|"Sorry, Dale. You're done."|
In early 2016, the RTA’s new Charter system instituted a field reduction in Cup from 43 cars to 40. The official reason was to eliminate “start-and-park” teams. This was demonstrably false - “start-and-park” teams had completely disappeared from Cup by 2015, and those same teams were running full races. When the field reduction kicked in, those teams suddenly had an even slimmer chance of making the race. To make ends meet, many of these teams merged while others closed entirely.
The Charter system also created a class system among the teams. A pre-selected 36 of the remaining 40 were guaranteed a starting spot in every race. This privilege also gave the 36 a new asset which could be sold or leased, and could only be lost by a low point ranking over five seasons. The new lower class, now called “Open Teams,” had none of these benefits. To have any hope of growing their program or attracting sponsors, they would have to buy or lease a Charter, or hope after five years to end up with one. All this burden was added on top of the already daunting task of operating an underfunded team.
The 2016 season showed just how difficult it was for “Open Teams” to make ends meet. Just 44 cars arrived in Florida for the Daytona 500, and for the next four races, there weren’t enough cars showing up to even meet the 40-car minimum. It’s telling that all season long not one start-up team joined the circuit to fill the gap. Only when existing programs like BK Racing and Premium Motorsports added an extra Open car could the 40-car minimum be reached.
The difficulties aren’t limited to the Open Teams. Despite its promise to improve the financial security of its biggest franchises, Chartered teams near the bottom of the rankings are also struggling. Tommy Baldwin Racing sold their Charter before Homestead, and their Cup plans beyond the Daytona 500 are unknown. HScott Motorsports closed its doors at season’s end, and its Charter went on the market. Richard Petty Motorsports was unable to keep its second team going after Brian Scott retired. BK Racing endured puzzling financial difficulties and lost both their full-time drivers. Many of the new teams we’re now seeing, including the second teams for Furniture Row Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing, only exist because they acquired Charters from teams that closed. That hardly sounds like progress.
This brings us the 2017 rules changes, and the wrecked car rule revision in particular. One of the hallmarks of stock car racing - especially compared to open-wheels - is the durability of the cars, and the ability of teams to get them back out there. Crowds cheer when a damaged car makes it back out on track, even if it’s been dozens of laps. The teams don’t just do this for fun, either - every position means they earn a greater share of the purse (amounts which the RTA also made secret as part of the Charter deal). By restricting the ability to come back out, another glass ceiling has been erected, cutting off still another stream of income for smaller teams.
And it is the smaller teams who bear the brunt of this new rule. Which teams wreck the most often? Those with limited resources or inexperienced drivers. Which teams can’t repair their car on pit road in five minutes? The same ones. Which teams suffer the most when one of their cars is wrecked? You guessed it. Just like the Charter system, which was built on the myth that super-teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were in any danger of shutting down, this new crash protocol won’t hurt the big guys, either. Something else is going on here, and I think NASCAR is being disingenuous when they say it’s in the name of competition.
I believe we are in the midst of a dramatic restructuring geared toward slashing the number of teams that make up the grid. It started when the RTA reduced field sizes from 43 to 40. It will continue when the Open Teams can’t hold out any longer, bringing it back to 36. It will shrink again when the lower-end Chartered teams have no choice but to cash out. With no start-up Open Teams to sell their Charter to, they’ll sell to the big teams instead. Through an expansion of current technical alliances, the big teams will only get bigger until, one day, everyone will drive one of a couple dozen cars owned by a handful of owners - the big-name brands who didn’t need the Charter’s protections in the first place.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. This sport owes its life to its underdogs, to those who may not have had the speed, but had the heart. By making it as difficult as possible for anyone to follow their path and denying its rough-and-tumble past, they are tearing the soul out of stock car racing.