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Holding a Pretty Wheel: What Owners Should Expect From Drivers & What Expectations Go Too Far

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about which drivers I might like to have should I own a race team. That kind of got me thinking about some of the things that teams owners face, and it was about then that I decided that I never, ever want to own a race team. A couple of things came up that gave me pause, though. First, a debate on our own message boards about what makes a driver ready for a Cup ride has been floating around. Then the lawsuit that Dale Earnhardt Inc. filed against former crew chief Doug Richert brought to light some interesting clauses that that company puts in their contract.

Which got me to thinking… what IS fair for a car owner to expect from his or her employees? After all, many of those employees sacrifice their family lives for a job they love. The driver and pit crew are in very real danger performing their jobs. How much more can a boss ask and still get anyone to work for him?

Looking at the DEI lawsuit first, one clause that is apparently standard fare for the company states that employees must maintain strict confidentiality regarding “all personal and/or non-public matters relating to Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt or their families, experiences or circumstances.” All of which means, don’t tell anyone anything you might have heard around the shop, whether it’s true or not. A few years ago, a clause like that was probably silly. In fact, Earnhardt’s death and the media and fan circus that followed may have been a turning point in the need for such things.

As nice as it would be to think that employees in good standing would know better, well, it’s abundantly clear that disgruntled employees don’t share any of that tact. When Jeremy Mayfield, on his way out from Evernham Motorsports a couple of years back, fired some very personal shots about Evernham’s alleged extramarital activities, the possibility of a need for clauses such as this became clear. In as high-profile a business as NASCAR racing has become, this type of clause is probably fair to ask of employees, with a direct nod to Mayfield’s loose lips as the reason. Some things, true or not, scuttlebutt or not, don’t need to be made public because they do more overall harm than good. Not only was Evernham’s personal reputation tarnished, but Mayfield was never able to land a competitive ride again. So who gained anything?

The other clause in Richert’s contract that came to light was his agreement to “endorse the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, and the Dale Earnhardt Foundation shall be the primary, non-religious charity to which Employee principally devotes Employee’s support and the time Employee spends on charitable matters,” which is also reportedly standard language in at least some of DEI’s contracts, and included free appearances on the charity’s behalf. This one I find myself questioning a bit more. What if that person has a specific charity that he or she supports already? Should he or she be forced to give up that worthy cause or to cut the amount donated?

I don’t think so. I do think a couple of fundraising appearances are acceptable, but to sway someone’s loyalty and support of an organization isn’t right. I would hope an employee of mine would want to support a charity, especially one that was dear to me, but I don’t think it’s fair to force it on them, nor to choose it for them. This one, all in all, I find over the line.

The other debate I heard had to do specifically with drivers. The gist of the discussion was whether maturity and attitude should be taken into consideration by an owner when deciding a driver’s readiness to move up to a higher series. The issue I brought up with some drivers is that they were, in essence, blaming their race teams when they finished fifth or sixth instead of winning. While it hadn’t been said out loud, I feel that failing to thank their team after complaining about the finish is blame by omission.

While I can understand the frustration of a driver who badly wanted to win and fell short, I also understand that every member of the team wanted to win just as badly and tried just as hard to make it happen as the driver did. (And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be working for me much longer if I was the owner.) They don’t get the attention and fame that the driver does, and they don’t deserve that treatment. If someone makes a mistake, discuss it back at the shop, not in front of a national audience. Humiliation or defensiveness isn’t going to go very far in motivating someone to do better next time.

While I don’t think I’d necessarily put it the driver’s contract, if I was the owner you can bet your booties that it would be a tacit agreement that if my driver was interviewed by a media outlet after practice, qualifying or a race, he would be expected to thank his team. He can complain about the rules, the tires, the other drivers, but in public he would thank his team for working as hard as they could and busting their butts just as hard as he did. If my driver couldn’t find it in him to do that, perhaps he could find it in his pocket, in the form of a $100 donation to the charity of his choice. A little gratitude and politeness goes a long way toward ensuring that your guys will work just as hard next week. And in racing, a 10th place this week can turn into a win next week – with the right teamwork.

There are some places where a car owner has the right and perhaps the need to require things of his or her employees. Confidentiality is one of them. So is teamwork and treating other employees with decency and respect. Those are fair to ask of a person whose paycheck you’re signing each week. Loyalty to an outside cause, no matter how dear to the owner’s own heart, is going too far. Today’s NASCAR is a business, and an owner’s bottom line and reputation and the performance of the company’s employees have to have a place in a worker’s conditions of employment. Beyond that, though, it quickly stops being a strong, stable work environment and becomes a petty dictatorship. It’s a thin line.

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