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Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
When members of the media got their first full whiff of the plan in October at Kansas Speedway, they went scurrying to Jack Roush, the owner who put all five of his Cup teams in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship “playoff,” for his reaction.
“It sure feels,” the diminutive Roush said that day, “like ‘Get Shorty’ to me.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France says he understands how Roush might feel targeted, since Roush was the only Cup Series car owner to have five full-time teams in 2005 and since the team limit eventually proposed was for four teams. But France swears there is a bigger picture here. “We don’t like the fact that the independent teams, or in particular a new owner looking at coming in the door, have a daunting task to compete and the concept of having to have five teams,” France says. “That means the opportunities aren’t there for young drivers. It means opportunities aren’t there to create the next Rick Hendrick and have that kind of success. It ultimately means that we don’t field as many competitive cars as we’d like to field. We have to address that.”
In many ways, of course, the idea that NASCAR can say out of one side of its mouth that the team owners in its premier series are “independent contractors” and then, out of the other side, say it’s going to tell these businessmen how many “stores” they’re allowed to open in the sport sounds absurdly contradictory.
But France and NASCAR president Mike Helton steadfastly maintain that if NASCAR doesn’t step in now, unchecked growth of the sport’s multi-car teams will result in a concentration of team ownership in only a very few hands that ultimately would be detrimental to the sport. And some of the men who own Nextel Cup teams agree.
“If I had five teams, I guess I would probably be on the other side of the street,” says Richard Childress, who owns three Cup teams. “But it would just gradually keep building. I can promise you that five would be a common number in a few years, and then the next person goes six or seven. It’s not that I wanted to have three race teams, I was driven there by my competition. When Junior Johnson went with two teams, others started to follow. Finally we had to go to two. We were one of the last teams to do it, but we knew we had to do it to survive.
“And what happens if you get down to a few car owners who control the whole thing? That’s where you’re close to having a problem, when you have five guys with eight teams. What we don’t need is a small amount of team owners who might come in one day and say, ‘You know, the track conditions aren’t quite like we like them, I don’t think we’ll race today.’ And all the fans have spent their money and taken vacations to come. We owe it to the fans to put a show on and we always have to have that in mind.”
Is NASCAR’s move just that, a preemptive strike against powerful owners spurred by the debacle that was the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis? Owners of all but six cars entered in that Formula One race pulled their cars off the track after the warm-up lap before the start after a dispute over tire safety and rules governing the event.
Or, is it aimed at preventing Toyota, which is expected to enter Nextel Cup competition as early as 2007, from coming in with a manufacturer-owned eight- or nine-car operation?
Or, is it simply a way of breaking up Roush’s team while preventing Rick Hendrick’s team from growing any larger as well? Between them, those two teams won 25 of the 36 points races in the Cup Series in 2005, leaving only 11 for all the rest of the teams to share.
France would say it’s none of the above. He would say the limit of four teams, to be phased in over a period of several years to allow Roush to honor sponsor commitments and to let Hendrick run former series champion Terry Labonte in a 10-race schedule previously planned in 2006, is all about where the sport needs to go.
“If I’m Jack Roush and I put five teams in the Chase (in 2005), then life is great,” France says. “I’ve played by the rules and I don’t want to see one thing change. But our problem is, as NASCAR we’ve got to look out for the future.
“We’ve got to look out for the Pettys, the Wood Brothers, Cal Wells and others. We’ve got to look out for new car owners who want to come into the sport. That’s not what Jack Roush is interested in, and I don’t blame him.”
Roush has not threatened to pull up stakes and leave the NASCAR business. He also has said publicly that he doesn’t plan to challenge NASCAR’s right to tell him how many teams he can have in court — at least not right now. “We are committed to this business,” Roush says. “We’ve made a huge investment in it. We will cooperate and participate with NASCAR at any level. So whatever rules they ultimately come up with, we’re in. You’re not going to get a sound byte from me or anybody in our organization that says, ‘Man, this might be the last straw.’ They’ve put a lot of loads of pig iron on my back before and we’ll truck this one just fine, too. I am committed to participate in this business and in this sport as long as I live and to carry forward the trust that my sponsors and my employees and my partners have put in me.”
