When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Defending champion: Ryan Newman
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is no clearer example of the disconnect between NASCAR and its teams than the fight this year over the procedures to cool cars down during qualifying.
NASCAR refused to allow the use of cooling boxes, so teams had jury-rigged a system that created a dangerous on-track situation for the drivers.
NASCAR summoned the crew chiefs from every Sprint Cup organization to hash out a solution. The teams were almost unanimously in favor of using the cooling boxes, but NASCAR officials on that conference call in March wouldnít budge. They were OK with using fans, but smaller teams were against having to go buy them.
Exasperated, NASCAR reminded the participants on the call that the engine manufacturers were against the use of cooling boxes. Two of the top engine builders in NASCAR immediately denied that claim, and one said nobody from NASCAR had even talked with them.
The call had turned comical. In the end, NASCAR allowed the cooling boxes in a small victory for the teams.
The battle to get that win was absurd.
The Race Team Alliance, at its core, hopes to prevent those fights going forward.
Announced two weeks ago, the RTA was described as ďa collaborative business associationĒ that for the first time creates ďa single entity to engage with stakeholders on creative ways to market and experience the power of the sportís teams and drivers.Ē
Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman is the elected chair of the RTA. He has talked of banding the RTA teams together for purchasing power, creating travel partners and finding a common insurer. The RTA is not, Kauffman insists, a union. And if the goal is to seize a larger share of the TV money, thatís not a topic any members of the RTA are openly discussing.
ďThatís a big obvious issue thatís out there that the teams really have no influence or control over,Ē Kauffman said of the $8 billion in TV money that is split with the tracks (65 percent), teams (25 percent) and NASCAR (10 percent). ďWeíre going to focus on stuff we can do. If someone wants to discuss any big picture issues, weíre happy to discuss and engage in a constructive way.Ē
NASCAR has made it clear it isnít talking to the RTA about anything. Despite NASCAR President Mike Heltonís dismissal of any animosity between the two sides, the RTA was informed all communication must go through NASCAR attorneys. International Speedway Corp. issued the same command.
Sure, it is NASCARís court and nobody has to play NASCARís game. But itís the only game in town for high-performance, profitable racing, and being part of the show means playing by NASCARís rules.
Only NASCAR seems to have gotten so big that itís lost sight of the plight of its primary ďstakeholders.Ē The teams have always existed under an owner-operator model. Itís risky. Itís dangerous.
Bill Davis once won the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 as a Sprint Cup Series team owner. He entered drivers in all three of NASCARís national series, but when the economy collapsed in 2008, his sponsorship evaporated and his NASCAR participation came to a halt. In the cruelest twist of all, he won the Truck Series championship on his final weekend of NASCAR participation.
When it was all said and done, he had a building and some used parts and a little bit of equity in the owner points heíd accumulated that season to show for his 20-year NASCAR career.
Itís a fear every NASCAR owner loses sleep over. When a sponsor pulls out, the whole house of cards can come crashing down. Kauffman lived it last fall when NAPA Auto Parts left MWR and the organization was forced to lay off one-third of its workforce.
So who can actually blame these owners for not resenting the NASCAR model just a little bit? After all, the Buffalo Bills may sell for at least $1.1 billion Ė a far sweeter golden parachute than listing used car parts on EBay.
Itís unclear if altering the landscape to a franchise model is on RTAís ultimate agenda. For now, the owners insist itís about creating one voice to benefit every team Ė and thereís a need.
Several years ago, Rick Hendrick organized a meeting between many of the top owners, who all put together lists outlining their concerns. After debate, the group whittled it down to roughly a dozen ideas on how NASCAR could help them save some money. Nothing spectacular Ė maybe $1 million a team in savings.
The list was presented to NASCAR, which heard the ideas with deaf ears.
Perhaps the RTA will soon have the authority to step up and demand cost-saving measures. But for now, the question is not what the RTA is out to accomplish, but what took the team owners so long to get their act together.