NASCAR: Doubtful Charter Franchise Will Entice New Owners

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR's premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR’s premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

Auto racing is an unforgiving passion: If you don’t perform well on the track, you won’t survive over time. Resources are not limitless. It’s an essential lesson in pay for performance and free enterprise at its finest.

Race teams need to have secure marketing partners to fund their operations, and race purse winnings to stay afloat. If a team shutters its race shop, there is not much left to sell to somebody else, given the tailored fabrication equipment, rule-dependent car templates, and the reliance on human talent that heads for the exit. In racing, the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one.

Now, NASCAR wants to reinvent that dynamic by establishing what is being referred to as a franchising “charter system”. For an upfront license fee (projected to be several million dollars per full-time car), entitled teams would be guaranteed a spot in each race. As a result, teams unable to secure a charter would be discouraged from participating, given that only a few spots in the show would be earned purely based on qualifying day performance.

Chartered teams also would have a superior ability to sell sponsorship and secure funding. As a result, many see this as a boon for current owners by ensuring they have equity in their race organizations, thereby providing a “guaranteed residual”, or a pay-to-play fee, for anybody to enter the sport.

This development is perplexing, given that a succession planning void looms over the next generation of trailblazers willing to invest capital in NASCAR’s future. At some point, NASCAR will need to replenish the current super team owners at its top Sprint Cup level (i.e., Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Chip Ganassi, and Joe Gibbs), given these long-time principals have an average age of 70 years.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can't be ignored.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can’t be ignored.

Historically, the auto racing business has been about performance. Better performing teams get more attractive sponsors. Sponsors bring money to pay big-time drivers. Big-time drivers win races and bring purse money to the team. And the virtuous cycle continues. Pay for performance, clean and simple. Strong performing teams survive, and weak ones fade to the sideline. No different than other small businesses.

Throughout my career, I’ve designed and reviewed executive employment agreements. Nowadays, shareholders are clamoring for executives to be paid for their performance on the street. That said, golden parachute payout protections still persist, ensuring that an executive can realize lucrative severance benefits regardless of performance.

Somehow, the new charter license fee strikes me as having the same unfavored aspect, providing a floor level of profit, in spite of whether the team’s performance justifies that value.

Purportedly, NASCAR is trying to get this deal done prior to the start of its season at Daytona International Speedway in mid-February. Draft contracts have been circulated among the teams, as NASCAR Chairman Brian France looks to put his stamp on yet another landmark initiative.

“We don’t have it finished and it’s still moving around a little bit,” France said during January’s preseason media tour. “The time line is sooner rather than later. This is a complicated plan and structure that will require some time to phase in.”

However, NASCAR is not just brokering a deal with team owners. Team owners are haggling among themselves, in that the layers of ownership are diverse: Tenure vs. youth, multi-car vs. single car organizations, full-time vs. part-time, and wealthy vs. meager resources. With the agreement expected to span five years, which matches the contractual time period NASCAR just signed with all of the speedways that host races, it is critical to get this right.

“Like most things, the devil’s in the details,” according to Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, and former principal of now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing, who is spearheading the discussion on behalf of the owners.

As such, it is not a surprise that NASCAR and the teams are reviewing what is rumored to be a 100 page contract. Teams have different interests. One thing is a certainty, in that attorneys are getting paid handsomely, as hundreds of billable hours are being racked up in trying to put this deal together.

However, the trickiest obstacle is one of valuation. What should a full-time NASCAR charter be worth? Should it vary by race team status? And here is the rub: race teams do not control the sport’s primary assets; NASCAR does. Unlike stick and ball franchises, race teams are not granted an exclusive license to operate a geographic territory. They do not collect the fan ticket sales at the track; they do not own the tracks’ rights fees. And these teams surely do not regulate the competitive schedule nor negotiate the national TV broadcast rights, as that is handled in Daytona headquarters by the sanctioning body.

