NASCAR, RTA are communicating but not commenting much about it

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CHARLOTTE – The Race Team Alliance and NASCAR both proclaim to be having an active and ongoing conversation, but neither side is revealing much about what they’re saying.

RTA chairman Rob Kauffman deflected several questions Tuesday about the organization, which represents virtually every team in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I look at it more as talking about the plumbing in a house,” Kauffman, the co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, said during his team’s stop on the annual preseason Media Tour. “It’s really the background. There’s not really much to talk about.

“I think the way I would say it is there’s a very active and constructive dialogue between the NASCAR folks and all the teams, through the RTA, really focusing on long-term issues that affect the sport. Healthy teams are in the interest of everybody, and that’s what we’re working on.”

The formation of the RTA last July was met with a fierce backlash from some quarters of the NASCAR industry. In a SiriusXM Radio interview, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said listening to the RTA was “a bad idea,” and Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith was suspicious of the organization’s motives, saying “I don’t see anything that’s going to be good for the sport. Nothing.”

But the tone seemingly has softened with the dawn of the 2015 Sprint Cup season. NASCAR will have its annual preseason meeting with owners later this week, and France extended an olive branch during his state of the sport address Monday.

“We have conversations frequently with Rob and all the owners,” France said. “I think our position is we hope that they achieve their stated goals, and I think they’re working on them, and we don’t have a lot to do with that. They’re on their own timeline with all that, and we’re doing what we normally do, which is get input from everybody so that we can make really good decisions, and that’s the way it was, and that’s the way it will be.”

In announcing the RTA, Kauffman, who made a billion-dollar fortune as an investment banker who started the Fortress Investment Group hedge fund and private equity firm, has said the goals primary objective was cost savings by pooling its resources for better deals on insurance and travel costs. But he also indicated the group wanted to work more closely with NASCAR on the direction and promotion of the sport while also improving the team business model.

Smith and others have implied that the RTA’s ultimate goal is a form of franchising or revenue sharing that would help the owners gain a larger share of NASCAR wealth (the Sprint Cup Series embarks on a 10-year, $8.2 billion contract this year).

But when asked about franchising Tuesday, Kauffman said NASCAR and the RTA had been working hard to improve their rapport.

“Most well-run businesses have good communication lines,” he said. “We’re working on having really good communication between all the different counter parties. There’s regular communication between the teams, NASCAR, the RTA. The past six months have been very productive. We have a good open dialogue. We’re able to work on lots of issues together.

“Everything is driven off fans and popularity and exciting racing. If the racing is exciting and popular with the fans, you have growth, interest and excitement, and everything kind of builds from there. That’s what has happened over the past couple of decades. The focus is how do you grow the sport, grow interest, grow popularity and everything else will take care of itself.”

Kauffman said the RTA was making progress on cost efficiencies for travel (such as aviation, hotel and rental car deals) and employee benefits.

“It takes a little bit of time to get some of that stuff in place, but there’s a lot of initiatives,” he said. “You’re already seeing meaningful savings on the teams and stuff. It really is just efficiencies. The change in the testing policy was a big help to the teams in terms of costs.”

Valtteri Bottas takes pole position for season-opening Austrian GP

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas upstaged Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to take pole position Saturday for the Formula One Austrian GP.

The Finnish driver edged out the world champion by 0.012 seconds to claim the top spot for the season opener at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. He clenched his fist as he climbed out of his car and shared a hug with Hamilton.

“It’s something special when you push the car to the limit,” said Bottas, who is chasing an eighth career win. “Feels so good. It’s very impressive (from the team).”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, and Lando Norris gave McLaren a boost by finishing fourth. Verstappen has won the past two years here, including 2019 when he started third behind Hamilton and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

“It’s going to be interesting quite a bit warmer tomorrow and hopefully this will play to our advantage,” Verstappen said. “Today, Mercedes was on a different level, unfortunately. Last year we were also a little bit off in qualifying so I expect we will be a bit better in the race.”

Bottas had the leading time when drivers embarked on their final laps and beat his own mark before sliding off the track into the gravel.

Hamilton was chasing a record-extending 89th career pole. He was ahead but then dropped off slightly as Bottas secured a 12th career pole.

“Great job by Valtteri. It’s a great start to the season,” Hamilton said. “We show year on year that we continue to be the best team. We’re open-minded … constantly learning from each other and pushing the boundaries.”

Ferrari struggled for speed, with Leclerc nearly one second behind in seventh and Sebastian Vettel failing to make it into the third and final part of qualifying, known as Q3. He starts the race from 11th on the grid.

Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season with his future in F1 uncertain.

Earlier, Hamilton posted the fastest time in morning practice. The 35-year-old British driver was also quickest in both sessions on Friday.

Midway through third practice, F1 newcomer Nicholas Latifi misjudged the exit of a turn and spun his Williams car into a protective tire wall.