NASCAR chairman Brian France (right) talks with driver Jeff Gordon.
I’ve spent the greater part of my life in the sport of NASCAR. While I naturally sought personal gain, I also wanted to make the sport better. When it came to helping track promoters sell tickets, I would do it. Hey, the reality was it helped get my name out there and it helped bring people to the track. To me that was a win-win scenario.
Back in 1975, when I started winning races, well, there came a responsibility to the sport. There were appearances and interviews required of you. When I won my championships I basically became the ambassador for the sport, so that also came with a heavy responsibility and a heavier workload away from the track. Those days are behind me. Our No. 1 ambassador is our current champion Jimmie Johnson. With that said, as a NASCAR Hall of Famer, I also have a responsibility to help suggest and find ways to promote our sport to hopefully take it to the next level.
Everything I have achieved came because of racing. It wasn’t like I came from some wealthy family. Dad drove a Pepsi truck, Mom worked at the IGA and there were us five kids to be kept fed and keep clothes on our backs. Some people are blessed by God to be surgeons. Some have a calling to be ministers or teachers. The good Lord blessed me with the ability to drive a race car.
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When the opportunity came, I seized the wheel with both hands and never let go until I retired in 2000. It wasn’t like I had another vocation to fall back on. Racing was it. I was going to rise or fall based on my ability to race. I was a racer and I dared to dream big. I wanted to win races and I did that. When the opportunity came to drive for Junior Johnson, he taught me how to win championships and I did that.
If you remember in the early 1990s, the trend was to be an owner/driver. I did it. Alan Kulwicki did it. Geoff Bodine and others did it. It was the logical next step in the progression of my career. So at the end of the 1990 season, I left Hendrick Motorsports and I started my own race team. I was the owner/driver and Jeff Hammond came with me from Hendrick and was the crew chief.
I have no problem admitting it was hard. I didn’t have deep pockets. Western Auto came on board for seven years and it was okay sponsorship money but not great sponsorship money. I put everything I won back into the team. I put all the money from my endorsement deals and souvenir sales back into the team to supplement what Western Auto was giving us.
I think it’s a fair statement to say we were successful to a point. We won a few poles. We won two races in 1991 and three races in 1992. We did okay. We finished high up in the points and I put all those season-ending winnings back into the team.
The hard reality, and trust me, it took me a long time to admit this to even myself was, I was a pretty darn good race car driver, but I wasn’t a very good car owner. Then when I got hurt, that further complicated the issue. The sport was growing by leaps and bounds by this point and it took more to be competitive than what I could afford to put into it, in addition to the sponsorship dollars.
Where I am going with all this is, back in the middle of 1997 or so, I approached then-NASCAR president Bill France Jr. with the idea of franchising these race teams. Some of the owner/drivers by this point were gone and I could see my own personal handwriting on the wall coming. My idea to Bill Jr. was that if we could work out a franchise system, then when/if it came time for the owners to sell, then they had an option to recoup all the money they had put into their race teams.
I was watching owner/driver after owner/driver closing up and having to sell everything at an auction. To make matters worse, they were really only getting about ten cents on the dollar for what they had to sell. That scared the heck out of me because I knew that when the time came for me to relinquish my ownership role, unless I could find a buyer for the team, then it was going to be my stuff on the auction block.
Needless to say, Bill France Jr. didn’t want to hear from me, or anyone else for that matter, about the idea of franchising. His father started and ran the sport. Bill Jr. was now running the sport. They were the sanctioning body and would run the sport their way. I naturally disagreed with him because I just thought if you could put a value on these teams, then you would have something to sell of high value to someone wanting to get into the sport.
Really it is no different today. Brian France took over the reins from his father, Bill Jr. He and his management team are the sanctioning body. They make the rules and they call the shots. Simplistically put, it’s their sandbox and if you want to play in it, well by golly, you will play by their rules.
I tell you all this because I just think we are at another major crossroads in the sport of NASCAR. There are so many things that do and, in my book, do not need to be addressed. I mentioned to you earlier this week that No. 1 on my hit list is the schedule. For a lack of a better term, for the life of me, I don’t understand why the race schedule isn’t more user-friendly.