So, while the LA Dodgers may have been sold for more than $2 billion, the Guggenheim Baseball Partnership lays claim to the ticket sales, concession fees, and, most importantly, the local TV rights sold to Time Warner Cable that will generate $7 billion in incremental revenue over 25 years. Now that is a source of value that justifies an MLB franchise fee.

Breaking this all down, what NASCAR is attempting to sell through the charter license is equivalent to phantom stock sometimes used by entrepreneurs to provide the illusion of ownership for employees in a start-up. However, phantom stock is just that. You get no voting rights, no control, and no expectation of dividends. In the end, the owners may find that the charter is only worth what NASCAR is willing to buy it back for. Only time will tell if new pioneers are willing to step up and buy an outgoing charter to facilitate the coming ownership succession.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

NASCAR: It’ll Take More Than Diabetes to Stop Ryan Reed And Roush

Ryan Reed fighting for his space in NASCAR

Ryan Reed fighting for his space in NASCAR

A rush of famous names have hit the Xfinity series lately and it’s undeniably added to the excitement of the stepping stone series. Many are the offspring of famous family members and have taken up much of the air in the NASCAR media rooms.

However, they aren’t the only game in town. Several new drivers that have had to drive their way into the public’s view are making moves in the most competitive Nationwide/Xfinity series in years.

One of those names is Ryan Reed, one of four drivers for Roush Fenway Racing in the series and one of the three building blocks to the storied team owners’ movement back to the front of the Cup field.

Ryan Reed came from a racing family, but not one that would get him an instant Papal audience. He currently sits fourth in the points and he’s earned every one of them. No one handed this kid a thing and he’s very open to admitting that he is on a very steep learning curve.

Reed’s teammates, Elliott Sadler, Chris Buescher and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace have much more experience than he. That fact hasn’t deterred him in the least. He knows where he has to improve and where he has to concentrate.

I had the opportunity to talk at length with the young Reed recently and I have to admit it was refreshing to hear a driver speak openly and without sounding as if he were reading cue cards.

25 races in 2014 is the most consistent run for the same team the young driver has ever been afforded. He has been fortunate to have obtained a sponsor, though not exactly as he had planned. Ryan Reed has Type 1 diabetes. At first, this seemed to be the end of his career.

Diabetes isn't stopping the most elite of athletes, especially Ryan Reed.

Diabetes isn’t stopping the most elite of athletes, especially Ryan Reed.

Eli Lilly and the American Diabetes Association stepped up to the plate to help bring awareness to the growing health problem in the modern world. What was a career ending negative became the one thing that has boosted this young drivers’ career.

Reed doesn’t run or make excuses for his 9th place finish in the 2014 Xfinity championship and he shouldn’t, he’s had limited and mixed series experience. This series is for those who intend to make it to the top and that’s just what he intends to do.

When asked about 2014 he states with conviction that he was on a learning curve and that, of course he was disappointed. He went into the off-season with a mission: To raise his game and to rally around his team who has the same desire.

Reed spent the off season working with his team developing that seemingly magical, yet elusive “chemistry” that these teams need to run at the front. According to Reed: “I couldn’t have a better teacher than Jack (Roush) and veterans like Elliott (Sadler) to work with in order to get the most out of what resources I’ve been given.

Everyone is open minded about what we have to do, especially on our 1.5 mile program, there’s no resting on our laurels, no past pride in it. We know what we have to do with engines, suspension and aero and that’s what we’re doing.”

Neither he, nor his team are stuck in the past. Reed expressed that they are very open minded about what has to be done. Reed added: “It’s always great to come off the truck fast, whether it’s NASCAR, Formula One or IndyCar, but we are willing to try new things to get to where we need to be.”

He went on to say, “On the other hand, just because something looks good on paper doesn’t mean it’s going to translate to the track, so we have to keep trying new things with a purpose in mind, although I remain cautiously optimistic.”

On that subject I posed the question of simulators, which in open wheel are part of the entire engineering package, and I was pleasantly surprised at Reed’s response: “Simulators at the Formula One level aren’t here yet in NASCAR, but they are coming. We use simulators now that are far more advanced than people might think. Ford has invested a ton of money into that technology and don’t think that these are Xbox type pieces of equipment; they require 5 to 10 engineers to operate and are quite complex.

