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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

Jenson Button receives honorary degree from University of Bath (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button became ‘Dr. Jenson Button’ earlier this week when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bath in England.

Button, 36, made what looks set to be his final Formula 1 appearance at the end of last month in Abu Dhabi, drawing the curtain on a 16-year stint at the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Briton won the F1 drivers’ championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2011, as well as winning 15 grands prix.

Button added to his list of achievements by picking up an honorary degree in engineering from the University of Bath earlier this week.

“I didn’t go to university and work hard in my early years, but I would say that a lot of my achievements in motorsport are down to my engineering understanding of a racing car,” Button said when addressing the audience at the ceremony.

Button does have a contract to race for McLaren in 2018 should both he and the driver be keen, but looks unlikely to return.

Button does remain keen to race occasionally through 2017, expressing an interest in racing in Super GT and rallycross.

Williams expecting Stroll to make mistakes through debut F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 24:  Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock  during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds says he expects 18-year-old Lance Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie season in 2017.

Williams announced last month that Stroll would be stepping up from Formula 3 to a full-time F1 seat for 2017, replacing the retiring Felipe Massa.

Stroll has an impressive track record through his junior racing career, becoming the youngest ever FIA F3 champion in 2016.

However, his on-track actions have caught attention for the wrong reasons at times, with the Canadian receiving a race ban in June 2015 for causing an accident.

Speaking to Reuters, Symonds said that Williams is braced for Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie campaign as he gets to grips with life in F1.

“Of course he’ll make mistakes and we’ll be repairing cars. These things happen as part of the process,” Symonds said.

“If you look at his Formula 3 career, in 2015 he was having quite a few accidents in that. The Monza one is just staggering.”

However, Symonds has no doubt in Stroll’s talent, believing the youngster to have proven himself during his two-year stint in F3.

“He hasn’t won that championship with anything other than a lot of skill and maturity,” Symonds said.

“For a guy that young, he’s driven really well in pretty well every condition. He’s raced well, he’s led at the front. He’s come through the field a bit, he’s driven well in the wet.

“He is the real deal.”

Besides his F3 commitments, Stroll has also completed an extensive F1 testing program through 2016 that saw him conduct running in a 2014-spec Williams in order to prepare him for his race debut in Australia next March.

Ecclestone: Rosberg not among F1 greats, ‘a world champion and nothing else’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone does not believe that the recently-retired Nico Rosberg will be remembered as one of the sport’s all-time greats, saying that the German is “a world champion and nothing else”.

Rosberg won his maiden F1 drivers’ championship two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing just five days later.

The news came as a shock to the F1 community, including Ecclestone, and has raised questions about the legacy that Rosberg will leave.

Speaking to Press Trust of India, Ecclestone said that he would not place Rosberg in the same realm as many of his peers who have won multiple titles, including Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

“Let’s just say he is a world champion. The other names that you mentioned have obviously won more than a few times and have achieved more,” Ecclestone said.

“So I would just call Nico a world champion and nothing else.”

Ecclestone did concede that not having the defending World Champion on the F1 grid in 2017 would not help the sport, a situation that has not arisen since 1994 following Alain Prost’s final title win.

“[He’s] not as popular as Lewis but Nico was a very popular driver,” Ecclestone said.

“So his absence is certainly not good for Formula 1.”

Rosberg became the fourth driver to retire after winning the World Championship, following in the footsteps of Prost (1993), Jackie Stewart (1973) and Mike Hawthorn (1958).

2017 MotoGP calendar tweaked as German GP changes date

VALENCIA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 13:  The MotoGP riders start from the grid during the MotoGP race during the MotoGP of Valencia - Race at Ricardo Tormo Circuit on November 13, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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The calendar for the 2017 MotoGP season has been subject to a minor tweak following a date change for the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring.

The provisional schedule for next year was released back in September, with 18 rounds listed in a similar fashion to the 2016 calendar.

The biggest change for 2017 was the removal of the back-to-back round between the races in Argentina and Austin, Texas, with many encountering travel difficulties en route from Termas de Rio Hondo.

In an updated schedule released by MotoGP on Wednesday, the German Grand Prix has now been brought forward by one week to create a longer summer break.

The race at the Sachsenring in Saxony will now take place on July 2, going back-to-back with the TT Assen race in the Netherlands and create a month’s gap to the next race in the Czech Republic.

The date of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas remains unchanged, taking place on April 23.

2017 MotoGP provisional calendar

1. Qatar – March 26
2. Argentina – April 9
3. USA – April 23
4. Spain – May 7
5. France – May 21
6. Italy – June 4
7. Catalunya – June 11
8. Netherlands – June 25
9. Germany – July 2
10. Czech Republic – August 6
11. Austria – August 13
12. Great Britain – August 27
13. San Marino – September 10
14. Aragon – September 24
15. Japan – October 15
16. Australia – October 22
17. Malaysia – October 29
18. Valencia – November 12