Danica is done, the King is teetering and, oh by the way, NASCAR’s playoffs are starting this weekend.
Remember when everything NASCAR touched turn to gold? Nowadays, those folks can’t buy a good headline.
Not sure how many boats need to run aground before someone questions the navigators, but man oh man, we should at least knock on the cabin door.
On the cusp of the 2017 playoff opener, with the marketing machinery greased, the presenting network locked and loaded, the entire industry hoping for a return of momentum, the business-side underbelly of auto racing photo-bombed the poster moment.
Not sure if it’s the proverbial tipping point NASCAR needs to pitch a new way of running its show, but suddenly seeing Danica Patrick and Richard Petty shoved to the wrong side of the ledger should tip some corner-office discussions toward the possibility.
The beginning of the end for Danica came last year when a new-to-NASCAR and off-Broadway sponsor (red flags, of course) ended a three-year sponsorship arrangement in Year 1.
No, wait a minute. The beginning of the end actually came earlier, and gradually, as it became apparent that Danica’s Indy-car aptitude wasn’t translating to the bulky, slip-sliding world of stock-car racin’. She’s not the first and probably not the last to literally and figuratively hit that wall.
The lack of productive transitioning had to be a factor in her landing with that off-Broadway sponsor after her original benefactor, GoDaddy, ended its Danica partnership the year before.
But who knows how big a role that played, because there are other marketable drivers, with plenty of wins, who are having ongoing or newfound funding woes. A pair of former champs and Daytona 500 winners, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth, are in the playoffs but unsure of what next year holds.
If we’re talking marketability and winning, that conversation must always start with Richard Petty, whose picture would be on currency if the Carolinas ever seceded.
The King doesn’t necessarily own Richard Petty Motorsports. The cash flow is supplied by Medallion Financial Corp. Medallion bought in to NASCAR generally and Petty specifically assuming the King’s stature would help avoid weeks like this one, which brought news that the team’s sole big-name sponsor is jumping to another team.
It quickly became a royal mess.
Petty struck first, suggesting he had a handshake deal with Smithfield Foods (the breakfast-meat company) to continue their partnership. Petty is 80, and he naturally remembers a time when a handshake deal was a deal, and didn’t mind telling us about it this week — “I’m sad to see this is where we are now,” he said.
They say you don’t want to see how the sausage is made, so this naturally turned a verbal food fight. Kenneth Sullivan, Smithfield’s CEO, refuted the “handshake deal” claim and went on to blame the breakup on “RPM’s inability to deliver on the track and the organization’s repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness.”
That’s tradin’ paint right there.
Here’s where the tipping may begin. Andrew Murstein is founder and president of Medallion Financial, and as owner of the No. 43 team he already had a business interest in broaching the subject of spending caps among NASCAR teams.
A couple of months ago, Murstein said he talked about spending caps at a dinner in New York. His conversation companions were NASCAR chairman Brian France and New York Giants owner John Tisch, who could certainly preach the benefits of the NFL’s spending caps.
In the traditional team sports, they’re known as “salary caps” and remove the ability of richer teams to load their rosters with the best and highest-price talent. In racing, it would have to cover all spending to keep the few richest teams from doing what they do now: Hiring more and better engineers and buying or building the best equipment.
In other words, if Green Bay can compete with New York in the NFL, Richard Petty Motorsports should be able to compete with Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR. At least according to Murstein.
That, however, would require a massive sea change in business as usual. And, of course, it might not be the easiest thing to police. But when too many teams are non-competitive (at best) or edging toward extinction (at worst), the navigators shouldn’t simply dismiss the sea change just because it ain’t the way we do things around here.
Reach Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @HeyWillieNJ.