All of the teams use simulator software for set-up but for the driving aspect of it, they are fairly new to NASCAR, but Ford will get us there. He added, “Races will be won and lost based on advanced simulators and simulator software, so we’re not there yet, but Ford is working heavily on it.”

Reed is one of only two top tier racing drivers that have Type 1 diabetes, the other is Charlie Kimball of IndyCar. Without going into the very technical side of Type 1 diabetes, the simple explanation is that it’s an auto-immune disease and he has to take insulin, diet doesn’t work.

The way he handles this problem is to minimize it. He has a radio frequency transmitter embedded into his abdomen that emits a signal to a dash mount LED monitor. This measures his blood glucose levels in order to keep him at peak levels of performance.

And yes, they have a plan if it falls to dangerous levels during a race.

So far it hasn’t been used, however on the off-chance that his blood glucose levels aren’t correct, he can see this from the dash mounted monitor and on a pit stop one of the crew, who has been trained to perform this, can inject him with an insulin stick. Amazing.

According to Reed, his confidence is growing and once that reaches a tipping point level, that is when you have your break out season.

His confidence level and intelligence seemed high to me. I would not be surprised to see this young man break out and win more races before the end of the 2015 season.

 

We find Ryan Reed an interesting young man and intend to check in with him periodically during the 2015 season.

 

 

 

 

If Evidence Is Anything, Edwards Earns Title Sooner Than Later

Edwards

Carl Edwards did all he could to win his first career Cup championship in 2011. He was the points leader for most of the Chase, but in the last race of the year he gave way to Tony Stewart, who won five times in the last 10 races. Edwards has learned from the experience and should again be a title contender.

If most of the media picked up on the vibes Carl Edwards emitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, which I think they did, they got the sense that the Roush Fenway Racing driver enjoyed himself.

But he also clearly felt the disappointment of losing the Sprint Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Shoot, do you really have to be told that? NASCAR drivers are intense competitors who love to win and hate to lose.

To have a championship within grasp only to see it snatched away at the last moment has to be agonizingly frustrating.

Throughout NASCAR’s history there have been many types of competitors, ranging from those who raced as an expensive hobby, to those who won multiple championships and became legends.

There have also been some who have come very close to winning a championship, but never did so throughout their careers.

I don’t think Edwards is going to be one of them.

First, if experience in championship tussles means anything, Edwards has lots of it. He finished third in 2005, second in 2008 and fourth in 2010.

Of course, there followed the 2011 season. Edwards was the point leader going into the final race at Homestead, where he finished second.

Unfortunately, rival Tony Stewart won the race to forced a tie in points with Edwards at 2,403.

Stewart became champ on the tiebreaker, which was the most seasonal wins. Stewart had five – all in the Chase – and Edwards had only one. That proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Second, Edwards has said that, rather than succumb to disappointment and continually bemoan his fate, he is going to learn from the experience and do just a bit better in 2012.

Edwards knows, and has told us more than once, that his team was clearly championship caliber in 2011. At no time during the Chase did he, or it, make a mistake too large to overcome.

Nor did either give in to Stewart and his Stewart-Haas team. As the season came to an end, Edwards and Stewart fought for every point they earned in the Chase. One never attained a significant gain over the other.

Edwards lost the title by, perhaps, the only way he could have: because of a scintillating, come-from-behind performance in the Chase by Stewart.

Edwards looks at racing as his career, during which he wants to get better with each passing season. Therefore, he looks at 2011 as a stepping stone, something from which he has learned valuable lessons.

He vows he will not let emotions rule performance. If he slips competitively in 2012 it won’t be because “We got messed up in the head over not winning the championship.”

Let’s add proper attitude to experience as another ingredient for a championship.

Edwards has both.

Which is why I think that sooner or later – most likely sooner – he’s going to earn one.

As an aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how hard Edwards presses for victories next year. Something else I suspect he learned in 2011 is that the more he wins, the better his chances will be to emerge a champion if it all goes down to the wire.

If the outcome was disappointing, nevertheless Edwards’ championship run was the high-water mark for the Roush organization in 2011.

Edwards and his team took the lead in the four-car organization. Those that followed had seasons rated very good to unexpectedly unproductive.

Matt Kenseth was the only other Roush driver to join Edwards in the Chase. After the reseeding, he was fourth in points with two wins, one position ahead of Edwards.

Kenseth had five top-five finishes in the Chase, including a victory at Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth (left) put up some good numbers for Roush Fenway Racing and joined Edwards as the only team drivers to make the Chase. Greg Biffle did not have the type of season expected of him and wasn't eligible for the Chase. He was 15th in points when the 10-race "playoff" began.

He rose as high as second in points following Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, but finishes of 31st at Martinsville and 34th at Phoenix greased the path for his fourth-place standing at season’s end.

Kenseth, the 2004 champ, can certainly claim another title for Roush. His team can, and does, win races. However, perhaps a little more consistency would seal the deal.

Greg Biffle never figured in the Chase. With no wins, only one top-five finish and seven among the top 10, when the Chase began he was 15th in points and on the outside looking in.

I’m pretty sure Biffle – and Roush – are not pleased with all of that and I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that something needs to be done at Biffle’s team. I strongly suspect that is something the organization already knows.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, David Ragan won his first career a long way toward fulfilling the potential Jack Roush saw in him.

Ragan flirted with making the Chase, hoping that the victory would be enough to land him in one of the final two slots in the 12-car field.

It didn’t work out that way and Ragan finished 19th in points.

It seems all but certain he won’t be with Roush next year. The UPS sponsorship his team enjoyed has moved on and with no new financial backing on the horizon, Roush has released Ragan to search for work elsewhere (Penske?).

It appears Roush will be a three-car team next year – and it still needs to locate sponsorship for Kenseth’s team.

While Roush may be one of several organizations downsizing – or closing – because of the economic situation, I don’t think anyone should be surprised if it puts, at the very least, one car into the Chase in 2012.

Nor should we be surprised if that car is driven by Carl Edwards.

Edwards Contract: Changes Drivers Worth


Carl Edwards contract was unusual in the sense that the manufacturer, Ford, paid both cash and stock to Edwards in the combination deal to resign him. They did and now other drivers who perform are looking for a payday.

Busch’s Drag Racing Foray Harkens To Petty’s Decades Ago

Kurt Busch’s foray into drag racing might not seem very impressive since it ended with his departure in the first round of the Pro Stock eliminations at the NHRA’s Tire Kingdom Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

He did qualify among the top 12 but then got bounced by Erica Enders in the opening session.

But let’s be real. Busch likely expected he wouldn’t get the best of any seasoned competitor. The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and winner of 22 races didn’t go drag racing with any notion he’d whip the competition. He went to gain a new experience and have some fun.

Judging from his effusive appreciation of the reception he got from NHRA competitors, fans, media and officials, he accomplished both.

As the NHRA made known in a press release on March 9, Busch is hardly the first competitor from NASCAR – or Indy-style racing – to take a crack at drag racing. Such legendary stock car drivers as Richard Petty and David Pearson raced fast cars in a straight line for a time.

So did John Andretti, who has competed in NASCAR and IndyCar, open-wheel star Danny Ongais and several others. Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs, well-known stock car team owners, were also successful in the same roles in NHRA.

Pearson and Petty entered drag racing at the same time – 1965 – and for the same reason. They didn’t want to leave NASCAR but felt the sanctioning body made it impossible for them to compete. The organization’s ruling at the time cost them their factory backing.

I suspect that, to this day, Petty wishes he had decided to just stay at home.

In the early 1960s for NASCAR the superspeedway era had begun with the creation of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Atlanta International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway followed a year later.

