07/18 2014

NASCAR and the RTA: What next?

NASCAR and the RTA: What next?
Ryan McGee 
ESPN The Magazine
July 17, 2014

Last week I stood at NASCAR’s crossroads.

I was at the corner of Gasoline Alley and what used to be called Victory Lane, the aptly titled streets that make up the Lakeside Business Park in Mooresville, North Carolina, aka Race City, USA. I’m at an age now where I’m not that young and I’m not that old, but I have been around long enough that I’ve earned some perspective.

That’s why I was standing here, at the crossroads, always a sucker for a living, breathing metaphor.

I leaned on my truck and looked at race shops, listening to NASCAR talk radio as it blared away about an announcement that had been made earlier in the week. The owners of the sport’s top nine organizations had formed what they called the Race Team Alliance. Aside from a press release and a handful of interviews with RTA spokesman Rob Kauffman, details had been fleeting. They want to pool resources. They want to cut costs. “We want more people in the stands, more people to watch racing,” Kauffman said.

Now, as those teams practiced at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the pitch hammering through the speakers of my truck had suddenly picked up steam. Why? Because NASCAR had finally ended its silence and responded via an equally vague, borderline condescending media meeting with sanctioning body president Mike Helton. You guys have it all wrong. There’s no animosity. “We will continue to do business the way we’ve done business,” Helton said.

The radio crackled …

They say this isn’t a union, but it feels like a union to me!

Does NASCAR have its head in the sand?

Is this going to be a civil war like in IndyCar racing?

This was the first time I had been in Lakeside Park in a long time. I was driving to an appointment in town and decided to take a trip through this area where, for years, I would visit at least once a week, as either a television producer or a sports writer. It was the literal center of the NASCAR industry, packed with race shops that were packed with the people who made the sport go. Grabbing quotes was as easy as showing up and knocking on doors. Carts would crisscross the street, towing race chassis and tires from shop to shop. The occasional roar of engine dynamometers made it sound like Godzilla was stomping through Iredell County. Race fans would ride through in vans, having paid a tour guide a la “See The Homes Of The Hollywood Stars!” But today it was quiet, save for the anger oozing from my radio.

I saw what used to be the headquarters of Roush Racing. The team still owns the building, but long ago moved into a sprawling campus closer to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Same for SABCO, back when Felix Sabates owned his one car, driven by Kyle Petty. That team expanded, struggled and eventually merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing, also long ago moving into nicer digs. The former headquarters of Penske Racing South still showed traces of The Captain’s signature silver, black and red paint scheme. It was there that I once talked eventual NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, then a crew chief, into doing an April Fools TV interview announcing that the team was switching from a Ford Taurus to Lincoln Continentals. Penske also left those buildings behind for a new HQ. It was occupied by Red Bull Racing for five years before that team abruptly packed up and left the sport in 2011.

Across the street I once interviewed Rusty Wallace in his new Lakeside office, excited to field a team for his son. It’s gone. A block over I used to visit with Michael Kranefuss about his wins with driver Jeremy Mayfield, then about his merger with Penske. He’s gone. Down the hill you could always count on team owner Butch Mock and his driver, Rick Mast, to provide a notebook full of quotes and stories. Gone.

And at the bottom of the hill is what used to be Rudd Performance Motorsports, a team owned and cars driven by Ricky Rudd, who caught the driver-owner wave of the 1990s and hung a shingle in Mooresville. I was there the morning after RPM’s greatest triumph, winning the 1997 Brickyard 400. It was my favorite days on the job. But less than two years later I was back at that shop, watching Rudd as he watched everything he’d built be auctioned off for dimes on the dollar to ARCA and late model teams. It was one of my worst days on the job and it was a scene I saw repeated over the next few years as Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Brett Bodine and Bill Elliott all ended their tenure as team owners with nothing but a few trophies to show for it.

On one side of the intersection were buildings that once had been occupied by teams that had moved on to a bigger and better racing life. On the other were reminders of once-proud teams and drivers who vanished into nothing more than motorsports memories.

Standing at that crossroads in Lakeside Park only furthered my understanding of why today’s big owners feel the need to join forces. They are terrified. They know that the current business model is antiquated. Costs have outrun sponsorships and those sponsorships are drying up anyway. The days of simply asking a sponsor for cash to cover the rising stack of bills is over. One day, be it tomorrow or years from now, the treadmill that all of these owners are on is going to stop. When it does, will they have anything left to show for it other than those trophies?

But I also thought about the people who run NASCAR and its racetracks. Their business model, too, is outdated. The good news is that during their decades-long growth period everything was easy. Everyone wanted to be a part of the sport, from celebrities to CEOs. Most wrote nice checks to do so. The bad news is that so many years of easy order-taking created a generation of salespeople and directors who never really had to learn how to either sell or direct.

Both sides are pained by empty seats. Both sides are concerned with declining TV ratings. Both sides are worried about flagging interest among the coveted “casual fan” flipping channels or looking for something fun to do on Sunday afternoon. But solving those issues is a long-term project. In the short term, those bills still need to be paid.

That’s why all parties involved have their eyes on the last great pool of easy cash, the $8.2 billion worth of checks that Fox and NBC will be forking over during the next decade. It’s like a couple of wolves circling the last remaining goose in the barnyard.

The question for us all — fans, competitors, media members, anyone with a skin in the racing game — is what happens next? Do NASCAR and the RTA show patience and allow the goose to keep cranking out its golden eggs, no matter how large or small, while they work toward a solution? Or do they rip the goose apart to get the gold and end up with the blood of the sport on their hands?

There is no force on this planet more powerful than motivated, gray-haired rich men. But there is also nothing more destructive.

Gentlemen, you are standing at the crossroads.