France and Helton first revealed their plans to impose a team limit in a session with reporters at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 8. On Nov. 10, a statement outlining the policy was issued.
“The four-car limit will extend to owners and any affiliate group,” it read, “which includes situations where one or more of the car owners is entitled to receive, or actually receives, any financial consideration based upon the performance of the cars entered by the other car owners, or has any revenue sharing or ownership stake in the team.”
That would prevent a car owner from listing another employee or family member as the titular owner of a team that was really under the original owner’s control.
“On the other hand,” France said in explaining the policy further, “we still want to get the benefits of the multi-car teams and the infrastructure they have in place as they have in the past to help us launch new teams and new team owners.
“It’s been well noted how many teams and new teams that Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush and others have helped get into the sport, so that’s a good thing. We want to preserve that. We want to give those guys a chance to sell technology, sell shortcuts, if you will, to a potential new team owner. But we also don’t want a concentration that’s going out of control in terms of one ownership group having seven, eight, nine or 10 teams. Where would it end?”
Roush’s reaction after hearing about the four-team limit, which would not prevent a team from running a young driver with a fifth team for seven or fewer races in one season to prepare that driver to run for Rookie of the Year in the following season, was predictable.
“I’m the only guy with five viable teams and the worst of all scenarios is we put all five of them in the Chase and, of course, that gave the bonus to our sponsors for the exposure that they got from being involved with us rather than somebody else,” he says. “They want to diminish it to an extent. (Pro wrestling) has their ways of determining who is going to win and what the ranking is and maybe NASCAR behind the scenes is trying to do the same thing. I do take it personally. They tell me it’s not personal, but I’m the only guy standing here with five teams that is making them work.
“I’m not sure that what they’re doing is right. I’m not saying I’m the guy to go take a position and to unearth it right now, but I’m not sure what they’re trying to do is legally right or is defensible in a court of law. But I want to be in this business. I don’t want to jeopardize my sponsors and my drivers and our prospects in the near term, and too much distraction through an adjudication process would certainly not be in NASCAR’s interest and would almost certainly not be in my interest and would very likely not have an outcome that I could be happy with under any certain area. I choose not to fight that right now.”
One question that comes up often when discussing the concept of a team limit is this whole matter of barriers to ownership.
Could a Jack Roush or a Rick Hendrick, who both began as owners of a single team in the Cup series, come into the sport for the first time today given the resources they had when they did arrive, facing the choice of being non-competitive as a single-car team or having to start at least a two-car team to have a shot to win? The last time a car from a single-car team won a Cup race was 103 races ago when Ricky Craven won at Darlington in the spring of 2003.
Ray Evernham had plenty of help from DaimlerChrysler when he left his job as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports to become a team owner. He started with two teams and, starting in 2006, will have three Dodges on the track. Robert Yates has two Ford teams but said after the four-team limit was announced in late 2005 that he’ll have to work toward adding two more teams because the cap “sets the template” for a successful operation at four teams.
“I believe that probably the best thing for the sport would be not to have three or four owners control all the cars,” Evernham says. “But in fairness to what Jack and Rick have built over the years as businessmen and racers, it’s not fair to penalize them for working within the rules. If what NASCAR wants to accomplish is to let people like me come in and be competitive, then we need to maybe manage the rules we race under a little bit better so the cost can be contained. If Jack and Rick want to have 10 teams at that point, the rules would be in such a way that they would not have a huge advantage over someone who only had two or three teams. I think the responsibility lies in how we manage the sport going forward, not in how many cars somebody has.”
Joe Gibbs Racing went from two to three teams in 2005. Team president J.D. Gibbs agreed with Evernham that, while the idea of limiting team ownership has merit, implementing it could be tricky.
“It would have been a lot easier if four or five years ago NASCAR said, ‘Here’s the deal…’” says Gibbs, who runs the team on a day-to-day basis now that his father has returned to coach the NFL’s Washington Redskins. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the sport to have five or six owners have all the cars. But Jack (Roush) has put all his equity and effort into building these teams the way they have. What NASCAR needs to do is, if you’re going to make these changes, you’ve got to bring some equity back to the teams.