The auto manufacturers quickly surmised that stock car racing had risen from a basic dirt-track sport, conducted on small tracks in small towns, to one that produced mind-boggling speeds on huge tracks in much larger venues.

Any car that won at these tracks – be it a Ford, Chrysler or General Motors product – would attract huge public interest. It was certain to sell. Sales meant profit, which is what business is all about.

Therefore, manufacturers always came up with ways to make their NASCAR entries more powerful.

But each time they did so they had to gain NASCAR approval. The sanctioning body’s constant dilemma was how to keep competition equal among all the manufacturers.

In 1964, Chrysler introduced the 426 cubic-inch hemispherical combustion chamber engine – the “hemi.”

It blew away the competition and helped Petty, who drove Plymouths for the family Petty Enterprises team, win nine races and his first NASCAR championship.

The Chrysler dominance was so great the General Motors camp, with Chevrolet, gave up stock car racing altogether. Ford didn’t quit, but petitioned NASCAR for everything from approval of its overhead cam engine to acceptance of the Fairlane in place of the larger Galaxy, all of which the sanctioning body refused.

But, in 1965, NASCAR turned the tables and outlawed the hemi engine.

Chrysler promptly pulled out of stock car racing. And for the first time in his career, Petty, whose team had greatly benefited from the support of its now-departed manufacturer, was out of a ride.

However, despite the NASCAR walkout, Chrysler wanted to help its most proficient and popular driver. It suggested Petty build a drag racing car.

Petty had never even been to a drag race. But with the help of Chrysler’s experts, Petty Enterprises constructed a Plymouth Barracuda, which was numbered “43jr.” and named “Outlawed.”

Petty competed in exhibition events and in a couple of NHRA national events. He won – a lot. In so doing he attracted a lot of attention because, at that time, no one had gone from stock car racing to drags and been successful.

Meanwhile, Pearson, on the NASCAR sidelines because of the Chrysler ruling, also turned to drag racing. He drove a Dodge Dart station wagon built by Cotton Owens with an alcohol mixture engine in the rear – called “The Cotton Picker” – in several exhibition events.

A Sunday afternoon in Dallas, Ga., in 1965 became one of the darkest days of Petty’s life and, ultimately, led to his departure from drag racing.

In that race Petty blasted off the line, went from first gear to second and then something broke. He had no control over the steering. He hit the brakes but nothing happened. His Barracuda cleared a wire fence and ended up on its nose – among the spectators.

People were screaming and some were splayed along the ground. Petty was asked by those rushing to his battered car if he was all right. He said not to care about him but to tend to the folks he hit.

Six of them were hurt. An eight-year-old boy was killed.

Petty has admitted several times over the years that he couldn’t bear the thought of that youngster’s death.

He tried drag racing a few more times but his heart wasn’t in it. He quit.

Petty will tell you that danger and tragedy lurk in all forms of motorsports, including drag racing.

He would know tragedy again much later in life with the passing of his grandson Adam in a crash at New Hampshire in 2000.

Midway through the 1965 season, NASCAR allowed Chrysler to run its hemi engine, but only on short tracks. Petty ran 14 races and won four of them.

Thereafter, as you know, he made racing history over the course of two decades.

He never returned to drag racing. I don’t think he would have under any circumstances.

I suspect, though, he would quickly tell you that the sport never needed him anyway. It’s had its own stars for many, many years – just as it does today.

Kurt Busch Has Thrived Under The Tutelage Of ‘The Captain’

There was a time, not long ago, when Kurt Busch was considered one of the “bad boys” of NASCAR. What a difference Roger Penske can make – and has.

When Busch drove for Jack Roush, it just didn’t bring out the best in an obviously talented driver, by which I mean his concentration wasn’t as much on his job as it was his frustrations. They were frequently on display for all of us.

Penske has a way of dealing with such as this with all of his drivers. They don’t call him “The Captain” for nothing. Penske has rules of conduct that must be followed.

A case in point would have to be Busch’s well-noted, multiple rants on the radio, seemingly race after race. Penske remained calm – although he could have easily been upset, as others were. Even Jimmy Spencer wasn’t able to “adjust Kurt’s attitude” in a physical confrontation – much less Busch’s teeth.

