Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Could There Be a NASCAR Drivers’ Strike?

Strikes have become fairly common in the pro sports landscape — we just saw a nasty one in the MLB wrap up — but could a strike ever extend to NASCAR?

Comparing drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series to stick-and-ball sports athletes has always been apples to oranges. Drivers and race teams have always been independent contractors, where as players in, say, the NFL are employees of that league.

As a result, race teams have always been free to draw up their driver contracts however they want to. There’s no salary cap, so if they want to give a driver a $100 million deal, they’re more than welcome to.

There’s no league minimum salary either. So if you want to charge your driver to race your car and not give them a dime of the purse? That’s OK too. This came to the forefront when Ross Chastain revealed he drove for free in his three-race stint for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018.

The way Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s contract was structured early on in his career, Budweiser was the one paying him millions of dollars, not Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Because of there not being any structure or rules set regarding driver contracts, there have been times where the drivers have had it really good and there have been times drivers had it bad. Right now is one of those moments in time for the latter.

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Don’t mistake me for saying today’s drivers are hurting for money. They’re doing just fine. In fact, a whole bunch of them come from money these days.

But money in sports continues to inflate, as do player contracts across the spectrum. Driver salaries in NASCAR though have actually gone down quite a bit in the past 15 years.

The drivers had a lot of negotiating power when there were superstars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt. But the stars of today don’t have the same reach and pop culture appeal as the drivers from the mid-2000s did. The past two Cup champions, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, don’t have a million followers on Twitter.

As costs to run a race team have gone up and up, teams had to find a way to save money elsewhere, and one area was driver salaries. Joe Gibbs Racing moved on from a still very competitive Matt Kenseth in favor of Erik Jones because it could pay Jones a lot less. Same with Hendrick Motorsports letting Kasey Kahne go in favor of William Byron. Plus, Byron brought sponsor money from Liberty University.

“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. That ain’t going to work,” Earnhardt said back in 2017 when those driver changes were happening. “[Drivers] aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore.”

Would Brad Keselowski have left Team Penske to buy into and drive for RFK Racing had Team Penske offered him a mega deal to stay in 2020?

The power has shifted tremendously in the owners’ favor. Rides are in short supply and drivers are a dime a dozen, so if a driver won’t accept what an owner is willing to pay them, then they’ll just put someone else in the car for cheaper.

One thing that’s happened as a result of this power shift is owners have started capping their drivers’ earnings, spotter Brett Griffin, who has also worked a lot on the sponsorship side of things, revealed on the podcast Door, Bumper, Clear.

“I saw rookies in the early 2000s with higher base salaries than what some of these guys are coming in with at their cap. … If you win the Daytona 500 and you’ve got a $500,000 cap on your contract, well, guess what? You ain’t gonna make another dollar after you leave Daytona in that scenario,” Griffin said.

What Griffin means by that is say, hypothetically, Penske capped rookie Austin Cindric‘s purse earnings for this season at $500,000 on top of his base salary. Well, winning the Daytona 500 likely pays a team close to $2 million. If Cindric got 25% of that for his earnings then he would’ve already made all the money he was able to make this season. Because Cindric already reached his cap, Penske would be able to keep 100% of the purse money for where Cindric finishes for the rest of the season without giving any to the driver.

Could you imagine a team owner telling Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson or Bobby Allison that they hit their cap and weren’t going to earn anymore money for the rest of the season? That owner would be looking for a new driver come the next race weekend.

I would say this current trend would maintain for a while without the drivers pushing back, but there’s a few things happening that could really shake things up and make the drivers feel like they have to take a stand.

In February, the formation of a Drivers Advisory Council was announced, headed up by former driver and current broadcaster Jeff Burton. This group is independent of NASCAR, and if the drivers actually stick to this and make this group work, then it has the potential to be the first effective drivers union.

NASCAR has a history of reacting negatively whenever drivers try to unionize. When Curtis Turner and Tim Flock tried to form a union in 1961, both were banned from the series. When the drivers in the Professional Drivers Association boycotted the inaugural race at Talladega Superspeedway (the only drivers’ strike in NASCAR history), NASCAR brought in replacement drivers, quickly ending the boycott and the union.

Just as recently as 2014 when Denny Hamlin had essentially every driver signed up for the start of a union, former NASCAR CEO Brian France had a meeting with Hamlin and Jeff Gordon that put an end to it.

“I remember Brian France sitting us down and kind of giving us the whole long, ‘Be very careful of antitrust here. There’s contracts and you know, this could get very illegal and blah, blah, blah,’” Hamlin said. “They did not want a drivers union for sure. And I still don’t think they want a drivers union.”

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With France now gone and NASCAR’s current leadership seemingly being more open to listening to drivers, a union now has the potential to thrive. It would just need something momentous to spring drivers into wanting to act, which leads me to my next point.

We’ve seen the TV money explode to new heights in recent deals signed by the NFL and NHL. Surely, the same will happen with NASCAR when it signs its new TV deals in 2024.

If NASCAR is getting more money, then the teams will be getting more money by default. But the owners could also push for a bigger slice of the pie than the 25% that they currently get. 65% currently goes to the tracks and 10% to the sanctioning body, so with NASCAR now owning roughly half the tracks on the circuit, it would certainly make sense for it to take less of a percentage. New ownership group 23XI Racing has already been vocal about changing up the money distribution.

