For years, owners have broached the subject of being awarded team franchises because they feel that they are owed them for the capital that they have risked in participating in the sport. Every time the topic is breached, a number of past owners have no problem venting their frustration at an independent contracting system which left them seriously in debt when their teams went south. Former Winston Cup team owner Ricky Rudd recently summarized his time as a team owner and driver as a tough experience, to say the least. “It was sort of a sad situation because you work, you put all that sweat into it, but it doesn’t really get you anything,” he explained. “It gives you a business for today, but no planning for the future. Man, I’m so tickled that I’m not an owner right now.”
Rudd went on to say, “From an owner standpoint, I was pushing for franchising years ago when I had my teams because, at the end of the day, we spent millions of dollars and we had an auction and got 10 cents on the dollar for all our parts.”
Now, auto racing by its very nature is a competitive endeavor. At NASCAR's highest level, it can be tremendously rewarding; it can also be incredibly harsh. As with all sports, there is a direct correlation between one's performance and the financial rewards that are enjoyed by a driver and/or team. Those that are both figuratively and literally not able to keep pace will fail…and that is as it should be. If not, race sanctioning organizations such as NASCAR would simply pay everyone the same prize money, distribute trophies of the same size to all the racers to show their appreciation for their participation, and award a special ribbon to the team owner and driver that is voted by their fellow participants as most congenial. However, it is doubtful that an excess of 200,000 people would pay prices on tickets and transportation to attend such an event.
Well, not only Rudd, but probably the biggest legend in the history of stock car racing, Richard Petty, believes that owners should be rewarded for their participation in what is the most popular and potentially lucrative auto racing organization in the country. Proposing a solution to the ownership problem, they’ve suggested the opportunity of guaranteeing future profiteering through some form of team franchising. The “King,” perhaps more than anyone else, seems to believe it is a real possibility that this will one day come to pass. “I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it or not, but it will probably happen someday,” says the man that is instrumental in the early growth of NASCAR. “I think the only thing in my mind that keeps NASCAR from becoming a completely legitimate, major league with golfing or football or baseball or whatever is being franchised.”
Although I believe that Petty's unequaled lifelong contributions to the sport and career achievements have earned him a free pass for anything within reason he would ask of from NASCAR, his opinion should serve as the exception…not the rule. Any structure of ownership that assures an owner future success based on anything but their present performance will be detrimental to the competitive nature of the sport. Fans, as the lifeblood of the sport, want to see the fastest and most able 43 racecars compete against one another. When it is evident that what they are watching is not necessarily the best cars and teams this nation can produce rubbing fenders, but cars and teams allowed to participate based on their seniorityâ€¦interest in NASCAR would quickly wane.
This issue, which rears its ugly head from time to time, seems to be resurfacing now largely as a result of the Wood Bros. Racing's apparent slide into possible extinction. Having struggled both on the track as well as, not so coincidently, gaining lucrative sponsorship, the team appears to be the next in a long list of longtime Cup competitors that have been forced out of the sport. The loss of the team that gave us so many great memories and provided racecars with the famous No. 21 on the side for some of the sports all-time greats will be sad. But with only 5 wins in the last twenty-four years and with a program currently struggling to even qualify for races after slipping out of the protection of the Top 35 in owner points this seasonâ€¦let’s just say it’s hard to hide the fact this team is no longer competitive. Of course, that’s not NASCAR’s fault; because it isn’t, they should not be allowed to continue to perpetuate their inability to be competitive by being awarded a franchise.
Kyle Petty, son of Richard Petty, as well as a veteran driver and head of the family racing business, Petty Enterprises, Inc. believes differently. “In the business world, there’s a totally different set of rules,” he said. “Call it sweat equity. We put 60 years in here, and we deserve something back for those 60 years. The Wood Brothers deserve something back for their 50 years.”
Well, race team owners are no different than any other business owners in this country. As entrepreneurs, they are responsible for their success as well as their failure, not so unlike the nice folks that own your favorite dry cleaners. As long as they are competitive, they should profit; but when they fail to perform at a satisfactory level, they will eventually be forced out of the industry. Any "sweat equity" that is realized by either business is earned through the accumulated profits that are generated by the business itself; in the case of NASCAR Cup team owners, the profits in this situation loom potentially huge, as in millions of dollars. Financial rewards that most business owners in America could only dream of earning in their chosen endeavors lie waiting in the coffers of a successful Cup program.
Fortunately, NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations, Steve O’Donnell, although admitting that the racing organization has in the past considered franchising and discussed it with team owners, seems to understand the folly of such an idea. “The challenge is ‘what does a franchise mean?’ in our sport and how can it benefit everyone?” O’Donnell said in a written statement. “We are different than the stick and ball sports. Competition, not contracts, dictates whether teams compete week in and week out,” he said. “So far, no model has been developed to ensure that the need to perform would remain a team’s priority.”
“True, side by side competition is at the root of NASCAR,” he said, “and it’s important to be maintained.”
Thankfully, NASCAR still understands that good competition is the cornerstone of their organization's past success, and is necessary if they hope to continue to grow their sport. Though I continue to disagree with their current policy of protecting teams under the “Top 35 rule", apparently the sport does surprisingly have limits on protecting non-competitive teams.
When one of the beloved organizations such as a Petty Enterprises, or Wood Bros. Racing can no longer compete, there’s clearly no doubt its heartbreaking. Still, the notion that they should be allowed to continue to compete is not in the best interest of the sport. It is important to remember that they have enjoyed enviable success, and it is assumed that they have earned significant wealth as a result of their participation in NASCAR. But as with most thingsâ€¦their time in the spotlight does come to an end. It shouldn’t be up to NASCAR to give them a free pass to keep going.
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