NASCAR’s most powerful car owners create coalition

Jason Smith

Looking to align their business interests and have more of a voice, owners of nine teams announced a newly formed alliance Monday.

Nine of NASCAR's most powerful teams have formed a strategic coalition to help control costs, foster new business ideas and act as a single body to represent themselves before NASCAR on issues pertinent to the growth of the sport.

Called the Race Team Alliance it's a federation consisting of Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

In the announcement made Monday, MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman will head the RTA. The nine teams involved field a total of 25 full-time cars featuring every marquee driver in the sport.

"We all have vested interests in the success and popularity of stock car racing," Kauffman said in a statement. "By working together and speaking with a single voice, it should be a simpler and smoother process to work with current and potential groups involved with the sport. Whether it be looking for industry-wide travel partners or collaborating on technical issues -- the idea is to work together to increase revenue, spend more efficiently, and deliver more value to our partners."

While the RTA is not is a union, per se, it does seem to signal a significant shift in the power base within NASCAR.

From the moment it was founded at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR has functioned as a dictatorship. Through the years there have been no committees, no straw polls and no playing to the demands of car owners or drivers.

That singular vision of leadership is in large part why NASCAR has prospered, as has Formula One where Bernie Ecclestone administers under a similar modus operandi. Motorsports entities tend to work best when there is a singular figure governing; cutthroat competition on the track doesn't often lead to friendly partnerships in the boardroom.

There is no better example of what happens to a sanctioning body when owners become empowered than the doomed existence of Championship Auto Racing Teams.

Frustrated with the direction the United States Auto Club was taking Indy car-style racing, a group of disenfranchised owners formed their own sanctioning body. Initially, CART had strong television ratings -- rivaling and surpassing NASCAR -- and strong international appeal.

Eventually, though, self-interest, rampant egos and a lack of vision led to the fracturing of open-wheel racing in America. The ensuing civil war devastated IndyCar racing, and the recovery is still ongoing

RTA's declaration is not the first time NASCAR has seen a group formed to protect the interests of what it views as independent contractors.

The first uprising was in 1961 headed by Tim Flock and Curtis Turner, who sought increased wages and a larger voice. Seeing the attempt at unionization as a threat and detrimental to the future of stock-car racing, NASCAR founder Bill France handed each lifetime suspensions.

Through a series of court battles France's viewpoint that drivers were contractors and not employees won out. France four years later rescinded Flock and Turner's bans.

The second, the Professional Drivers Association, had a fleeting moment of success.

Fearful of their safety due to high speeds and excessive tire wear produced at the brand-new Alabama Motor Speedway (later renamed Talladega Superspeedway), drivers demanded NASCAR postpone the very first race at the 2.6-mile track. France said no, saying there would be a race with or without them.

Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, David Pearson and others called France's bluff, boycotting the Talladega 500. Undeterred, Bill France in a power play staged the event with replacement drivers, offering free tickets to fans disappointed they didn't see NASCAR's best compete.

Although the drivers returned the following week with some minor concessions granted, their impact was minimal and a year later the PDA quietly disbanded. And not since Monday's announcement has there been an organized group of participants possibly prepared to stare down NASCAR

That owners feel embolden to form a "collaboration" comes as no shock. Everyone within NASCAR is still feeling the aftereffects of the economic downturn, and no group has been hit harder than car owners. Even with dwindling sponsorship, costs continue to rise to astronomical levels.

Although the objective of the RTA is unclear outside of a generic sounding mission statement in a press release, it appears there is something seriously afoot in NASCAR's ownership ranks.

A new television contract begins in 2015 with FOX and NBC, which will pay NASCAR $8.2 billion spread across 10 years. Roughly 65 percent of that money is divvied to tracks, 25 percent to teams through race purses and championship winnings, with the remaining 10 percent to NASCAR.

With their budgets not in line with the cost of competing, and with no end to the excessive spending in sight, it doesn't take much to deduce that team owners may be looking for a bigger piece of the financial pie.

But at what cost and how far are they willing to go to get their cut? Those questions remain unanswered for now with the answers likely playing out over the ensuing months. Just as uncertain is how NASCAR chairman Brian France will respond to what is the first true test of his power.

It's a fascinating subplot to watch unfold as NASCAR enters the second half of its season. Where each decision carries everlasting ramifications and the action off the track might be more compelling than on.

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