Fans have been feeling their ages lately as a slew of drivers, ones who defined a generation of racing, have stepped aside in recent years. You know the names by now: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne…all popular multi-race winners and title contenders. Some will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s no mystery why; they’ve all entered the sport, come of age, and aged out, though many have moved on to other endeavors in the sport.
The sting of the loss is acute (you can read more about that here). But really, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s all part of a natural progression within the sport, and they’ll be replaced in the seat, and eventually in race fans’ hearts, by the next generation of young talent. Based on the amount of top-notch youngsters out there, the future is bright indeed in the driver category.
But there’s another piece to the puzzle that’s often overlooked: the owners. Several of the sport’s top organizations have owners aged 70 or older. Every team owner with a car in the top 20 in driver points as of Talladega is at least 60 with the lone exception of Tony Stewart, who’s 47 (co-owner Gene Haas is 65).
Other than Stewart, Chip Ganassi is the youngest among this group at 60. Haas is 65, Rick Hendrick 69, Richard Childress 73, Jack Roush 76, Joe Gibbs 78 and Roger Penske 81. It’s not unrealistic to consider the sport five-10 years from now and wonder who will still be in the picture as team owners.
And these are well-established, powerhouse teams. Childress ran his first race as an owner in NASCAR in 1969, 49 years ago. Penske has raced the Cup Series on and off for 45 years, Hendrick for 34. Stewart-Haas is again the outlier at nine years (though Haas has been an owner for 16). These are not flash-in-the-pan organizations.
But who is there to take up the mantle?
RCR and Hendrick both have heirs apparent in sons-in-law Mike Dillon and Marshall Carlson. Jeff Gordon has a stake in HMS as well. JGR was setting up for the future, but with J.D. Gibbs’ health being an issue in recent years, that team no longer has the rock-solid foundation it once did.
On the other side of the coin, Roush has said there’s nobody in the family to take over for him. It’s unlikely that partner John Henry will run the team himself; his Boston Red Sox are run by his staff as is the norm in baseball, and he’s not hands on with Roush Fenway Racing the way Roush has been.
Furniture Row Racing is closing this year because owner Barney Visser wants to retire from the sport. FRR is a single-car operation, but it’s also a championship organization. That’s a loss for the sport.
In this day and age, it’s much easier to find young drivers capable of taking over a top ride and performing than it will be for owners.
Even if there were people jumping to buy race teams, turnkey championship organizations will not be had for pocket change. The financial commitment required is huge, and if someone wanted to spend the millions it would take to enter the sport, they’d probably be doing it already, building their own empires.
But they aren’t.
And the talk can center on the drivers all day long, and whether their exits have hurt the sport (and in the end, that’s unlikely. NASCAR has survived retirements, and worse, for 70 years. No driver walking away now is going to single handily spell the end). What we should be talking about are the teams. Without owners who are all in for the love of the sport, there is no sport.
There’s a positive here, though, and that’s that the small teams would grow, and in the long run, that’s excellent for the sport. But the gap between the haves and have-nots is a chasm.
Is that a bad thing? It might not be, and here’s why: If some of the big organizations faded into the pages of the history books (and it’s happened throughout NASCAR’s history), it could have the effect of bringing costs back into line.
How? Well, those small teams on limited budgets would suddenly be more competitive because the competition would be more teams like them and fewer of the huge multi-car organizations. Those smaller teams, on their smaller budgets, would be more valuable to sponsors, and the sponsors would be able to afford the costs. In a nutshell, if nobody was spending the huge dollars of the big teams, the top teams might be operating on half of what it costs to be competitive right now.
While the possibility of big teams fading into the sunset is scary for the sport, perhaps it’s part of the natural cycles of the world. People, nations rise to power and fall from it, giving way to new ways and ideas. Is NASCAR on the verge of a major shift in power?
NASCAR’s aging team ownership is something that everyone should be paying attention to, but it’s not necessarily a gloom-and-doom situation. It could be another piece of the sport’s foundation crumbling away, and that could be a major blow.
But it could also spell a new day in the sport, with a turnover bringing teams into play with lesser budgets…and those lesser budgets could become the larger ones if those owners stand pat on what they can spend.
It’s a sure thing that change will be coming to the top teams in the foreseeable future. Top ownership is aging, and that will mean turnover or sales. What that means for the sport is the more important question for the long term, and there’s a glimmer of hope to be seen in uncertain days.