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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

Australian Grand Prix puts ‘shoey’ can cooler up for sale to fans

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing performs a shoey to celebrate his win on the podium during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo brought “The Shoey” to Formula 1 last year on a few podiums, including his only win of the year at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The concept is an interesting one – you’re drinking out of a sweaty race boot after a full day’s work.

Ricciardo did his first one himself at the German Grand Prix, his 100th Grand Prix, while he also got his Australian countryman Mark Webber (Spa) and English actor Gerard Butler (Austin) to get in on the act.

Luckily, good on Ricciardo’s home country as the Australian Grand Prix has actually created a ‘Shoey’ can cooler – available mid-March for 15 Australian dollars. The Australian Grand Prix is on NBCSN on March 26, to kick off the 2017 season.

Thanks to the Australian Grand Prix and freelance journalist Josh Kruse for the spot.

This is a brilliant piece of merchandise that cashes in on Ricciardo’s success and his celebration style, but allows for all the fun of a “Shoey” without the consequences of drinking out of a race boot.

Looks like shots in the grandstands of fans drinking from this type of boot may be something we need to look out for.

Juncos Racing enters IndyCar with a glittering MRTI resume

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Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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For years, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has long been considered a training ground for drivers, and some crew members, to prepare and develop before moving into the Verizon IndyCar Series.

It hasn’t, yet, seen a full team that began in the Road to Indy step up into IndyCar. But when Juncos Racing announced its intentions to build a new 40,000-square foot shop in Speedway, Ind., called the Juncos Technical Center, it was always part of the longer-term plan that an IndyCar team would eventually be part of the program. It has now arrived with an entry into the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017.

Ricardo Juncos’ team last major step from Pro Mazda into Indy Lights in 2015 produced better results than even he had imagined, as Spencer Pigot won the championship in the team’s first year.

“We got a good opportunity when we won the Pro Mazda championship with Spencer,” Juncos told reporters on a teleconference Wednesday.” The original idea before ’14 was try to fight for that championship. If we were able to win it, that we have a good chance to put together an Indy Lights team, which we did.

“But to be honest, we just showed up in 2015 taking a very difficult championship with a top-class worldwide teams with ex-Formula 1 drivers in the series (Max Chilton, and later Nelson Piquet Jr. at Carlin). It was very difficult. Our first initial thinking was, Let’s do our best, we were joking if we could win a race, that would be great. We ended up winning six races and a championship. Of course, that give us a lot of confidence.

“The continuation of the team was exactly what we was kind of did before in the Pro Mazda. Obviously that, like you said, one is coming from go-kart before then, then Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights was a lot of questions. Winning the championship give us a lot of confidence going forward.

“So I’m seeing this Indy car more as a same thing, as a continuation of what we done. We just going to keep doing what we normally do.”

Juncos will continue in Indy Lights this year with at least two cars (Kyle Kaiser, Nico Dapero), but has no immediate plans to return to Pro Mazda having sold off his equipment there. The USF2000 championship, meanwhile, introduces a new Tatuus USF-17 chassis this year which can be adapted for Pro Mazda use (Tatuus PM-18) starting in 2018, with a few part changeovers.

“To be honest, we actually are not going to run the Pro Mazda this year. Unfortunately after being eight years with four cars, we cannot do it. We going to focus obviously on Indy Lights, Indy car now, and some other stuff,” he said.

“Going into ’18, we’ll see. The problem is that as much as I want to have, is not that easy to just keep building teams. I want to do things right and control the things, which sometimes is difficult.”

So who is Juncos Racing and what have they accomplished in the Mazda Road to Indy? It’d be easier to work backwards and note the alumni of drivers who’ve delivered success for the team:

2016: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires (Kyle Kaiser, Zachary Claman De Melo) and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires (Garett Grist, Will Owen, Nico Dapero, Jake Parsons). Kaiser won twice and finished third in the Indy Lights standings, while Dapero scored his maiden win in Pro Mazda at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale.

