Why NASCAR's Race Team Alliance may be more important than you think

Its success, or failure, could impact other forms of racing.

It happened way back in 1992, but I’ve never forgotten it: A friend and colleague named Norman was a member of the editorial board of a medium-sized newspaper. He held a PhD in political science. He was one of the most liberal journalists I’ve ever met, and that’s covering some territory.

We began talking about the Presidential campaign, which was shaping up to involve eccentric Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot as an independent candidate, and Norman said something that floored me: “Personally, I’d love to see Perot elected.”

Stunned, I ask why.

“Because it would be so interesting,” he said.

After more than a week’s reflection, that’s how I feel about the Race Team Alliance, the association of the nine biggest NASCAR Sprint Cup team owners announced last week by Rob Kauffman (in photo above), a less-eccentric billionaire who stepped in to bail out Michael Waltrip’s struggling team. Kauffman is an investor, owns a classic-car restoration business and is a race car driver himself, having twice competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The RTA, with Kauffman at the helm as the elected chairman, at present seems tepid, with the only specific announced goals being possible group cost-cutting on, say, team travel expenses.

That suggests the next meeting may go like this:

KAUFFMAN: The chair recognizes fellow billionaire Roger Penske.

PENSKE: Chairman Kauffman, my research has revealed that if you book 10 nights through Hotel.com, you get one night free.

KAUFFMAN: Bravo, Mr. Penske! It’s obvious why they call you The Captain.

Really, the idea that a conglomerate like Penske runs, or Rick Hendrick’s 87-dealership automotive chain, would not already have on board travel experts charged with finding the best deals is unlikely. Then why isn’t this the Race Team Travel Consultant Alliance? Is there more afoot?

Conspiracy theorists – and they abound in NASCAR, and make their presence known every time there is a mysterious caution flag, especially if it improves the on-track position of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Danica Patrick – are convinced that the RTA is racing’s New World Order and Bilderberg Club rolled into one, and fully expect meetings to be held in Area 51.

Historic background

They talk of how previous attempts to organize, such as the Professional Drivers Association in 1969, were struck down by the sheer force of will and bravado of men like NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., who may or may not have been armed as he strode the infield of the then-new Talladega Speedway, which had been blowing out tires the way Larry King blows out birthday candles.

The message from France was clear: If you monkeys don’t like this circus, I’ll find monkeys that do. And he did. One of them was lower-level driver Richard Childress, now a member of the RTA. Another member is Richard Petty, one of the circus monkeys shown the gate at Talladega.

Most in the media who are not taking Kauffman’s benign, benevolent explanation of the purpose of the RTA, and that is pretty much everybody, suggest that the RTA’s central mission is to squeeze NASCAR for a higher percentage of the TV money, an $8.2-billion deal over the next decade.

Even with soggy ratings, television is where the money is. Even Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, who is nothing if not a savvy businessman, has called the fans who actually show up at his events “the studio audience.” It’s the people watching on TV that attracts sponsors and corporate participants. And even though NASCAR’s weekly purse remains stratospheric compared to other racing series – the $292,311 Martin Truex won for finishing last at the 2014 Daytona 500 is more than the winner’s purse for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring combined – the real money is in broadcast rights.

Of the 43 drivers, at least 35 of them are likely to drive for an RTA team

Rob Kauffman said at the New Hampshire race that the RTA will invite smaller teams to join, as long as they tried to qualify for 95 percent of the races. Of the 43 drivers at a typical race, at least 35 of them are likely to drive for an RTA team.

The ultimate club in the RTA’s golf bag, probably a nice set of Honma Five Stars, is the threat of boycott which, as my old friend Norman might say, would really be interesting. But it is hard to imagine how many billable hours by attorneys would precede that decision, and suggests that the real purpose of the RTA may be to discuss among themselves how to keep a lid on legal bills. This isn’t 1969, and for better or worse, Brian France (in photos at left) isn’t his grandfather.

If the RTA’s prime purpose is to get NASCAR’s attention, mission accomplished. And thanks to the media, the RTA will become more and more important: Once they appoint an accessible spokesperson, expect us to ask the RTA’s opinion every time an issue in NASCAR arises, be it a rules or schedule change, or the question about whether 72-year-old drivers should be banned.

If the RTA wants to insert itself into the daily NASCAR media mix, the opportunity will exist. If they want to donate $1 million to a charity like the Victory Junction Camp, unanimous goodwill should follow. Will the RTA be a silent presence, or a weekly player? It may depend on how RTA members about whether their concerns are being heard.

There is one more aspect of the RTA that you should consider: This isn’t just NASCAR we’re talking about. I promise you that teams in every major series are watching this very closely, from V8 Supercar competitors in Australia to World of Outlaws sprint car owners. What the RTA does, or doesn’t do, could impact every form of racing in the long term.

Or not. If Hotels.com could give NASCAR teams two free nights for every 10 booked instead of one, this whole discussion could be over.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Michael Waltrip , Richard Petty , Martin Truex Jr. , Roger Penske , Bernie Ecclestone , Robert Kauffman , Danica Patrick
Article type Commentary
Tags roger penske