Detailing An Eventful July for Driver, NASCAR Industry Relations

July wasn’t exactly a banner month for relations between Cup Series drivers and the NASCAR industry at large.

The underlying tension boiled over during the week leading up to the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 12 when Speedway Motorsports Inc. revealed a reconfiguration of the venerable venue and emphatically emphasized that drivers were not consulted.

It wasn’t so much that Speedway Motorsports had again refused to consult drivers — a consistent policy that previously manifested in advance of reconfigurations at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway over the past 15 years. Instead, it was the brazen nature in which the company dismissed them.

The sentiment was highlighted by SMI Vice President of Operations Steve Swift when explaining why the company was targeting a product that more closely resembles the races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

“We tried to do what’s good for the sport, and Marcus does talk to the drivers to gauge feedback on what works well for them and he feeds us that information, and I say this with jest a little,” Swift said, “but when a driver is happy the fans aren’t.

“When fans are happy, drivers aren’t. When you talk to drivers, you get driver tracks and we’re making a fan’s track. We’re taking elements of driver feedback, but we’re ultimately giving the fans what they want to see.”

Predictably, that didn’t go over too well.

Kyle Busch unloaded on SMI during a post-race winner’s press conference that weekend after winning the Xfinity Series race. Earlier in the week, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson both expressed skepticism over the entire philosophy.

Kevin Harvick says Speedway Motorsports doesn’t care what drivers believe and simply do whatever they want — risking the same moribund results as Bristol, Kentucky and Texas.

“You would think that you would want drivers’ input,” Harvick said. “I think a lot of times the thought process is, ‘Well, we need to make the drivers uncomfortable.’ Instead, you wind up with a press conference that winds up all about your track repave that you didn’t ask any of the drivers about, so it is what it is.”

Joey Logano said he was ‘blindsided’ over the reconfiguration.

“I don’t get it,” Logano said. “I think something I’ve learned over the last few years is everyone can bring something different to the table. When you bring 10 other people around, that might change your perspective.

“If we’re all sitting around a table, we can probably change each other’s perspective a little bit to come up with what’s best, but we’ve got to have the meeting to do that. We didn’t have the opportunity to do that.”

Hamlin says the current driver-industry dialogue process is broken.

Even if drivers don’t agree with a certain direction, be it the low horsepower, high downforce rules package or a track seemingly designed around it, Hamlin believes drivers could be a resource to better achieve that goal.

Hamlin believes the industry can’t even achieve what it has set out to accomplish because it’s going about it the wrong way. For example, it makes no sense for SMI to tease Daytona-Talladega style pack racing at Atlanta but also promising a pavement mixture that will quickly age.

You can’t have extreme tire wear and pack racing simultaneously on a narrow racing surface.

“The thing is, as drivers, just tell us the agenda,” Hamlin said. “Do you want superspeedway racing here? Okay, we don’t like it, but here’s what you need to do to get there. We’ll help you accomplish that, just tell us the goal.

“Don’t mix the message by saying you’re going to see something you’ve never seen, and they show a clip of iRacing cars racing in a pack, but yet you want your surface to match the old. That’s counter-intuitive, you can’t make it narrower and a superspeedway. Those two things don’t match up. Again, I think we can help, we’re an asset. We are the biggest asset that NASCAR and these tracks can have, just tell us your goals. We may not agree with the goal, but we can help them get to where they want to go.”

A LACK OF NEXT GEN SAFETY TRANSPARENCY

The reconfiguration of Atlanta Motor Speedway wasn’t the only topic drivers wanted additional clarity and transparency towards.

The chassis components for the Next Gen have been delivered to teams over the past week, but only after an independent review of an intentional crash test that took place at Talladega was conducted with satisfactory results.

Amidst rumors of failed safety tests and dead crash dummies, teams began to ask the sanctioning body for additional information, requests that went largely dismissed. It took on the appearance of a lack of transparency over a car that drivers will risk their lives in over the next decade and beyond.

With no driver deaths since the Dale Earnhardt tragedy on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, it was almost as if NASCAR insisted on having the benefit of the doubt when it comes to safety, something Brad Keselowski is half willing to concede as deserved.

“Some days yes, some days no,” Keselowski said. “Ultimately, that comes down to credibility and some people have more than others. I think the (Car of Tomorrow) was a big win for safety and there’s some credibility that comes with that and a lot of that has been carried over to the Next Gen car, so I think there’s some credibility there for sure.”

Keselowski says he’s been walked through the chassis with Cup Series managing director Jay Fabian, and that he likes and dislikes various parts of the car, which is a natural response to anything in life.

Where there is smoke, there is fire, suggested Hamlin, who said he would accept a positive review from the independent panel.

“There’s just too much liability out there for them to fudge numbers, right? The numbers will come back when we crash at Daytona,” Hamlin said. “The moment we crash, and everyone is like, ‘man, that’s worse,’ that will confirm or deny the results that are proven.

“You’re not going to be able to fudge numbers, but I do trust them, and I trust the doctors and whatever they recommend.”

NASCAR since conceded that it could have done a better job of communicating with teams and drivers, which is all Harvick says his peers wanted.

“I think as you look at that, I think the guys driving the cars are owed at least the respect enough to at least be a part of the process of what’s going on,” Harvick said. “I think it’s that and the racetrack and I think everybody is a little bit frustrated with just how all of that has been handled.”

RACE CONTROL AND WATER DON’T MIX

NASCAR race control has been the subject of considerable scorn over the past 10 months, too.

Harvick crashed out of the Texas playoff race in October, effectively ending his championship pursuit because officials waited too long to call for yellow flag conditions amidst ever deteriorating conditions and an unfavorable forecast.

