What NASCAR fans will see under the new Charter system

NASCAR made an historic announcement Tuesday. For the first time in the sport’s history there will be an unprecedented level of cooperation between team owners and those that run and administer NASCAR. The Charter system is designed to ensure starting spots in all 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup points paying races and is expected to give team owners equity in the sport beyond the buildings and equipment owned by each.

It’s a system endorsed by NASCAR legend Richard Petty.

“To me, this is the second most important thing that’s ever happened in NASCAR, because now the drivers and owners and stuff now can really work across the aisle,” Petty said Tuesday referring to the most important event in the sport where he won 200 races and seven titles, the formation of NASCAR. “It’s sort of like the democrats and republicans, they’ve been doing their thing, we’ve been doing our thing, meeting in the middle a little bit. We’re getting rid of that. We’re all going to be in the middle of the deal now.”

NASCAR has always treated its drivers and teams as independent contractors. Through the years those independent contractors have tried to come together and have failed. The first attempt came in 1961 when Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa and star NASCAR driver Curtis Turner wanted to create the Federation of Professional Athletes a union primarily made up of NASCAR drivers. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. would have none of it. He prohibited any union affiliated drivers from participating in a NASCAR sanctioned event. According to legend, Mr. France was willing to use a pistol to enforce that edict. Turner and another driver Tim Flock were given lifetime bans from the sport. Turner eventually saw his ban lifted, but Flock never entered another NASCAR race.

The second time came in 1969 when a group of drivers led by Richard Petty, who was the biggest star of the sport at the time, tried to form the Professional Drivers Association. The motivation was safety and the question of speeds that were reportedly reaching 200 miles per hour at a new track, Talladega Superspeedway. The track was new and the inaugural NASCAR race had yet to be run. With no safety innovations in place like those today, drivers were worried and wanted action taken. The PDA and France had a confrontation that ended with a punch to the NASCAR founder and a boycott of the race by members of the PDA. The race was staged with 40 drivers many of whom came from outside the top tier of NASCAR. The PDA soon fell apart and by the next race all the drivers were back in the fold.

When the Race Team Alliance was announced in 2014, and headed by Rob Kauffman who recently closed Michael Waltrip Racing and became part owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, many thought that it would go the way of those past groups. But over the last year the RTA and NASCAR have worked to finalize a system that would give NASCAR team owners more equity than simply the cars, buildings and equipment used to compete each and every week. With the new Charter system, 36 teams are now guaranteed starting spots in each of the 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup points paying races each year. The Charters can be bought and sold and each team can field a single team, with an organization allowed four teams total. This will raise the value of each team as sponsors will be more inclined to stay longer knowing that the team they support will be racing each week.

Organizations can now also put a tangible value on their team. And know they have a future in the sport as the Charters are good for nine years.

“I think what we’ve done here is now we’ve put the teams on a more stable footing,” Kauffman said Tuesday. “What does that mean? I think it really allows the teams to invest for the future. If you’re living year to year, you can’t really think about the long-term. Here what you’re able to do is say, Okay, I’m going to take this risk on this young driver, see how they work out, develop this crew chief, this crew member, even some of the technical sides, even your basic business infrastructure. It’s a step in the right direction.”

There are other elements as well. Closer to the days of old when drivers tried to unionize, a Team Owner Council that will have formal input into decisions has been formed. The new agreement also provides Charter teams with new revenue opportunities including a greater interest in digital operations.

“When you step back and look at the whole process, the area that got the most attention was how to find the right balancing act around governance,” Steve Newmark, President of Roush Fenway Racing said Tuesday. “From the team perspective, the owners respect the fact we need to have NASCAR as the sanctioning body, enforcing the rules, but the teams wanted a greater, more structured voice. Getting to that place was difficult at times. We really went through a lot of different iterations to figure out, where is the right balance, how much influence should the teams have, how do we still maintain NASCAR with the right discretion to oversee the sport going forward.

“Ultimately we landed on the concept of the Team Owner Council, then there’s a litany of different events that trigger when you have to have discussions,” he added. “I think we’re all comfortable where we landed, but that was probably one of the more difficult things just to work through as we went through the process.”

So what will fans see? According to NASCAR chairman Brian France, grandson of founder Bill France Sr. fans will see better racing.

“We have a model that fits the 21st century and I think will serve us well into the future,” France said. “If it works properly, and we’re very certain that it will, it’s going to do some things. It’s going to create more opportunities for new owners to come into the sport. That’s number one. Number two, it’s going to have the ability to field better, more competitive race teams. That’s what our fans want. They want to see their favorite driver have an opportunity that’s robust and competitive and all the things that makes a great race team succeed.”

What will happen in the long term cannot be predicted. For the short term fans will see no real big changes beyond a somewhat smaller field. Under the new agreement the field for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series has been reduced to 40 cars down from 43.The vast majority of the field, 36 Chartered cars, will have guaranteed starting spots each week; four entries will not have charters. If there are more than 40 entries, those without a Charter will risk missing the race. Another important point is a performance clause in the Charter. If a Charter team finishes in the bottom three of the owner standings among all 36 Charter teams for three consecutive years, NASCAR has a right to remove the charter.

While NASCAR fans won’t see much difference on the track, behind the scenes the team owners will now have a stronger voice as well as a better financial footing. The new agreement won’t change much on the track but is something that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his father Bill France Jr. might not have been too keen on.

“He would have obviously been conservative about this,” France said of his father. “That’s a nice way to say that (smiling). But on the other hand I will say, I know this from my own career, I always brought him things through the years, whether it was consolidating our TV rights way back in the day, whatever it was, or the Chase, another good example, where you would have thought he wouldn’t have been in favor of it. But he always had enough confidence in me at the time and enough flexibility to know that he didn’t have all the answers.”

“I’ll bet once he saw all the things unfold, because by the way, this is not a new idea that has been proposed to us recently, this has been an idea that was on the table in various forms for a long time. So we’ve never been able to sort it out,” he added. “I’ll bet if he saw what I saw by some very talented people on this stage and on both sides of the aisle, wait a minute, if we thought about it this way, I bet he would have gotten onboard. That would be my prediction.”

For the founder of the PDA, the new agreement is something he is on board with. Richard Petty has transitioned from driver to team owner.

“The owners, we don’t understand how NASCAR works, okay?” Petty said. “They don’t know how the race teams work. So now we’re going to be in the same room talking about the same problems and solving the problems together.”

“From that standpoint, it’s going to be one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to NASCAR and Cup racing,” he added. “I’ve been here a long time, I’ve seen a lot of stuff go under the bridge more or less. But this is the next generation of what we’re going to have to do to make racing that much bigger.”

Greg Engle | examiner.com | February 9th, 2016