TALLADEGA, Ala. — Anytime NASCAR visits Talladega Superspeedway, the theme is teamwork. Any racer who wants to achieve success at the sport’s biggest, baddest racetrack will always have to rely on some degree of help to do so, sometimes from friends, sometimes from enemies, and, most of the time, from all of the above.
These days, that rule applies to business off the track, too.
It has to.
This weekend’s 94th Sprint Cup Series race weekend at Talladega, could, when we look back, be regarded as being among its most important. But we won’t really know how important for a while yet. Fans and highlight shows will remember it for whatever happens on the track Sunday. Those who make their living in the garage — every corner of the garage — might end up remembering it for a decidedly less exciting event, a meeting that took place Friday night in the empty Sprint Cup garage.
That’s where NASCAR held the second of its planned four in-season meetings with the still-new drivers’ council, a nine-racer all-star roster elected to represent the interests of the men and women who make their living behind the wheel.
It’s certainly not the first time drivers have held meetings with NASCAR to discuss issues. But it is the first time in a long time that it’s been formalized.
The last time was September 1969. That’s when the just-formed Professional Drivers Association, led by Richard Petty, staged a walkout of what was supposed to be a huge debut weekend for NASCAR’s newest marquee speedway, forcing the sanctioning body to cobble together a starting grid of journeymen and sportsman racers. Officially, the reason for the PDA’s departure was safety. Realistically, the bigger issue was driver irritation over paltry postrace paychecks.
Where did this protest take place? At Talladega, in the same garage where Friday night’s meeting was held.
“Yeah, the way we used to communicate was that we didn’t communicate until we got so mad that we started yelling at each other,” Petty recalled. The PDA was dissolved not long after the Talladega mess after NASCAR worked with the drivers to devise the Winner’s Circle payout program that continued all the way up until this season. “That’s pretty much how it continued to work until now. And I think everyone figured out, hey, if we don’t all sit down and get on the same page here, well, it ain’t exactly going that great with all of us standing off in our own corners, is it?”
The drivers are really the last group to pull their chairs up to NASCAR’s conference table. They join the team owners, auto manufacturers, track operators — all of whom have their own councils — and the sanctioning body itself. For the first time in the sport’s nearly 70-year history, there is a movement afoot to get everyone rowing their oars in the same direction, away from a waterfall of dipping attendance, TV ratings and sponsorship revenue.
The sportwide reorg has taken place under the direction of Brent Dewar, a former longtime General Motor executive who assumed the role of NASCAR’s chief operating officer in 2013. Its roots can be found prior to his arrival, but in his area of initial expertise, the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) — bitter corporate rivals Ford, Toyota and General Motors — cooperated at an unprecedented level to develop the current Generation 6 base model race car.
Ever since, there has been a deliberate silo-by-silo organization and integration of the other major groups within the sport. Each holds its own meetings — helmed in part by a NASCAR executive — and the results of those discussions are combined to, hopefully, devise a game plan for the sport’s future.
Dewar and his co-workers, the Steves (O’Donnell, EVP/chief racing development officer, and Phelps, chief marketing officer), are now working toward a sort of industry super summit, with the hope of getting all of the different parties into a room that isn’t the garage, to crystalize their efforts.
That’s not a small order. Neither is it a small order for the sanctioning body to reboot instincts developed over decades of Bill France Sr./Jr. “this is what we’re all doing, deal with it” autocracies.
“Honestly, this approach is much harder,” Dewar admitted Saturday afternoon as the NASCAR Xfinity Series prepared to take the green flag behind him. “But I think that we are beginning to feel genuine momentum now. There is real enthusiasm now.”
There are also real meetings, with agendas that are agreed upon by both sides and distributed to keep the night’s conversations on topic and on time. NASCAR is really good at having meetings. (Trust me, I used to work there.)
“NASCAR, to their credit, really puts a lot of preparation into those meetings,” Earnhardt explained Friday afternoon. “They do a lot of work that they could put on the drivers, but those meetings are very well done and are very productive because of a lot of the efforts that NASCAR puts in to preparing for the meetings themselves.”
On Friday night that agenda was rather large, a pile of talking points that was preceded by a very testy public debate the week prior, sparked by Stewart’s pointed remarks about the sanctioning body’s looseness when it came to loose lug nuts on pit road. His criticism drew a fine, which drew an offer to pay that fine from the drivers’ council, and ultimately ended with a tightening of the rules.
Thus, the lug nuts issue — which had long been on the agenda for Friday’s meeting — was moved to the top of the stack. “Damn,” one driver rep said Friday afternoon, “they’re going to be in there for three hours.”
That’s about how long it took. On Saturday morning, a smiling Brad Keselowski, comparing the newness of such cooperation to the wide-eyed optimism of his young daughter, said the meeting could have gone on much longer.
Earnhardt also expressed such giddiness. “We thought we would never really have that opportunity to sit down and spend time with everyone that needed to be in the room in the same room.”
“There will always be flexibility when it comes to the issues at hand, and this was obviously something we needed to address quickly,” said Dewar. “But at the same time, one of the main goals of all this is to remind everyone to think long-range. These are competitors by nature. And they are detail people. But your mindset really can’t be day-to-day. It has to be year-to-year. That’s how the big moves are made.”
These meetings don’t mean that drivers will no longer have old-school one-on-one discussions with NASCAR brass when needed. In fact, Stewart and NASCAR chairman Brian France met prior to entering the council discussions to walk through LugNut-gate. Dewar, who developed a close relationship with many owners during the wintertime development of the charter system, spends a lot of his time each weekend having his ear bent by those owners.
These meetings don’t mean there won’t be disagreements. There always are. There were on Friday night. “I would classify them as healthy,” said Keselowski.
And don’t think that owners and drivers and car makers all getting their own groups organized to figure out what they want form the sport going forward means they’ll get everything they want. Ultimately, those decisions will be NASCAR’s to make. That’s how it should be. NASCAR’s name is over the door, after all.
But now the organization is listening. And for the first time, the voices being listening to have been narrowed down to a few speaking on behalf of the many, not the many all screaming at the same time.
“The hard part, and the scenario that NASCAR doesn’t want to get in and can’t get into — we saw this with CART years ago on the IndyCar side,” Stewart said Friday, recalling the Cold War/Civil War that tore apart American open-wheel racing two decades ago. The sport has never recovered. “Everybody is going to have an opinion about what to do; most of the time it’s something that is going to benefit themselves. So to have a driver council where you have drivers from all three manufacturers and different teams and organizations having a unified voice and everybody saying the same thing, it’s validation to NASCAR that this isn’t about one individual group and what we want to help ourselves. It’s what we think as a group is best for everybody. That is why it’s so important to have this started.”
Where it ends won’t be determined for quite a while. But whether the sport ends up turning itself around or flipping itself onto its roof, it will have been done with all sides working together.
“It has really been an amazing process watching such fierce competitors, whether it’s racetrack operators or automotive giants or rival race teams, figuring out a way to work together,” says Dewar. “Everyone realizes that’s how we can all be successful.”
Just like racing at Talladega.