“Jack Kent Cooke, who was the owner of the Redskins, would scream and yell every year that he was losing money. And he probably was — or breaking even. But he forgot to mention that his equity went up $30 million a year. Over here, it’s not a financial bonanza by any means. But if you have that equity that you knew was going to be in those teams, it would probably make a big difference. I know it would for us.”
While Tony Stewart’s championship in 2005 was the third championship in the past six seasons for Joe Gibbs Racing, it has been Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports that have emerged as the sport’s “superpowers” in recent years. Roush won championships with Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004, and Hendrick has four championships with Gordon and has had Jimmie Johnson in the thick of title contention in each of the past three seasons. “Personally, I think Jack should be able to run five teams,” Hendrick says. “He’s built his organization. I remember people telling me I’d never win a championship running multiple teams. I would have liked to have seen Jack grandfathered in forever with five.
“For me, with four teams I think they did me a favor to protect me from myself. It’s good for the sport — making this move now before people have six or seven teams.”
Hendrick doesn’t believe, however, that it was an absolute certainty that teams would have grown much larger if left unchecked — at least not successfully.
“If you’re running like Jack was in 2005 with all five of them in the top 10, you’re in good shape,” Hendrick says. “But if you’ve got two that are doing well and two that are struggling, and you add another team, you’ve got sponsors that are going to tell you to fix your (current) deal before you start another deal.
“I think it was going to take care of itself. It could screw up about as many people as it could help by adding teams. I really don’t think you can keep seven sponsors happy and seven drivers happy. Jack’s deal is an unbelievable feat for him to have five cars run that good and that equal.”
The ownership cap is not the only measure NASCAR is taking beginning in 2006 to try to minimize the advantages enjoyed by multi-car teams. Although NASCAR allowed each car the same number of tests, for instance, Roush cars effectively had a five-to-one edge in testing over a single-car team because each of the five Roush teams could test at a different track on the Cup schedule and share the data gathered with the other teams in the Roush stable. Mark Martin, for instance, didn’t have to test at Atlanta to get data if Carl Edwards tested there. But a Ricky Rudd, driving the lone Wood Brothers-owned car, got only the data from the Cup tracks where that team chose to test.
Beginning this year, however, NASCAR will select the tracks and dates at which teams will be allowed to test. There might still be an advantage for a multi-car team, since Roush’s cars could try five different set-ups at the same time on the track while Rudd could only try one at a time. But Rudd’s team would still at least have a chance to test at the same number of tracks on the Cup schedule that Martin’s or Edwards’ will. That doesn’t stop Roush or Hendrick teams from going to Kentucky or Nashville, tracks that don’t have Cup events, and testing more often. But NASCAR will fight that, too, by instituting a tire-leasing program. When teams show up for a race weekend, instead of buying sets of tires from Goodyear for use during the event, they will now lease them. Teams could take sets of tires they bought but didn’t use home for use in tests before, but now each tire taken out under the leasing program must be checked in before the team leaves the track that weekend.
Teams that knew the leasing policy was coming stockpiled unused sets last year and have been storing them to use in tests at non-Cup tracks this year. But eventually, that inventory will be used up and, NASCAR hopes, the testing advantage of the multi-car teams will be used up with it.
Helton also points to other rules adopted in recent years, like ones limiting teams to a single engine per race weekend and limiting the number of rear-end gears from which teams can select at each race, as ways NASCAR has worked to contain costs and help car owners. “I think we’ve got a history of doing (things) to help car owners stay in business, and entice enthusiasts and owners who wanted to be in the business to be in it,” Helton says. “It has been since 1992 that a single-car owner has won a championship. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, but if we allowed this current trend to keep going, we could be looking here one day and say, well, it was 2005 since the last two-car team won a championship. And we don’t think that’s good for the sport going deep into the future.
“So we choose to put a cap out. Then we have to choose what the number is, and we basically do that by taking a snapshot of the garage area as it is today, analyzing statistics from the past, analyzing what we think trends will do going forward, and talking with a lot of owners about what’s reasonable today.
“We chose the number four as the logical, or the one that made the most sense based on the snapshot of the industry out there today. And that’s what led us to this number and that’s what led us to this date.”