Drivers, officials support NASCAR's nearly strike-proof labor system
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- With the National Football League is in the midst of a lockout that has put the future of America's most popular sport in jeopardy, such labor unrest does not, and may never, exist in NASCAR.
Just once in the 63-year history of NASCAR have drivers walked out of a race -- that coming in 1969 at Talladega when the massive superspeedway was so fast that tires were coming apart in the turns. "Big Bill" France, who created the series in 1947, held firm that "the race must go on" while drivers such as Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison and Buddy Baker decided the risk was not worth it. They loaded up their cars and left.
France stayed his course and a collection of cars and drivers from other NASCAR series filled out the field. Unheralded Richard Brickhouse scored his only NASCAR Cup win that day and a young late-model driver from Winston-Salem, N.C., named Richard Childress made his first Cup start. The money he earned from Talladega helped provide the foundation for what would become one of NASCAR's most decorated teams.
At that time, the drivers had organized, creating the Professional Drivers Association (PDA), which was similar to current players associations in Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. But after Talladega in 1969, the PDA never developed into a viable players association and eventually disbanded.
Since 1994, every major professional sports league has had a strike or a lockout except NASCAR. MLB went on strike that year, which wiped out the World Series. Meanwhile, NASCAR had benefited because its participants are independent contractors. NASCAR sanctions races at various tracks on the schedule and issues competitive licenses to the teams and drivers that want to participate. For those teams that may not have the resources to compete, there are usually other team owners interested in attempting to qualify for that spot on the starting grid.
"We don't sit back and take for granted the relationships we've got and the independent-ness of our sport, but we work very hard to make sure we keep it going," said NASCAR President Mike Helton. "Just because we are not organized in the same fashion as football, baseball and basketball doesn't mean we can't have challenges, too. That is why we have to work on keeping it as favorable for everybody in the sport. Everybody has to benefit from what happens."
One of NASCAR's major benefits is the control it has on its sport. But there is also plenty of cooperation from the various constituents involved in the sport.
"NASCAR isn't as much about ownership as the roles that everybody plays," Helton explained. "NASCAR is the source to bring it all together. Track operators own the facilities we have to have to put the race cars on, and team owners own the teams that we need on the racetracks. Then all the other components that come into play, like broadcast partners and entitlement sponsorships and different things we all participate in. Drivers have to have race cars and race cars have to have drivers and they need racetracks. Our role is to bring all those independent groups together, and that works."
Even when a major tire issue developed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the 2008 Brickyard 400, there was never any concern about teams pulling out of the race such as Formula One did during the 2005 United States Grand Prix debacle at that same track. NASCAR and the teams knew the Goodyear tires would not last, but rather than not compete, NASCAR threw a series of competition yellow flags every 10 laps or so to give teams a chance to change the tires before they blew out.
"There is a give and take throughout our history and there always will be with our competitors," Helton said. "There might have been a situation with the Brickyard in 2008, but along the course of time whether it is a new facility or a facility changes something, I don't think anyone in the garage area gets the impression we don't watch after them, because we do. I don't want to imply that the issues the NFL or anybody else has right now is they don't watch after each other, because they do. I think the issues are bigger and broader than that. "
While NASCAR contractor status simply wouldn't work in the NFL or another major professional sports league because of its ownership structure, many of NASCAR's top drivers seem to like the system just as it is, even if the drivers don't have the same voice in control of the sport as in the NFL or MLB.
"Over the years I've seen the different sports go through their issues," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "Sometimes it's a question of what we need here, what's the better solution. Right now I can honestly say that over all the years, I'm really glad we're independent contractors. I'm glad that we go out and we have to make the things happen for ourselves, whether it's insurance, whether it's benefits, retirement plans. We have to make sure that we protect ourselves, as well as salary. If we perform, then we get salary. This sport is as dangerous as any other out there.
"I try to look at both sides and be as biased as I can to what's going on. But I look at these sports that are going through some of that stuff, it's tough. To me it gets in the way. I think the fans certainly don't appreciate it because it gets so personal and it starts to become a battle. Even for me being a fan looking from the outside, I love the NFL. But to me, I see two greedy sides wanting more and more and more. But I also understand protecting yourself and your investments. In a way, I hope they get it figured out soon. At the same time it makes me think of what we have here is just pretty good."
That the drivers don't share in a pension plan and have to buy their own health insurance is certainly not an ideal situation. But they benefit from the pure competition where their results on the racetrack can have a determining factor in their income-earning potential.
"There have been moments over the years when drivers have just wanted to have one voice," Gordon said. "It's usually related to safety. I don't think that's a bad thing. But I don't think that means you need to create a union and start getting into a lot of other issues that don't need to be fixed. But I think NASCAR has done a good job in the recent years of bringing the teams, bringing the drivers together to have more conversation, open that conversation up, have more opinions on what we can do to make the sport stronger and better from all sides. That I'm very supportive of.
"I think if they continue to go down that route, I think the sport will be better and we won't see ourselves getting into a situation like some of the other major sports have gotten into."
Jeff Burton is one of NASCAR's most articulate and thought-provoking drivers. He is also a big fan of other sports. He understands how business operates but admits in the NFL's case, it's hard for him to feel sympathy for either side.
"I think unions in sports are not really a good thing," Burton said. "I have a hard time believing that there is a lot of good that comes from players unions in sports. You look at the NFL situation -- players and owners arguing over billions of dollars are very difficult to understand. I happen to believe that in sports a democracy doesn't work. Somebody has to say this is the way it works. Your opinion should be heard but somebody has to make a decision."
Burton believes the average fan simply can't fathom the monetary issues being discussed in the current NFL labor impasse.
"People that aren't blessed enough to be involved in sports don't want to hear you [complaining] about how hard you've got it," Burton said. "You play a game for a living. That's not saying it's not hard -- it's supposed to be hard. If you are in the NFL, it's supposed to be hard. If you are a NASCAR racer it is supposed to be hard. People don't want to hear you [complaining] about how much money you are making [in a few years] when you are making more money than most people will ever make in a lifetime."
Leave it to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to voice the sentiment that many feel regarding the potential loss of an NFL season. It has nothing to do with the issue -- some just love the sport.
"I'm upset as a fan," Earnhardt said. "I hope we get to see some football. I don't know what I'll do, how I'll replace my Fantasy Football league. Really, I mean, I look forward to it. I don't know what I'll do with my time. It will be disappointing not to have football, especially when our season is over. As a race car driver, that's one thing I look forward to about the end of the season, watching football, watching my team on Sunday. It will be disappointing that we might not have a season. That happens to be an opportunity for us. I just hope we get some football."
One thing is clear -- that whenever another sports league has gone on strike or a lockout, NASCAR has benefited. And while NASCAR officials and drivers certainly don't wish any ill will on the NFL, they want to be ready to step in and fill the viewership void it that happens.
"Our role and responsibility is to be ready for the opportunity that comes our way, but nobody in the sports industry wants another sport to have the challenges because we all know what that feels like," Helton said. "But if we do get the opportunity that someone takes a look at us, we hope they like what they see."