give it a last win and retire the car in the best possible way.”

Albuquerque this season has also earned two wins in the LMP2 class of the WEC (Six Hours of Silverstone and Six Hours of Mexico), along with two other runner-up finishes (Six Hours of Nurburgring and Circuit Of The Americas).

In addition to going for their overall Prototype championship, Barbosa/Fittipaldi are also in the hunt for their third consecutive Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup title, a four-race competition based upon overall outcomes at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta.

Barbosa/Fittipaldi have earned 35 points to lead the competition, with Cameron/Curran a close third with 29 points.

“Last year, we were in a pretty good championship battle with our teammates in the No. 5 car, as well as the Wayne Taylor car,” Curran said. “It really came down to the wire last year at Petit Le Mans, on basically who finished ahead of the others was going to win the championship – and we came really close.

“We ended up third last year, but only a few points behind our teammates. It’s even closer this year. We’re one point ahead, but anything can happen. All the guys on the team have been great. Our pit stops have been spot on, the performance of the car has been phenomenal and my teammate Dane Cameron has been top-notch.

“We’re closer to the championship than a year ago and it’s an amazing feeling to be so close.  The pressure is on now.  It would be huge for us to win a championship in the top class of the IMSA series.”

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Dragon Racing loses Vergne penalty appeal from London

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 2: In this handout image supplied by Formula E, Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01 during the London Formula E race on July 2, 2016 in Battersea Park, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Andrew Ferraro/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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Dragon Racing’s appeal following Jean-Eric Vergne’s post-race time penalties at the season finale of the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship has been lost. Dragon was hoping to finish ahead of DS Virgin Racing for third in the team’s championship.

A decision was released today by the FIA International Court of Appeal, which heard the appeal on Friday, Sept. 16, which called the appeal “inadmissable.” Dragon appealed the penalties on July 6.

Vergne was assessed two post-race time penalties – 50 seconds for hitting 0 percent battery life on the final lap, and an additional second when leaving the pit lane. The first penalty dropped him from third on the road down to seventh, with an additional position lost on the second penalty.

Nonetheless, even though Dragon’s pair of Jerome d’Ambrosio and Loic Duval were promoted up to third and fourth in the London race at Battersea Park, Vergne was still classified eighth in the finale. That four-point net was enough to ensure DS Virgin finished one point ahead of Dragon for third place.

Vergne has since shifted from DS Virgin to Techeetah Formula E for season three. The new season kicks off Oct. 9 in Hong Kong.

Soft tire preference revealed in Japanese GP picks

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 27, 2015 in Suzuka, Japan.
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Formula 1’s two-week Asian swing is ahead with the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend and the Japanese Grand Prix next week.

The Japanese Grand Prix tire picks were revealed on Tuesday, per usual, and most drivers and teams have selected more of Pirelli’s sets of soft tires, the softest on offer. As in Malaysia, teams can select between the soft, medium and hard compounds.

All drivers have between six and nine sets of softs selected.

Both Red Bull drivers are opting for four sets of hards, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel three sets of hards and Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen two sets of hards.

The full breakdown is below:

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