2015: Indy Lights (Spencer Pigot, Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Owen, Grist, Timothe Buret, Jose Gutierrez). Pigot won the championship in the team’s step back up to Indy Lights with six race wins, in three weekend sweeps. Grist (twice) and Buret (once) won in Pro Mazda and Grist finished third in points.

2014: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Kaiser, Pigot, Julia Ballario). Pigot won the title with six wins, having survived an insane weekend battling Scott Hargrove for the title at Sonoma. Kaiser and Gutierrez won the two races that weekend and finished sixth and seventh in points.

2013: Pro Mazda (Gutierrez, Ballario, Scott Anderson, Diego Ferreira). Ferreira won the season opener and finished second in points, with Anderson fifth. Andretti’s Matt Brabham dominated the season.

2012: Star Mazda (Ferreira, Connor De Phillippi, Bruno Palli, Martin Scuncio). De Phillippi won twice, Scuncio once as De Phillippi came fourth in points in a deep field. He’s now gone onto success in sports car racing with Porsche and more recently Audi. The team also made its Indy Lights debut with Chase Austin, JV Horto and Bruno Palli in selected races.

2011: Star Mazda (Horto, Scuncio, Tatiana Calderon, Gustavo Menezes, Richard Heistand). Horto led the way there with a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and fourth in points. Calderon and Menezes have eventually gone onto success in Europe, Menezes in particular given his run in LMP2 with the Signatech Alpine team last year where he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the class championship.

2010: Star Mazda (Scuncio, Calderon, Conor Daly, Sean Bursytn, Rusty Mitchell, Hayden Duerson). Juncos’ most successful year prior to 2014 saw Daly win seven of 13 races, en route to the championship by 79 points over Anders Krohn, who’s since developed his own post-driving career in both broadcasting and driver and business development at CoForce.

2009: Star Mazda (Daly, Peter Dempsey). In Juncos’ first year in Star Mazda, Dempsey won five races and Daly one, but Dempsey endured a tough loss for the championship in the final race after being taken out by competitor Joel Miller. This opened the door for Adam Christodoulou to snatch that year’s Star Mazda title.

Haas F1 Team gives us the sound of 2017 Ferrari (VIDEO)

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 17:  Romain Grosjean of France drives the  Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo as he exits the pit lane during day one of Formula One testing at Circuit de Catalunya on May 17, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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You’ve heard from the other power units competing in 2017 – Renault and Honda both revealed their sounds earlier this month, and Mercedes did too prior to that.

But the 2017 Ferrari hasn’t been heard yet. Until today, in two guises.

Earlier this afternoon, Sauber ran its C36 chassis with a Ferrari power unit on track at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona as part of a filming day.

Meanwhile Haas F1 Team, the other privateer team using a Ferrari power unit, released a teaser video as it fired up the engine to its VF17 chassis for the first time. Haas launches its 2017 car on Sunday.

Follow @TonyDiZinno

F1 Paddock Pass: Force India VJM10 Launch (VIDEO)

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In the second edition of this week’s F1 on NBC Sports original digital series Paddock Pass, the Sahara Force India team reveals the VJM10 at the Silverstone Circuit in England, not far from the team’s headquarters.

Force India’s steady climb up the ladder has seen them rise to fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, achieved last year.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, the latter of whom shifts to Force India after an impressive half season with Manor last year.

“It just looks amazing. It’s the first time I’ve been so excited looking at the car,” Perez told Buxton. “We have to adapt to a new driving style and see how physically demanding it is. It will be a big challenge for us.”

Otmar Szafnauer, COO of Sahara Force India, also offered his thoughts and expectations:

“The only way to hope to keep (the momentum) was to develop the 2017 car early. We don’t have the resources for parallel development,” Szafnauer told Buxton.

Stay tuned to the end of the video for a potential nugget about the testing lineup.

A link to Renault’s Paddock Pass from yesterday is here.

Further preseason content will come this week and into next on NBCSports.com.