A race that began in a downpour at Circuit of the Americas on May 23 turned into a deluge and race control failed to react to driver complaints of poor visibility until Cole Custer ran flat into the back of a stalled Martin Truex Jr., lifting the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 completely off the ground and onto the Stewart Haas Racing No. 41.

A similar crash transpired earlier between Bubba Wallace and Kevin Harvick, starting when Ryan Blaney lifted due to poor visibility and was hit from behind by Christopher Bell, the 2014 Cup Series champion calling it the most dangerous conditions he has ever raced in.

On July 18 at New Hampshire, the race began in obvious raining conditions with both teams and NASCAR’s own turn spotters citing a damp racing surface, with three of the top-five drivers crashing on Lap 6.

Leader Kyle Busch took his destroyed car and drove it into the back of the pace car, enough to damage the bumper but not enough to spin it out, seemingly an expression of his dissatisfaction at race control.

OH MY GOODNESS.

It started raining at @NHMS and many people, including race leader Kyle Busch, started wrecking. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/N5cAQp8UpK

Hamlin called it ‘a bad look’ for the sanctioning body in detailing how race control and the corner workers have to do a better job. Busch was adamant the race never should have gone green in the first place, but ultimately concluded that his reaction wouldn’t matter in the big picture.

“There’s no sense in saying what I want to say,” Busch said. “It doesn’t do you any good.”

COULD DRIVERS FORM A UNION OR ANOTHER COUNCIL?

It wasn’t that long ago that Hamlin spearheaded an effort from drivers to organize and perhaps form a union.

This was 2014 and Hamlin had received the signature of every driver, except one and that driver’s inclusion was inevitable by every account. Wary of dealing with an organized driver group, NASCAR scheduled a sit down with Hamlin and Jeff Gordon, challenging the legality of the group with phrases like antitrust.

“When we were very close to having a driver’s association, we got the talk from the France’s – anti-trust, anti-trust and they were like, let’s just start a driver’s council,” Hamlin recalled. “They react based off of your reaction instead of just really being proactive with it. It’s just not in a good place right now. There’s a lot of miscommunication, no communication. It’s just discouraging right now.”

This was during the period in which NASCAR first started to experiment with tapered spacers at the Cup Series level and began exploring a high drag, low horsepower rules package against drivers wishes for reduced downforce.

Of course, driver safety was very much a factor in the dynamic too, with Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Ben Kennedy each suffering airborne crashes into the catchfence at Daytona and Kentucky during a three-year stretch.

The Cup Series driver’s council was formed in 2015 and lasted through 2018. Through the council, a group of 10 elected drivers met quarterly with the sanctioning body to discuss competition and safety initiatives. That group dissolved and drivers have since resumed the traditional method of meeting privately with officials at the Cup Series hauler on race weekends.

It wasn’t always an effective method.

Hamlin still has the 2014 document of signatures for archival purposes and is still urging drivers to organize in some fashion.

“Drivers need to get organized,” Hamlin said. “They just need to get together. Again, this is their future. This is their health and they deserve to understand and have a voice whether it be on safety, competition or whatever.

“Drivers deserve to have that. They are a big part of this sport. They are why people tune in every single week. We can make arguments about anything else, but ultimately if people want to watch stock cars, they would tune into MAVTV every single week. They don’t, they come to watch Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and those guys. They are the reason people tune in every week. They should have the voice.”

Hamlin, who has since become a team owner of 23XI Racing in addition to his duties as a driver at Joe Gibbs Racing, cited the success of the Race Team Alliance as an example to follow — with the organized group of team owners shaping the direction of the sport with a unified approach.

Hamlin says the RTA has endorsed his aggressive, outspoken approach, but wishes the team owners would back up that sentiment with action.

“The team owners, they’re always like, ‘Man, it’s great having fresh blood in here calling out this and that’ and I tell them, I don’t understand why they’re not saying more,” Hamlin said. “You have such a big stake in this sport. How can you guys see something that’s not right and not say anything?

“I’m probably a little more aggressive and abrasive in that sense, but to me, what’s everyone scared of losing? We’re all fighting for our lives here to try to keep these businesses afloat. We’re risking so much money just to try to break even.”

Of course, many of the next generation of owners are actually drivers who signed the 2014 driver union document. That list includes Hamlin, Gordon a Hendrick Motorsports, Tony Stewart of Stewart Haas Racing and Brad Keselowski, who just bought an ownership stake of Roush Fenway Racing.

Ex-drivers Matt Tifft and Justin Marks also own current Cup Series teams.

Meanwhile, Logano isn’t sure the drivers need to unionize, because it shouldn’t take that to make NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. want to include them in matters of safety and competition.

“There’s a way to communicate with all of us,” Logano said. “It’s pretty simple. It’s not like we need something formally structured. I think we could all be big boys about it and talk about things. It’s a small group. We all see the same people every week, so it’s not too hard to call somebody no matter what it is. I’m not just saying this about the racetrack, no matter what it is. I’m a big fan of communicating, so that’s all it takes.”

NASCAR is amongst the only major professional sports that doesn’t have a collective bargaining policy with its competitors. It also has a long tenured opposition to unions.

Tim Flock and Curtis Turner were banned for attempting to form a union in 1961. When the Professional Drivers Association boycotted the inaugural event at Talladega Superspeedway over safety concerns on September 14, 1969, NASCAR invited a field of replacement drivers, successfully defeating the organization attempt.

Hamlin says he met with NASCAR president Steve Phelps and SMI president Marcus Smith since making his point at Atlanta.

“It was good, and we had some great conversations. Marcus and Steve Phelps and those guys,” Hamlin said. “Collectively, we understand that we’re better together than we are separate.

“I think that we understand that we’re better together. Whenever there’s input from all the stakeholders or certainly all sides get heard then I believe we can make the sport better if we all work together. They agree.”


Source: Read Full Article