Rob Kauffman: Race Team Alliance seeks to be collaborative with NASCAR

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This morning, nine of NASCAR’s biggest teams announced that they had formed the Race Team Alliance in a bid to address issues facing the sport with a united voice.

As we mentioned this morning, there have been multiple instances of groups forming within auto racing – Richard Petty and the Professional Driver’s Association in 1969, the group of open-wheel car owners that created CART in the late 1970s, and the recently disbanded Formula One Teams Association among them.

RTA chairman and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman recognizes that some of those instances over the years have had tense moments. But in an interview with USA Today writer and NBCSN contributor Nate Ryan, Kauffman says the RTA plans to strike a more collaborative tone.

“Times have changed,” Kauffman said to Ryan, while noting that he asked Roger Penske (who helped form CART) and Petty about their experiences. “I think it’s all about what you try to do and how you approach it. I think the membership is quite united on there being lots of things we can do to help ourselves.

“We want to do this collaboratively. We’re in this together. That’s the high road and the right road, so why do anything other than that? There are other questions that are obvious and will be resolved over time. To the extent we’re a party to those, we’ll try to be productive and collaborative. We’ll see how it plays out. It makes for a less exciting story but a better business.”

Kauffman said that NASCAR was given a heads-up regarding the formation of the RTA over the last 30 days, and that the RTA will be open with the sanctioning body about its intentions.

As for the matter of seeking greater revenue with the onset of a new TV contract for the sport in 2015, Kauffman said to Ryan that the subject was “a million miles from where we are.”

“We just formed this thing,” he continued. “We’re working on our own stuff. We’re just getting going. That’s something outside our control. That’s something NASCAR is working on, and to the extent they want to engage at some level, we’d be happy to do so.

“We’re really primarily focused on our own things. Whatever happens on that will happen. We’re really focused on our own stuff at this stage.”

As for the time being, Kauffman mentioned the RTA working on future cost-saving projects for the teams involved, like better deals on travel expenses and on disability insurance and pensions for team members.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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