The outrage over this news isn’t simply that a team is closing. Teams have risen and fallen in the sport at about the same rate as many of their drivers. Curiously, Blue Max Racing, the subject of Brad Keselowski’s winning throwback Sunday night, ran that black-and-gold scheme in their own final season in 1990, just one year after Rusty Wallace scored team owner Raymond Beadle’s only championship.
No. The outrage should be aimed squarely at the unmistakable failure of the Charter system, which was enacted in 2016 to prevent this very thing from happening.
I. THE SYSTEM
The Charter system, as created by the Race Team Alliance (RTA) and enacted by NASCAR, was an effort to give full-time Cup Series teams the same benefits as franchises in stick-and-ball sports. A team with a Charter was guaranteed a starting spot in each of the 36 points-paying races, guaranteeing that any sponsor which signed with that team would be seen in every race. Of the 51 teams which attempted at least one Cup Series race in 2015, 40 attempted all the races run that year, but only 36 were afforded Charters for the first year of the nine-year agreement in 2016.
Under this model, those 36 teams could keep their Charter so long as they finished ahead of at least three other Chartered teams for three consecutive seasons. A team that failed to reach this “good standing” requirement wouldn’t be prohibited from competing in the Cup Series, but would be demoted to the status of an “open team.” With the RTA also reducing field sizes from 43 to 40 cars, only the four fastest “open teams” could qualify each week. “Open teams” could join the Top 36 by buying or leasing a Charter. But since a Chartered team would only do this if the team was selling all its assets, “open teams” had to wait those three years and hope a Top 36 team would lose their Charter by not running well enough.
The end of the Charter system’s third year will come with the fall of the checkered flag this November at Homestead. At that point, Furniture Row Racing – 11th, 1st, and so far 3rd in the standings those seasons – will not only have lost their Charter, but will be gone altogether.
The closure of the defending series champion’s team may seem like it came out of nowhere. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
II. THE WARNINGS
I have been unambiguous in my dislike and distrust of the Charter system. In January 2016, I pointed out that the Charters were nothing more than a re-branded Top 35 Rule with unnecessary benefits for big teams in no danger of missing races. In February 2016, I said the system created a perverse battle royale among the sport's small teams. In March 2016, I pointed out many of the 36 teams “start-and-parked” to get their programs going, and now sought to slam the door on anyone else trying to do the same. And last year, through the example of the "Crash Clock," I predicted a move by some in the sport to pare the field down to only a few cars.
Consider, if you will, the Cup Series teams that have already closed since the 2016 Daytona 500:
First came HScott Motorsports, formerly Phoenix Racing. In 2016, the two-car team had received a Charter for their #51 team inherited from Phoenix to guarantee Clint Bowyer a full-season ride. HScott also leased a second Charter from Premium Motorsports’ #62 team for their second car, driven by Michael Annett. Annett was one of the bottom three Chartered teams that year, 36th in the standings, with Bowyer only managing 28th. When Bowyer left to join Stewart-Haas Racing, both teams closed, sending Annett back to the XFINITY Series.
Next came Tommy Baldwin Racing (TBR), which had come together after the recession of 2008, eventually growing to a three-car operation in 2014. When the program was introduced, TBR’s flagship #7 Chevrolet was awarded a Charter with Regan Smith driving. The team ended up 32nd in Owner Points, but ahead of four other Chartered teams. Regardless, the team closed its doors, selling their Charter to Leavine Family Racing (LFR)’s #95. LFR had been in the market for a Charter in 2017 because they had reached the end of their lease of the Charter from Circle Sport.
The Motorsports Group (TMG) wasn’t one of the original Chartered 36, but was the first to acquire a Charter, then close soon after. Prior to the system’s introduction, TMG had “start-and-parked” multiple cars in the XFINITY Series in order to get their Cup program going in 2015. In 2016, TMG attempted all but one race as an “open team,” then merged with Circle Sport after the end of their lease to LFR. With Jeffrey Earnhardt behind the wheel in every race but the road courses, TMG ran the full season but managed just 37th in the final standings, last among the 36 Chartered teams. Like HScott, TMG still had two more years to stay in “good standing.” But at season’s end, they were done, their Charter going to the #32 of Go FAS Racing.
BK Racing has faced public criticism for their business practices, but their fall followed a similar trajectory. The team scaled back from three teams to two prior to the 2016 season, and was awarded Charters for both their #23 and #83 Toyotas. The #83 was highest of the bottom three Chartered teams in Owner Points – 35th overall – with the #23 just on the other side in 34th. In 2017, BK sold the Charter for the #83 to Front Row Motorsports, who then leased it to fellow XFINITY Series export TriStar Motorsports and their new #72 team. That year, the #23 took its turn in the bottom three, finishing 35th overall, two spots ahead of TMG. The #23 retained its Charter this season – still with two years to turn things around – then just last month liquidated its assets with the #23 Charter also going to Front Row Motorsports.
In between, multi-car Chartered teams have closed their second and third teams, each unable to adjust after a driver left the team. Richard Petty Motorsports scrapped the #44 after Brian Scott retired. Roush-Fenway Racing did the same to the #16 after Greg Biffle left. Richard Childress Racing eliminated the #27 when Paul Menard took his sponsor to the Wood Brothers.
Such sponsorship issues preceded Furniture Row Racing’s downfall. Furniture Row had two Charters last year, one of them purchased from Premium Motorsports after HScott’s #46 closed. That team closed just this past offseason, its Charter sold to JTG-Daugherty Racing. 5-hour Energy, Jones’ sponsor, was absorbed into the #78 team. Perhaps that should’ve been a sign that something even bigger was to come. Perhaps something could have been done to stop it.
Even today, there’s ongoing issues with sponsorship among Chartered teams. Teams representing all three manufacturers have seen the manufacturers themselves as the listed sponsor, a traditional placeholder for a full-scale backer. Chevrolet has been the primary backer for Ryan Newman’s #31 in two races, Toyota for Erik Jones’ #20 for another two, and Ford for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s #17 in four. If things don’t change, who knows what the future holds for any of them.
III. THE FAILURE
The tragedy of the Charter system was it had surface appeal to those who didn’t care about the sport’s underfunded teams. If you only looked at the front of the field, at who was contending for wins, everything seemed like it was fine. Teams like Gibbs, Hendrick, and Stewart-Haas Racing would still be out there with the same drivers fighting week after week. If that was the entirety of your NASCAR experience, your world just kept spinning. Much like those first moments after the Titanic struck the iceberg, it was only when you went to the lower decks in Third Class that you would know something terrible was happening.
If you said the Charter program was a great idea because “who cares about the small teams,” the fall of Furniture Row Racing is your reckoning.
If there’s anything positive to come from the fact that someone in First Class didn’t reach a lifeboat in time, perhaps as in 1912 it will be a moment for us all to take a step back and realize the mistake that’s been made, the terrible harm it’s done, and work together on what can be done to fix it.
For the best interests of professional stock car racing, the Charter program needs to be rescinded. Attention must turn to a transparent and fair distribution of purse and TV money, and above all, a way to reduce costs. And NASCAR must play a more active role in encouraging sponsors to back race teams, rather than grabbing them up to be “an official product of NASCAR.”
It won’t fix everything, and it won’t bring back the teams we’ve lost, but it would be a good start.