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Listen! Do you hear that? What’s that whirring sound?
Now that the organizational gauntlet has been thrown down by the biggest of the big in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, one can only guess how NASCAR Nation will define such amorphous terms as “product”, “costs,” and “agreement.” Such vague and abstract concepts often turn into fightin’ words….
Good thing race teams have, with NASCAR’s blessing, formed a collective that will represent the needs of those who compete for championships and put meat in the seats every week.
And the crowd asks “Huh?”
Many bytes have already been uploaded regarding the nature of the Race Team Alliance (RTA) and its connection to collectives and unions. Maybe the whirring sound we hear is from hard drives and newspaper presses cranking out updates and editorials addressing the question of “What do labor unions mean in conjunction with NASCAR?”
Been there, done that. I studied the strained relationships between NASCAR and organized labor while writing my first book about the sport way back in 1997 (see Chapter Three in From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series published by The University of Wisconsin/Popular Press).
We’ve limped down the organized labor road before. First there was Curtis Turner, Tim Flock and an effort by the Teamsters in the early 1960’s to organize NASCAR drivers (in part because Turner needed financial help to complete construction of what would become Charlotte Motor Speedway). By the end of that decade, there was a clandestine meeting of “big name” competitors like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarborough at a hotel in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which led to the creation of the Professional Drivers Association. This was the group that refused to race at the newly-completed Talladega Superspeedway because of safety concerns over Firestone tires that would not last for more than a few laps given the excessive pressures and temperatures experienced at such high speeds.
Maybe the whirring sound we hear is the chamber in the pistol that “Big Bill” France wielded at a drivers’ meeting at Bowman-Gray Stadium in a threat to those who sought to align themselves with the Teamsters. Then again, maybe the whirring sound is from the tires on Mario Andretti’s Ford as “Big Bill” turned laps at Talladega to demonstrate that his new track was not as dangerous as Petty and his PDA brethren believed.
The results of all these confrontations were brutally clear: the Teamsters went back to Chicago, Curtis Turner and Tim Flock were banned “for life” until their return benefitted NASCAR, the PDA members left Alabama the night before the inaugural event at Talladega, and “Big Bill” France remained solidly in charge of the sport he both created and controlled.
As Mel Brooks once said: “It’s good to be the king….”
It’s important to remember, however, that NASCAR drivers managed to achieve some positive changes in the sport thanks to their threatened collectivization. One demand from those in the PDA was improved “creature comforts” at racetracks on the then-Grand National circuit; these included such amenities as bathrooms and better garage areas. Working under your car while lying on dirt and gravel wasn’t acceptable to the teams that fought for titles and put fans in the stands, nor was the prospect of lining up at a couple of portable toilets every time nature called.
Maybe, then, the whirring sound we hear is from the socket sets and air wrenches used by hard-working mechanics in order to maintain a competitive stock car….
Improved working conditions are at the center of collective bargaining agreements, so Brian France – given his experience with the entertainment industry – should be fully aware of what NASCAR seems to be getting into. The entertainment business is full of unions/collective organizations; everyone from musicians to writers to stagehands to performers is represented by some form of organizational unit.
Ever wonder why “reality-based” programs are so prevalent on national television? It all stems back to writers’ and actors’ strikes that increased the costs of making “fictional” shows like dramas and situation comedies.
Organized labor should – in theory, at least – keep the finished product both on-time and on-budget. Unfortunately, as has been the case, we see that organization sometimes results in a less-than-economical result.
So what’s the “finished product” according to NASCAR and the RTA? If better competition and lower costs are the focus, as has been the mantra of the RTA thus far, is it realistic to expect more teams in Victory Lane and fewer mega-sponsors? Both Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have dominated races in 2014 and sit squarely in the Chase…. How will an organized front change their fortunes and provide fans with a better show?
This is where the RTA differs from the PDA and other organizational efforts: the emphasis is on the teams, not just the drivers. Stock car drivers are little more than chauffeurs – cogs in a larger organizational mechanism that aims to win races and season championships. While big name athletes like Keselowski and Johnson have souvenirs emblazoned with their images, names, and car numbers, they are still an individual part of a bigger operation. Brad Keselowski may have fully dominated Sunday’s race at New Hampshire, but he did so as an employee of Penske Racing.
Whereas the PDA sought improved conditions for drivers, the RTA is more about the administrators who keep the NASCAR moving. For every driver or pit crew member, there is someone who oversees travel plans and/or manages the day-to-day business of a race team. This is where costs turn into financial demands, and where those financial demands turn into improved management through efficiency.
So maybe the whirring sound we hear comes from cash registers keeping track of the income and out-go of finances as NASCAR race teams search for the winner’s circle and a seat at the head table in Las Vegas come December.
All speculation about the RTA seems antithetical when pitted against the original position regarding organized labor held by NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France. It was “Big Bill” who, according to folklore, waved a pistol around at Bowman-Gray Stadium when drivers first considered a collectivized effort. It was France Sr. who challenged the PDA at Talladega in 1969 and told top-notch drivers like Petty and Allison to load up their cars and go home. One can only speculate what “Big Bill” would have to say about the newly-formed RTA.
That explains the whirring sound! It’s what’s left of “Big Bill” France spinning in his grave….