Monday, January 4, 2016

OPINION: The Charter System Is Wrong For NASCAR

Today, NBC Sports announced that the Race Team Alliance (RTA) is now in the final stages of establishing a new charter system within the sport, reducing the Sprint Cup starting field from 43 cars to 40 and locking up 36 of those remaining spots to current teams and entries for the next five years.  It’s a well-meaning plan, though a bit of saber-rattling on the part of a union that’s existed for just over a year, but I believe it’s wrong for NASCAR.

I’m torn on this one.  On the one hand, I’m reluctant to say anything negative about a union’s activities as I believe collective bargaining is important to keep an employer’s powers in check.  I believe this is particularly important in sports, where there’s so much money at stake that potentially serious problems - like the reserve clause in baseball and CTE in football - can go ignored for years.  NASCAR itself has mishandled such matters as Curtis Turner’s lifetime ban for union activities, the debacle of Talladega 1969, and I believe still needs to do more to support drivers once they retire (but that’s an article for another day).

On the other hand, all this doesn’t mean unions can’t make poor decisions - in baseball, you only have to look back to 1994 for proof.  So that’s what this article will focus on - not the RTA itself, but the problems with this single proposal.

First of all, the RTA's charter system is built on a fallacy.  There is no risk now or in the next five years that NASCAR’s most prolific Sprint Cup drivers and teams will ever - EVER - fail to qualify for a single race.  Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske to name just a few of the RTA’s members have so much money and resources, commitments from so many sponsors, and such an extended presence in the XFINITY Series - not to mention high positions in the points - that we’re not going to see a race without their drivers for some time.  I hope the reason the RTA is getting traction on this isn’t because of Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers’ injuries, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth’s suspensions, and the collapse of Michael Waltrip Racing last year, matters which had nothing to do with any of their cars having enough speed to make the race.

Second, while the charter system’s proposal to guarantee starting spots does help a number of small teams who are RTA members, further shortening the field to 40 cars unnecessarily punishes nonmember teams and deters any start-ups from joining in the next five years.  Unlike the Gibbs and Hendricks of the sport, fellow RTA members like Go FAS Racing, BK Racing, and Tommy Baldwin Racing have still struggled to make races and earn good finishes.  Five years ago in 2011, Baldwin was starting to escape the “start-and-park” doldrums, FAS was in its second year reorganizing from the assets of Roush-Fenway’s closed #26, and BK was still Team Red Bull.  Imagine if all three teams were on the outside looking in on the proposed charter system, battling all the other start-ups for the final four spots in the field.  None might exist today, having lost so much from a greater number of DNQs.

I realize that the big teams are trying to avoid the same fate, but I don’t believe they should be allowed to give themselves a safety net that excludes upstarts and makes this their series alone.  This isn’t a sport of franchises.  It never has and it never should be. Only the Wood Brothers have been around since the very beginning.  It would be great if Bud Moore Engineering were still around, if Petty’s cars were built in Level Cross and the only #11 were fielded by Junior Johnson, but the sport’s very nature is to change.  Teams are no different than drivers or even manufacturers - they come and go.  There is risk in every business venture, and if other current events are any sign, no race team should be declared “too big to fail.”

Third, the charter system is nothing more than a re-branding of the dreaded Top 35 rule.  It’s a classic deception - if the people don’t like it, simply call it something else.  Remember how we didn’t like that?  How it made the rules for the Duels even more difficult to understand and turned much of qualifying into a formality?  I do.  In 2010, I covered the “Top 35 Battle” for another website.  When watching that spot on a weekly basis, I was able to see it for what it was.  During the first few races, the previous years’ points set the field, so the same teams stayed in the Top 35.  Once the “reset” occurred, the same teams were there anyway, and for the rest of the year the gap between 35th and 36th stayed the same or inched wider, making it impossible for anyone to jump back in.  On paper, this could theoretically change if a new team had a breakout performance in the Daytona 500, qualified for the next four races without being able to fall back on Owner Points without even one DNQ, and finished well in all four.  The RTA’s charter system simply makes this impossibility a rule - even if a team outside the RTA has a breakout season, they’ll never earn a guaranteed spot.

Finally, the RTA’s charter proposal is just plain wrong for NASCAR.  From its roots, the Sprint Cup Series welcomed all kinds of drivers, teams, and manufacturers to challenge its top names. In the 1960s, there were Cup points races at Bowman-Gray Stadium where Fords and Plymouths raced alongside British MGs and Triumphs.  Series outsiders from legends Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti to Winston West competitors like Bill Sedgwick and Mike Chase showed how well they could handle the sport’s big cars.  Well into the 1990s, local drivers like H.B. Bailey and Billy Standridge still brought their own cars to the track and out-qualified Cup regulars to make the race - Standridge made all four restrictor-plate races in 1998.  The drivers, teams, and manufacturers who will make up the 2016 Sprint Cup roster all benefited from this openness at one point in their careers.  To let them reap that benefit and then turn around and prevent others from the chance to earn it is repugnant to the spirit of stock car racing.