Penske adopted a much different tactic. He addressed the issue in private. As a result, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Busch seems to have a different attitude these days.

Penske doesn’t get mad. He makes decisions. Busch is now fully aware of that. Sometimes the woodshed isn’t so bad for you.

What really prompted all of this was to witness Busch at Daytona last month. Amidst all the autograph seekers and well wishers that were following him from the media center, he was late for another interview and apologized to the fans for not being able to stop.

He kept moving with purpose and then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a young boy in a wheelchair. He immediately turned around and headed straight for the child.

What happened next was a testament to the real Busch inside. He knelt down, put his arms around the boy, spoke to him – inaudible to the rest of the crowd – and spent almost five minutes with him.

No one dared interrupt this communication of one truly compassionate human to another – and one whose life may have been uplifted. This is the real Busch. I was there and to say I was moved would be an understatement.

We can never be sure if the last two races are a harbinger of good things to come for Busch and the Penske team. But what is certain is that his ability to mature under the tutelage of “The Captain” has made a difference overall – and also almost certainly in Busch’s life.

He’s now a contender once again and that has to motivate him to excel, a virtue that Penske is renowned for extracting from his drivers and others around him.

On that day in Daytona, Penske would no doubt have been proud to see what he had been instrumental in creating. Not only for Kurt Busch but, more important, also for a small boy running his own race.
Next on Roger’s menu is Brad Keselowski

Martin Plans To Press On, But There’s A Job To Do

I’m guessing Mark Martin knows when to quit – apparently it’s just not going to be any time soon.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Jan. 9, is in his last year with Hendrick Motorsports. He will be replaced in 2012 by Kasey Kahne.

When that happens Martin will have completed his 25th season as a NASCAR driver. Seems a good time to move on to something else.

Right now, however, Martin isn’t going to do that. He said during the Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway that he intends to continue to race.

“I am absolutely, without a doubt, going to be driving race cars next year,” he said. “I’m just not going to be in any hurry to worry about that.”

Martin announced five years ago that he was ready to retire. He would bring to an end a 19-year tenure with Jack Roush, which produced, by far, Martin’s greatest successes.

With Roush, Martin won 35 Cup races and finished second in the final point standings four times.

But Martin changed his mind about retirement. Instead, in 2007 he accepted a ride for a limited schedule with owner Bobby Ginn. Dale Earnhardt Inc. absorbed the Ginn operation later in the year and Martin stayed on to compete in 24 races in 2008.

It surprised some that Martin agreed to race full-time for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. As far as Martin’s career goes, it was a very good move.

He had one of his best seasons with five wins and another second-place finish in points. It was abundantly clear that was a lot of life left in the old boy.

Many felt Martin would be a title contender in 2010 and could, at long last, win his first career championship.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Martin failed to win a race, finished among the top 10 only 11 times and wound up 13th in points – out of the Chase.

This bit of adversity is nothing compared to what Martin has overcome in his past.

His first full-time foray into NASCAR in 1982 went bust and he was forced to return to short-track racing in the Midwest, where he had been vastly successful.

He didn’t return to NASCAR until 1988, when Roush formed his team and gave Martin his long-awaited chance – provided he no longer took another drink.

Obviously, Martin made the very most of his second opportunity.
I’ve always felt drivers retire for several reasons but the most common appear to be:
Racing is no longer fun, it’s a grind.
Because he says he’s going to return in 2012, Martin obviously does not consider racing a grind.
A driver no longer feels he’s able to perform at the level he once did.

Despite his 2010 season, which was an off-year for him, Martin clearly feels he’s able to perform at a high level and wants to raise that in 2011. No one is going to argue with that.

A driver faces the fact opportunities have dried up for him.

They certainly haven’t for Martin over the years and, despite the fact this is his last year with Hendrick, do you really believe an opportunity won’t arise for Martin in 2012?

A driver is no longer physically able to perform.

