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Listen! What’s That Sound?

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Listen! Do you hear that? What’s that whirring sound?

Now that the organizational gauntlet has been thrown down by the biggest of the big in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, one can only guess how NASCAR Nation will define such amorphous terms as “product”, “costs,” and “agreement.” Such vague and abstract concepts often turn into fightin’ words….

Good thing race teams have, with NASCAR’s blessing, formed a collective that will represent the needs of those who compete for championships and put meat in the seats every week.

And the crowd asks “Huh?”

Many bytes have already been uploaded regarding the nature of the Race Team Alliance (RTA) and its connection to collectives and unions. Maybe the whirring sound we hear is from hard drives and newspaper presses cranking out updates and editorials addressing the question of “What do labor unions mean in conjunction with NASCAR?”

Been there, done that. I studied the strained relationships between NASCAR and organized labor while writing my first book about the sport way back in 1997 (see Chapter Three in From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series published by The University of Wisconsin/Popular Press).

We’ve limped down the organized labor road before. First there was Curtis Turner, Tim Flock and an effort by the Teamsters in the early 1960’s to organize NASCAR drivers (in part because Turner needed financial help to complete construction of what would become Charlotte Motor Speedway). By the end of that decade, there was a clandestine meeting of “big name” competitors like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarborough at a hotel in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which led to the creation of the Professional Drivers Association. This was the group that refused to race at the newly-completed Talladega Superspeedway because of safety concerns over Firestone tires that would not last for more than a few laps given the excessive pressures and temperatures experienced at such high speeds.

Maybe the whirring sound we hear is the chamber in the pistol that “Big Bill” France wielded at a drivers’ meeting at Bowman-Gray Stadium in a threat to those who sought to align themselves with the Teamsters. Then again, maybe the whirring sound is from the tires on Mario Andretti’s Ford as “Big Bill” turned laps at Talladega to demonstrate that his new track was not as dangerous as Petty and his PDA brethren believed.

The results of all these confrontations were brutally clear: the Teamsters went back to Chicago, Curtis Turner and Tim Flock were banned “for life” until their return benefitted NASCAR, the PDA members left Alabama the night before the inaugural event at Talladega, and “Big Bill” France remained solidly in charge of the sport he both created and controlled.

As Mel Brooks once said: “It’s good to be the king….”

It’s important to remember, however, that NASCAR drivers managed to achieve some positive changes in the sport thanks to their threatened collectivization. One demand from those in the PDA was improved “creature comforts” at racetracks on the then-Grand National circuit; these included such amenities as bathrooms and better garage areas. Working under your car while lying on dirt and gravel wasn’t acceptable to the teams that fought for titles and put fans in the stands, nor was the prospect of lining up at a couple of portable toilets every time nature called.

Maybe, then, the whirring sound we hear is from the socket sets and air wrenches used by hard-working mechanics in order to maintain a competitive stock car….

Improved working conditions are at the center of collective bargaining agreements, so Brian France – given his experience with the entertainment industry – should be fully aware of what NASCAR seems to be getting into. The entertainment business is full of unions/collective organizations; everyone from musicians to writers to stagehands to performers is represented by some form of organizational unit.

Ever wonder why “reality-based” programs are so prevalent on national television? It all stems back to writers’ and actors’ strikes that increased the costs of making “fictional” shows like dramas and situation comedies.
Organized labor should – in theory, at least – keep the finished product both on-time and on-budget. Unfortunately, as has been the case, we see that organization sometimes results in a less-than-economical result.

So what’s the “finished product” according to NASCAR and the RTA? If better competition and lower costs are the focus, as has been the mantra of the RTA thus far, is it realistic to expect more teams in Victory Lane and fewer mega-sponsors? Both Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have dominated races in 2014 and sit squarely in the Chase…. How will an organized front change their fortunes and provide fans with a better show?

This is where the RTA differs from the PDA and other organizational efforts: the emphasis is on the teams, not just the drivers. Stock car drivers are little more than chauffeurs – cogs in a larger organizational mechanism that aims to win races and season championships. While big name athletes like Keselowski and Johnson have souvenirs emblazoned with their images, names, and car numbers, they are still an individual part of a bigger operation. Brad Keselowski may have fully dominated Sunday’s race at New Hampshire, but he did so as an employee of Penske Racing.

Whereas the PDA sought improved conditions for drivers, the RTA is more about the administrators who keep the NASCAR moving. For every driver or pit crew member, there is someone who oversees travel plans and/or manages the day-to-day business of a race team. This is where costs turn into financial demands, and where those financial demands turn into improved management through efficiency.

So maybe the whirring sound we hear comes from cash registers keeping track of the income and out-go of finances as NASCAR race teams search for the winner’s circle and a seat at the head table in Las Vegas come December.

All speculation about the RTA seems antithetical when pitted against the original position regarding organized labor held by NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France. It was “Big Bill” who, according to folklore, waved a pistol around at Bowman-Gray Stadium when drivers first considered a collectivized effort. It was France Sr. who challenged the PDA at Talladega in 1969 and told top-notch drivers like Petty and Allison to load up their cars and go home. One can only speculate what “Big Bill” would have to say about the newly-formed RTA.