I don’t know if you all realize this or not, but once we leave Daytona in February after the 500, our sport — the teams, the transporters, etc., pass Texas Motor Speedway something like five times before we ever go there. We go by on the way to Phoenix, on the way to Las Vegas, then clear back to Bristol only to turn right around and go once again clear back across country to Fontana.
If that’s not enough to make your head spin, we leave Fontana, go right back across the country to go to Martinsville before finally heading to Texas Motor Speedway.
Don’t get me wrong; back in the day when our sport was still growing and trying to get on the national stage like it is today, it was necessary to do that. That was then, but this is now. It’s just one of those things where it makes you scratch your head. NASCAR race fans are the most passionate fans of any professional sport in our country. If we would do a Western swing earlier in the year, the fans will come.
I hear some people say this back and forth is good for the sport. Is it? I know it costs the teams a fortune. I know it wears the race teams out. It’s like the same argument I hear about how Saturday-night racing in prime time is good for the sport. Again, I ask the question: Is it? If so, where are the race fans and where are the television ratings?
Back in the day, that’s what made the Bristol night race so special. It was one of the very few Saturday night races we would run the entire year. Now we have Saturday night races seemingly every time we turn around. If you go back to April and May of this year, we had four out of five races on a Saturday night. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the tracks or NASCAR for attempting it, but the novelty is no longer there like it used to be, in my book.
I’d like to believe I have some common sense. It served me well when I was behind of the wheel of a stock car. It served me well, but only up to a point, as a car owner. My point is it just seems like common sense to me that the schedule is a huge area that needs to be addressed for our sport. I think it would give the sport a much-needed shot in the arm to shake the schedule up. If you listen to the rumors coming out of the garage area, and let’s be honest, that’s all they are right now — rumors — but the rumor is the schedule for 2015 is coming out soon and it’s going to be nothing more than same ‘ol, same ‘ol.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know or something that NASCAR doesn’t know, but they are sitting on the potential of the perfect time to make some huge changes to benefit our sport. At the end of this year, TNT and ABC/ESPN are gone. Starting in 2015, our NASCAR on FOX team will bring you the first 16 races of the year and then we welcome NBC back into the sport and they will bring you the remaining 20 races of the season.
These are two powerhouse television partners that want to do everything they can to help NASCAR take the sport to the next level. We want to see the stands full of people and we want the TV ratings to go up. I honestly think it’s quite possible to achieve. We need some creativity, some innovation, some leadership, some willingness to take some risks and some out-of-the-box approaches to things. Just because "this is the way we did it" 10, 20 or 30 years ago, simply doesn’t cut it any longer.
I think these are necessary changes and I promise you this is where the Race Team Alliance (RTA) came from. These owners have probably to a person spent about all they can afford to spend for a worthwhile return in our sport. As I also told you earlier this week, never lose sight that it’s the owners who pay for everything.
If NASCAR puts out a bulletin they are changing the engines, well, that’s really expensive. If they put out a bulletin they are changing the way the bodies are to be designed, that costs money. Employees, health insurance, cars, haulers, tire bills, hotel bills, travel bills — folks, it all adds up and adds up big. Whatever NASCAR says needs to be changed, the owners have to pay for it. Again, like I mentioned earlier this week, the owners even have to pay to have their cars inspected by NASCAR.
So they pay, pay, pay and then pay some more. Somewhere even the Rick Hendricks and Roger Penskes of the world have accountants saying to them, "Do you realize how much this is costing us?" I just think there are a lot of things that need to be considered right now. At the same time there are things, at least in my book, that don’t need to be considered.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series is enjoying the best competition and the fastest cars in the entire history of our sport. So will someone please explain to me why there is talk of changing it? There is talk of changing the motor and changing the car. Why? That’s not the part that needs fixed.
It’s back to that common sense thing to me. Change the things, like the schedule that is screaming to be changed, and don’t change the things that don’t need to be changed. I’m just sitting here on this off-weekend kicking these thoughts around about what can we do to go forward. To a person, everyone from NASCAR, to everyone in the garage, to everyone on the television and radio side wants to see this sport grow.
We all want to see this sport go to the next level and be the best it’s ever been. I just think we are sitting at crossroads right now where there is a chance to truly make it happen. I just hope and pray we seize this opportunity and run with it.