Unfortunately, this has been the situation for several drivers over the years. Martin, however, has thus far avoided any serious malady, both on and off the track. Hopefully, that will continue.

And he’s one of the most physically-fit individuals in the garage area, having long since substituted body building for booze.

Martin has evolved into one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. In racing his age does not matter – obviously he doesn’t think so – and if he’s got the right equipment and personnel he can compete with the youngest of them.

When it comes to sorting out his future, Martin’s got it right. He’ll deal with that much later in the season.
Right now he’s got a job to do – again.

When Sabates Speaks His Mind Everyone Listens – Or Should

Felix Sabates, co-owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (now there’s a mouthful) is never shy about expressing his opinions.

He is one of the most outspoken people in NASCAR. He unabashedly says what he feels. If you listen to him and don’t get his point, well, you’re not really listening.

Sabates is not only informative, he’s also entertaining. He can be very funny and often is. But make no mistake. He’s from Cuba and has displayed the quick temper associated with the Latin heritage.

Following an incident involving one of his drivers, I’ve seen Sabates throw down his headset, stalk down pit road to the offending competitor’s stall and heatedly speak his mind – with finger waving.

Much more often, however, Sabates is downright engaging and is quick to flash his singular smile.

Sabates’ natural talents have obviously served him well. He started to build his fortune decades ago as a car salesman – and I’m sure you know how verbally persuasive those guys can be.

He’s still selling cars. But he’s long since moved from Dodge to Mercedes. Oh, and he can tell you how to acquire a handsome new yacht, if that’s your wish.

Sabates broke into NASCAR in 1989 with a new Winston Cup team called Sabco Racing and driver Kyle Petty.
As time passed he and Ganassi became partners and then merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Sabates is, as you might suspect, a media magnet. He knows the value of a good relationship with the press, to which he’s always been accessible. I’ve been doing this a lot of years and Sabates is the only team owner who has not only given me his cell phone number, he’s also always – always – returned my calls.

Being who he is, a couple of days ago Sabates was a target at the Sprint Media Tour Presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Surrounded by reporters and their digital recorders, Sabates was in his element.
He was asked about various subjects. And he responded in true from. Here are some of his comments:
— About the new point system NASCAR will, reportedly, enforce in 2011:

“If NASCAR changes the point system, I think that’s great. The system we got now, well, Einstein couldn’t figure it out. If anyone says they understand it that’s b.s. They’re lying.

“I think 43-1 in points is great. But I also think NASCAR needs to throw away a driver’s four worst races of the year so all that count to the Chase are 22 instead of 26. That would change the whole dynamics of the Chase.

“Say, if you have a wreck or the driver does something stupid in the car or the crew chief makes a bad call and you lose a lap. One bad situation or call shouldn’t make a season.

“As for paying extra points for winning, I have a theory. If you pay 10 points for first place and five for second and third, so they pay something, I think you’ll see different and better racing.”

— On the impending 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500:

“I think Dale Earnhardt getting killed has forced NASCAR to make a lot of improvements in safety, but then, it was going in that direction anyway. But after the accident NASCAR put in some systems that are pretty darn good today.

“Dale and I had a good relationship away from the track. He would stay with me on my yacht at Daytona and we’d wake up at 5:30 every morning and have coffee.

“He would be so pissed off over the changes today. He wouldn’t have liked any of it. He was from the old school and probably would have driven without seatbelts if they’d let him.

“To him a race car had four wheels and it was up to you to drive it. He would probably say the cars of today drive themselves but, of course, they don’t. You still have to have someone mashing the gas. I think he would have a hard time adjusting to the things we have today.”

— Sabates did, at times, go chin-to-chin with the late Bill France Jr., the former CEO of NASCAR with whom he was friends. His son Brian has taken over and made many sweeping changes.

“The big difference between today and the days before Brian is that Bill Jr. was a benevolent dictator. It was his way or the highway.

