Murto: Unions, NASCAR don’t mix

The Race Team Alliance (RTA) is the biggest news in NASCAR in years; hopefully in the future it won’t be seen as the beginning of the end.

The self-proclaimed nonprofit “league,” headed by Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman, stated its goals are to help reduce costs for teams and “create an open forum for the tams to explore areas of common interest to work collaboratively on initiatives to help preserve, promote, and grow the sport of stock car racing.”

Though they’ve since stated that any team that attempted to make 95 percent of the 72 Sprint Cup races held in the last two years may join and pay dues, the original members of the RTA were the biggest teams in the sport: Michael Waltrip Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, Richard Childress racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Roush-Fenway, Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.

The teams combined will have more buying power and be able to reduce costs. Kauffman has noted that teams collectively spend between $50 million to $100 million annually in travel expenses.

The notion that teams band together to save money and reduce costs is noble, as is the hope to give owners a single voice. But before we take their intentions on face value, let’s take a closer look.

According to Forbes, Hendrick Motorsports is worth $348 million. Joe Gibbs Racing is worth $171 million, and Roush-Fenway $157 million. At the bottom of the original RTA member list is Richard Petty Motorsports, worth $48 million, still more than many Northern Virginia government contractors.

Timing must be taken into consideration. The 2015 season marks the beginning of a 10-year, $8.2 billion TV deal.

Also related to timing is the fact that the RTA announced its existence days after NASCAR’s state-of-the-sport address. What better way to grab attention?

And in 2007 Forbes reported that Kauffman, an investment banker, was worth $1.8 billion. Do you believe he’s concerned about saving money or reducing costs? This is a man who makes money.

NASCAR distributes 65 percent of its TV revenue to tracks, 25 percent to teams and keeps 10 percent. Teams already will see an increase in revenue with the new TV deal. If the RTA makes demands like a union, it will be a destructive force.

Tracks are taking a beating in this economy in attendance and concession sales; they’re not going to want to give up any of their percentage. And don’t expect NASCAR to take less.

NASCAR considers its competitors independent contractors. Unions and NASCAR don’t mix.

Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters tried to organize the Federation of Professional Athletes in 1961, including drivers Curtis Turner and Tim Flock. NASCAR founder Bill France ruled that no union driver could race in NASCAR, and stated he’d use a pistol to enforce the rule. He gave Turner and Flock a lifetime ban; Turner returned, but Flock never raced in NASCAR again.

In 1969 Richard Petty organized the Professional Drivers Association, which boycotted the inaugural race at Talladega over safety concerns. Most of the major names didn’t participate, but NASCAR held the race anyway with a combination of Grand American and Sportsman cars to fill the field. Richard Brickhouse scored his only big-time NASCAR win, and by the next week the union disbanded.

NASCAR said it will conduct business as usual, and that it will listen to everyone (any owner, not just RTA members). Drivers have made statements in favor of the RTA, but obviously won’t go against their employers. Bruton Smith, who owns eight tracks on which the Cup series competes, stated he can find nothing good in the formation of the RTA.

The RTA hired the international law firm of Jones Day as counsel. Why? Are they planning to grab more control? That will be destructive. IndyCar racing was split in two when owners (including Ganassi and Penske) formed CART; it never fully recovered.

Instead of organizing for more control (and more money), maybe these multi-million-dollar teams should tighten their belts like the rest of us in this economy. NASCAR must be worried, but fans likely will be on their side; it’s hard to support millionaires grabbing a bigger slice of the pie.

Hopefully the RTA will be a positive force and not an owner’s union; NASCAR will not stand for it, and it will not be positive for the sport.

On July 19, Super Late Models compete for $3,000 to win at Winchester Speedway. There’s also motocross racing at Shenandoah Speedway, starting about 10 a.m. Slated for July 26 is the $10,000-to-win Hampton Heat 200 at Langley Speedway. And if you prefer road racing, Summit Point has an SCCA Major event Aug. 1-3, with points counting toward the SCCA runoffs at Laguna Seca in October.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.