So if the teams end up getting a higher percentage of the TV money and the money as a whole is a lot more, then we could see a number of drivers get irked if their salaries don’t also climb. That’s when we could see a drivers union take full force, and that’s when we could potentially see a real strike in NASCAR if it comes down to it.

Could this lead to things regularly used in stick-and-ball sports, such as minimum salaries and veteran minimums? If something like that was instituted, then teams might have to think twice before going with a less-talented driver who brings money over a talented driver. If you have to pay a driver a certain amount regardless, then you might as well get a good driver. And if teams are getting more purse money, then they might not be as dependent on sponsorships, further helping the drivers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting here rooting for a strike to happen in NASCAR. The fans would be the big losers in that situation. But something does need to happen to swing the pendulum back to the drivers being larger-than-life superstars and make sure that it is the most talented 36 competing on Sundays. And maybe this is just the thing to shake it up and make that happen.

About the author

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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john dawg chapman

The drivers council is a good thing, not only for drivers, but for racing as well.
But to the question of seeing a drivers strike, I see it’s chances as almost nil. For it to come to that it would almost have to be about their safety, not $$.
And for a safety issue that serious, NASCAR would be quick to resolve it.

Money is the lifeblood of racing, & the drivers are the face of the sponsors. I can’t see them ever taking a step that would tarnish that. It was great when they commanded large salaries. But today’s economy won’t support that. & they know it.
It’s a question of supply, & demand, & all you have to do is look at the Midget ranks to see just how many young & extremely talented drivers are out there and looking to move up. Any owner looking for the next Kyle Larson, has at least a dozen good prospects right now.

Bill B

Kind of hard for 36 drivers to strike knowing there are 1000 wanna be drivers that would be happy to step in for a lot less money just for the chance. The current drivers know they are lucky to have the opportunity they have been given. Besides there are only about 10 drivers that would be missed.

DoninAjax

What happened at Talladega when the drivers went on strike? The same situation holds true now. The drivers need NA$CAR more than NA$CAR needs these drivers. And I don’t think Bubba would want to have somebody else show what the car can really do.

And if the networks pay more money, probably what NA$CAR expects, for the privilege of televising Brian’s product, there will be even more commercials. Millionaires wanting more money.

Charlie

First, the teams would have to participate if collective barganing to work. You would need a universal contract, in the current situation, it is not going to happen.
First, you would need a universal contract that specified X Y Z for every driver. You would have minimum salaries.
The biggest obstical would be “sticking together.” Also, greed. Look at NFL contracts. The owners are the sport.
And while i am on it, NASCAR IS NOT an industry, per se. It is a monopoly. It is owned by an individual private corporation. They have no obligation to the owners, drivers, or sponsors. They don’t publish the purse anymore.
The current “franchise” has no standard value. It is what the market will support. We all know how much someone pays for the Dodgers, The Celtics, The Blackhawks, The Panthers. How much do they pay for one “stock” to get into the money in the sport? Do they all pay the same.
I could go on.
In its current format, it will not happen. I would almost wager RFK and Hendrick do not get the same money per car. For collective barganing to work, that would also have to be uniform.
You could start another series, but guess what, NASCAR owns half the tracks. They could make it very painful if you wanted to do that. A MONOPOLY is just like a governmental DICTATORSHIP.

And this is just the beginning.

WJW Motorsports

I guess I’m confused. I was under the impression that the now seemingly permanent “competition” caution and stage breaks were implemented to to help TV claw back some of their money as ratings were horrible. So, yes sports content on a dollar per viewer basis is likely still growing and healthy – but I have no idea how NASCAR gets a good TV deal in 2024. Personally I see it going either to an in-house NASCAR streaming service or say a handful of races on network, with the majority being streamed on Peacock or whatever.

Tom B

That’s what I was thinking too.

Bill B

Maybe so, but that would pretty much delegate NASCAR to a second tier sport. NASCAR is always so worried about optics that I would think they would find that totally unacceptable. Are there any other top tier major sports that are stream only?

Steve C

Michael, to answer the question, it is yes- all Bubba has to do is say the word. Phelps &co. will bend over backwards to appease his request. Just looking at recent issues.

gbvette

An interesting article, with some things to consider and think about, but I think there would have to be major changes in NASCAR, the TV contract, team ownership, and sponsorship agreements, for a union with minimum wages, earning caps, etc, to take place in NASCAR.

I am a little confused by the example of Austin Cindric given. While I understand how a driver’s share of the race purse may be capped, but how does it make any difference whether he earns it in one race, or over the course of 4, 10 or 36 races? In the end he’s still only going to earn that $500,000, and Penske’s going to get the balance. In this case I would think a driver would be both better off and happier to reach his cap all in one race, early in the season. He would have the security of knowing he was going to reach his cap for the year, instead of wondering from race to race if he’d reach it. Additionally they’d have the money to spend, invest, or do what they want with up front, and not be in a position of waiting or hoping they might reach the cap.

Last edited 4 months ago by gbvette
Echo

Not a chance….

Marc

Two minor quibbles with your first two paragraphs. MLB locked out the players union. It wasn’t a strike, though it was done to prevent another 1994 when the players went on strike over the summer before the playoff TV dollars could come in. And, stick and ball (major league) players are employees of the teams for which they play, not the leagues. Their unions have contracts (collective bargaining agreements) with the leagues and they are subject to those CBAs, but they sign contracts with and get paid by their teams.

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