That explains the whirring sound! It’s what’s left of “Big Bill” France spinning in his grave….

About Mark Howell

Mark Howell
Mark joined Frontstretch in 2011 as a weekly website contributor. This season, he’s moved to our free e-newsletter where the popular Professor Of Speed column pops up each Wednesday. A full-time professor outside of racing, up in Michigan, Mark’s work often revolves around a sport he’s worked in as either a writer, crew member, or PR assistant for decades. Recent published books on stock car racing include a look at the link between NASCAR and pop culture, along with a retrospective on Fred Lorenzen.

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  1. Big Bill was a me first tyrant. His contribution to stock car racing can be debated endlessly. His first priority was always Big Bill (like when he dodged the draft). If he were around today NASCAR would still be a mess, a different mess maybe but a mess.

  2. I’m sure the RTA has noticed the empty seats and decline in tv ratings. As has the sponsors. Obviously, they have little faith in King Brian. Nascar has been dying slowly, but it wouldn’t take much to really speed that up.

  3. I agree that the timing of the founding of the RTA speaks volumes. One has to wonder did they try to get whatever they wanted privately and were rebuffed? If so that would explain a lot about the timing. It would also indicate that this isn’t going to be an amicable relationship.
    Interesting times ahead I suppose.

    • Dr. Mark D. Howell

      The whole “shared governance” idea is quite telling. Major teams (like HMS, JGR, SHR, etc.) intend to share decision-making with smaller teams (most of which are JV operations linked to their bigger parent operations)? File the RTA under “Strength in Numbers” as a means of pushing specific agendas across Brian’s desk. My guess is that the big teams will still get the big advantages….

      Thanks for the feedback!

      • I dont think the big teams have any interest in, nor should they I suppose, sharing anything with the smaller teams. I suppose what piques my interest is what is their agenda.
        The revelation that they, at Nascars request, will be communicating through attorneys seems to confirm the suspicion of friction between the two sides.

        • Dr. Mark D. Howell

          The idea that teams are concerned about controlling costs seems absurd — the “haves” have always enjoyed having more resources than the “have nots” since that’s what tends to separate the competition and create championship teams. NASCAR wants to look egalitarian about budgets and fair treatment for all, but adding lawyers to the equation muddies the whole deal. Small teams will continue to get the dirty end of the stick…..

  4. It is ironic that the RTA is a group of the” have”s in Nascar. The teams that struggle to finance race cars for the love of the sport risk bankruptcy to participate,yet are left out of this power move by the teams who own fleets of race cars, fast jets to transport their teams, lucrative sponsorships and have the juice to pocket millions of profits each season.
    Nascar itself owes much to these smaller teams that help fill the field and represent the essence of what racing is all about: to compete and do their best in spite of the predictable outcome

    • The RTA is in talks with the smaller teams now.

    • Dr. Mark D. Howell

      Having worked with several small teams, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. Long before outfits like Petty Enterprises became major players, there were dozens of tiny operations with limited resources but unlimited passion to compete. Until motivation speaks louder than money, the smaller race teams will continue to sit in the shadows of the dominant ones. Thanks for reading the essay and sharing your thoughts….

  5. The sound I heard was from Burton Smith blasting the RTA. The old saying “Follow The Money” may well apply here. Why would Burton scream if he not already knows or certainly suspects the RTA has its sights on money now in his pocket.

    • Actually Bruton Smith may be in the best position to benefit from the RTA. If in the future this group gets fed up with NASCAR and does truly break away he could go with them as his tracks could host events for a new start up series and he could essentially flipoff NASCAR in the process. NASCAR and ISC have gotten themselves into a very precarious position because if the big team choose to leave, who would NASCAR have to bring up to do races? NNS is dominated by these exact same teams so it not like a pile of NNS teams could move up to “Cup” level racing.

      There are too many tracks that are not associated with ISC and NASCAR that could easily hold a new series of stock car racing and are loved by old time fans. Rockingham, North Wilksboro, ORP in Indy, Iowa Speedway, etc.

      People will compare this to open wheel in the mid 90’s but keep in mind this RTA ownership group is stronger and there are more fans of stock car racing than open wheel.

    • Dr. Mark D. Howell

      Such a split/division may be in the future of stock car racing. Bruton has always, I believe, tossed around the notion of organizing a competing series. If you think about the era just prior to the creation of NASCAR, stock car racing was strewn with separate divisions, all with different rules, schedules, prize money deals, and the like. “Big Bill” France wanted overall consistency, but he also wanted to control competition. His initial “run what you brung”/Detroit’s finest concept seemed like a good idea, but it didn’t take long for teams to realize that breaking rules and breaking banks could put you in Victory Lane. Maybe it’s time for stock car racing to rocket forward into 1945….

      Many thanks for sharing your comments about this current development!