“Brian has always tried to get input from a lot of people and he does. I don’t know if that is good or bad but I like the way he does things. I also liked the way Bill Jr. did things – you don’t like it, get the hell out of here. You don’t have to race.

“But, to be honest, the whole economic situation has changed over the last four or five years. It was nothing Brian did wrong, the whole world went to crap.

“Over the last two years I think the economy has been the culprit for all that has happened in NASCAR. I really do. I don’t think it had anything to do with anyone in NASCAR, it was just that the economy put the sport behind the eight ball.

“It’s a different situation for different teams. Rick Hendrick has a large network of auto dealerships. If he never made a dime in racing it doesn’t matter to him.

“I think if he had to pull $20 million out of his own pocket that wouldn’t matter to him. I don’t think there are a lot of owners who put their own money into their teams, especially over the last two years. Jack Roush hasn’t done it because he can’t afford it.

“As I’ve said, what’s happened has nothing to do with Brian. But in the next two or three years we will be able to tell if the changes he’s made will hold up.”

Feel free to agree or disagree with him, but you have to admit Felix Sabates makes, without reservation, his opinions known.

Layoffs, Sadly, Still A Part Of NASCAR

Ran into an old friend the other day, Scott Robinson, who has been part of NASCAR as a crewman and shop official for well over 20 years. Ol’ Scott doesn’t look like he’s aged a day.

But that might change soon. When I asked him how things were going, he paused and then said: “Pretty good right now. But who knows a couple of days from now?”

Robinson was referring to today’s precarious employment situation for many NASCAR team members. Although I told him it didn’t seem likely to me, he maintained he could be a victim to the ongoing layoffs.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in this sport,” he said. “When the time comes they don’t think about that.”

Layoffs have been a part of NASCAR for two years now and came about as the economy tanked. When that happened, corporations had to tighten their budgets which meant, of course, layoffs of their own.

It also meant many of them that spent good sponsorship money in NASCAR had to pull the plug on it – or at least reduce it significantly. One result is that even several of the top-tier teams have had to negotiate less expensive deals with two, three or even four financial supporters to make it through the 36-race season.

Other teams have had it more difficult. Some have lessened their participation in NASCAR while others have pulled out altogether.

When Robinson and I met, it had already been announced that Penske Racing had laid off 50 people earlier in the week with more to come.

The prime reason is that Penske has yet to find sponsorship for Sam Hornish, Jr., whose NASCAR career might be derailed if the money can’t be found.

Penske will field three Sprint Cup teams in 2011 with drivers Kurt Busch, Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski. Hornish Jr. will compete in the Daytona 500 and if he can’t proceed, Penske will enter him in the Indianapolis 500.

It had also been announced that Richard Petty Motorsports had laid off 75 employees. RPM itself might have ceased to exist had not new capital been infused by Petty and a couple of investment firms.

RPM, though, will operate with two cars next year instead of four. When a reduction in an organization’s number of teams occurs it means jobs disappear. Some employees are no longer needed – hence, they’re gone.

The RPM team reduction also has had an effect elsewhere, namely, Roush Fenway Racing.

Roush supplied cars and more to RPM in 2010. Since there will be only two to be serviced in 2011, Roush became overstaffed and as many as 60 people were let go.

This, I think, is a good example of the “trickle down” effect, something Robinson pointed out.

“People sometimes don’t understand how all of this affects the sport,” he said. “When a team doesn’t have the money and starts letting people go it reaches well beyond that. It hits a lot of folks working in the sport, even the people who sell souvenirs.”

There’s been plenty of evidence of that, given the speedways have struggled to sell tickets, advertising has dried up, souvenir sales aren’t what they were and fans have to, first, decide if they want to spend money to attend a race and, second, how much they’ll spend once they do.

As said, when it comes to layoffs they are across the board – in NASCAR, corporate America and businesses large and small.

We’ve been told that the economy is rebounding. But the process has been slow – very slow, obviously. People are still losing their jobs.

So it is in NASCAR, unfortunately.

It’s very likely Scott Robinson isn’t the only one taking a look over his shoulder now and then.

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