By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. After the confetti and tire smoke from Jeff Gordon's big day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has settled (see "The Line" - WG), the harsh realities facing NASCAR are still present and accounted for, and then some. The crowds at The Speedway last weekend were shockingly small, and please spare me the argument that it was a good crowd but it didn't look it due to the cavernous confines of the world's greatest motorsports facility, because that flat-out doesn't wash anymore. The crowd for NASCAR's second most prestigious event after the Daytona 500 (allegedly), looked like mere remnants of what it's supposed to be. Not Good comes to mind.
Setting that aside, well, because NASCAR's dwindling in-person crowds has become such a common occurrence that it hardly merits mentioning at this point, the reality facing the powers that be in Daytona Beach is staring them in the face. And that means the reality of the Race Team Alliance (RTA). Judging by the comments from the regular beat reporters covering NASCAR, it sounds like they consider the RTA to be much ado about nothing. I'm not suggesting that they're buying NASCAR's company line exactly, but they're giving NASCAR the benefit of the doubt, even though Brian France sounded foolish - yet again - when he dismissed the RTA out of hand, saying gaining consensus from all of its teams has always been the NASCAR M.O., even when in reality it never was. His quote from last week: "The last thing we would want to do is not talk to everybody so we can understand where the truth lies, or the best that we can tell," France said in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "So that's why one voice -- it's just a bad idea." (We're all so thankful that France shed light on the proceedings, even though it sounded completely ill-advised and stupid, but I digress.)
Be that as it may the issue of the RTA gets to the heart of the matter for racing in general and that is - as I've said many, many times before - that racing is a world of the "haves" and "have nots." This is not news, because it has always been that way. Racers gain advantages through technological tweaks and breakthroughs, and that costs money, pure and simple. Big money, in fact. And some teams will always have more money and resources than other teams, that's just the reality and has been since the guy with the second car ever built challenged the guy with the first car ever built to a race.
But The NASCAR Way of vigilantly making the cars as closely competitive as humanly possible because they actually believe it makes it fair for everyone is simply not working out. In fact, it has backfired. Why? It's a noble idea and all, but it seems to belie a childlike naivete that they can actually achieve a technological parity for everyone, when In fact it creates the exact opposite effect when you really think about it.
When the rules are the same and the specs are the same and everything is allegedly the same, what does that force the "haves" teams to do? They hire more engineers, more aerodynamicists, more suspension experts, and spend loads of cash on even more computer time for that latest refined tweak that may give them a 1,000th of a second advantage on the track. The result? There is no real parity in NASCAR. There is no real parity in racing, period. Advantages are fought for and won and the "haves" of the racing world always win. And NASCAR is kidding themselves if they don't see that.
The reality of the RTA for NASCAR is that these "haves" teams have now become a unified force. They are the teams with the marquee drivers, the most visible national sponsors, the untold legions of talented technical people and the cold, hard cash. They have seen their costs skyrocket because of NASCAR's naivete in pushing the whole "parity" thing when in fact it's a fool's errand. These teams will exploit every last loophole simply because they can. When you're one of the "haves" that's what you do. And parity has nothing to do with it.
Why does the reality of the RTA spell big trouble for NASCAR? Because the NASCAR business model is based on control, period. It has always been about control and it always will be about control. Oh, and the money, too, obviously, but that goes without saying, doesn't it?
The reality of the RTA is that it's a direct threat to The NASCAR Way. In fact the RTA represents America's new Racing Industrial Complex. This is where the money is, this is where the technology is, this is where the sponsors go and this is where the marquee drivers - the ones that NASCAR has built its "cult of personality" around - are employed. And lest you think this is simply confined to NASCAR, take a long look at how many of the NASCAR teams run road racing and/or IndyCar programs out of their shops in North Carolina. Other than the Indianapolis area, which still holds a technological foothold - albeit a shrinking one - the new Racing Industrial Complex in America is in North Carolina, and it is controlled by the teams of the RTA.
So what has NASCAR's initial reaction been to all of this? That the RTA is a step in the "wrong direction." That it is "unnecessary" and "counterproductive." That it "isn't in the best interests" of the sport. In other words, lots of noise signifying not much. Wrong move.
This isn't the era of "Big Bill" France. And it isn't the era of Bill France Jr. either. (And it has never been the era of Brian France, but then again that goes without saying.) No, this is the new era of America's Racing Industrial Complex, and the powers that be in Daytona Beach better get serious about the implications and the ramifications of what this all means, before they get left "like a house by the side of the road," as Ernie Harwell used to say.
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Photo by Dave Friedman courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Indianapolis, Indiana, 1964. Jim Clark and Colin Chapman confer before Clark's qualification run for that year's Indianapolis 500.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD