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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

Marcus Ericsson excited about Pascal Wehrlein’s arrival at Sauber for 2017

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 02: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track ahead of Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 2, 2016 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson is relishing the opportunity to work with Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber through the 2017 Formula 1 season, saying he rates the German driver highly.

Wehrlein made his F1 debut in 2016 with Manor, scoring just the second top-10 finish in the team’s history at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The Mercedes junior was announced as a Sauber driver for 2017 on Monday, replacing Felipe Nasr after the Brazilian lost his financial backing.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Ericsson spoke warmly of Wehrlein’s arrival, believing that they will forge a strong partnership that will help Sauber to develop.

“I think it’s great news for me and Sauber. Pascal is a very fast and respected driver with a great CV,” Ericsson said.

“I think we can really push each other and the team forward, so I am looking forward to a great season.

“I honestly rate [Wehrlein] highly. He’s won the DTM championship and been part of the Mercedes family for a long time, so they seem to believe a lot in him.

“Of course my aim is to beat him – what else? – and I expect it to be a tough fight. But that’s exactly what I need in order to perform at my best.”

Sauber was at risk of collapsing at midway through the 2016 season, having struggled financially for some time before being taken over by Longbow Finance during the summer.

The team subsequently went on a recruitment drive, bringing in a number of management and engineering staff, with Ericsson noticing a difference.

“It definitely takes time, but I think it’s clear that if you look at the second half of last season we really made some big progress,” Ericsson said.

“And the aim is, of course, to continue that way in 2017. We’ve had some great people decide to join the team in the last couple of months and that also makes a difference.

“So all in all it feels like we’re moving in the right way. And with two young and hungry drivers in the cockpits we should be on a good run.”

VIDEO: Valtteri Bottas’ first day as a Mercedes F1 driver

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Following Valtteri Bottas’ official unveiling as a Mercedes driver on Monday, the team wasted little time in showing the Finn the ropes at its base in Brackley, England.

Bottas was released from his contract by Williams so he could join Mercedes for 2017, replacing world champion Nico Rosberg following the German’s shock decision to retire from F1.

Bottas was announced as Mercedes’ new driver on Monday, completing the puzzle for the 2017 driver market and putting an end to six weeks of speculation.

In the above video released by Mercedes, Bottas gets to grips with life at Brackley after signing his new contract with team chief Toto Wolff and meeting his new team members for the first time.

In related news, Mercedes announced on Friday that it had struck an agreement with the Wihuri Group, a Finnish conglomerate that has previously sponsored Bottas.

Wihuri’s branding will appear on the Mercedes drivers’ racesuits and helmets, as well as on the team’s trackside uniform.

“We are delighted to welcome Wihuri to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport family today,” Wolff said.

“As a respected brand both in Finland and globally, Wihuri will be a valuable addition to our team and we look forward to working with them and helping to expand their Formula One experience.

“This year will be a new challenge for our team, with a new driver line-up, including our new Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas of course, and new regulations.

“I am sure it going to be a very exciting year to be involved with our team and the sport of Formula 1.”

Yamaha, Ducati enjoy launches ahead of new MotoGP season

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MotoGP heavyweights Yamaha and Ducati geared up for the new season of motorcycle racing’s premier championship with launches this week.

Yamaha and Ducati both enter 2017 with a new line-up following Jorge Lorenzo’s decision to move from the former to the latter, acting as one of a number of shake-ups in the rider market.

Three-time MotoGP champion Lorenzo replaces Andrea Iannone at Ducati, who sought refuge at Suzuki after a seat was freed up by Maverick Viñales following his move to Yamaha in replace of – the man who started the merry-go-round all – Lorenzo.

Yamaha was the first to take the covers off its new bike at a launch in Madrid on Thursday, with Viñales being joined by nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi for the unveiling of the YZR-M1.

The new bike features a darker blue as its main livery color, as well as greater presence for title sponsor Movistar.

“I had the first test in Valencia after the race, but particularly after we moved to Sepang and we could have more kilometers and [do] more work on the new bike,” Rossi said.

“We discovered a very good potential. It looks like we can be stronger. For sure now it’s important to work in the three tests before the first race, and try to arrive ready in Qatar. But the first impression is very good.”

Ducati followed suit earlier today by unveiling its new livery for 2017, with Lorenzo making one of his first official appearances in the team’s colors following the expiration of his Yamaha contract on December 31.

The team presented its 2016 bike, the Desmosedici GP16, in ’17 colors, as well as removing the controversial – and now banned – winglets from its model.

The new MotoGP season begins in Qatar on March 26, with pre-season testing set to start at the end of January in Malaysia.

Neuville leads Ogier midway through Monte Carlo Rally

Thierry Neuville (BEL) competes during the FIA World Rally Championship 2017 in Monte Carlo, Monaco on January 20, 2017
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MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.

Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.

Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.

Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.

Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.

“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”

Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.

Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.

“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.

A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.

Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.

That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.

There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.

Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.

Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.

The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.

The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.