Strikes have become fairly common in the pro sports landscape — we just saw a nasty one in the MLB wrap up — but could a strike ever extend to NASCAR?
Comparing drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series to stick-and-ball sports athletes has always been apples to oranges. Drivers and race teams have always been independent contractors, where as players in, say, the NFL are employees of that league.
As a result, race teams have always been free to draw up their driver contracts however they want to. There’s no salary cap, so if they want to give a driver a $100 million deal, they’re more than welcome to.
There’s no league minimum salary either. So if you want to charge your driver to race your car and not give them a dime of the purse? That’s OK too. This came to the forefront when Ross Chastain revealed he drove for free in his three-race stint for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018.
The way Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s contract was structured early on in his career, Budweiser was the one paying him millions of dollars, not Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Because of there not being any structure or rules set regarding driver contracts, there have been times where the drivers have had it really good and there have been times drivers had it bad. Right now is one of those moments in time for the latter.
Don’t mistake me for saying today’s drivers are hurting for money. They’re doing just fine. In fact, a whole bunch of them come from money these days.
But money in sports continues to inflate, as do player contracts across the spectrum. Driver salaries in NASCAR though have actually gone down quite a bit in the past 15 years.
Talked to Biffle Pre Race last night about how Driver Contracts aren’t what they used to be.
He said the most $ he made in a Single Year was with 3M. He made $6.7 mil that year + 40% earnings.
Mind Blowing 🤯
— 𝙎𝙩𝙚𝙫𝙚 𝘾𝙖𝙧𝙣𝙚𝙨 (@racechaser51) February 18, 2022
The drivers had a lot of negotiating power when there were superstars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt. But the stars of today don’t have the same reach and pop culture appeal as the drivers from the mid-2000s did. The past two Cup champions, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, don’t have a million followers on Twitter.
As costs to run a race team have gone up and up, teams had to find a way to save money elsewhere, and one area was driver salaries. Joe Gibbs Racing moved on from a still very competitive Matt Kenseth in favor of Erik Jones because it could pay Jones a lot less. Same with Hendrick Motorsports letting Kasey Kahne go in favor of William Byron. Plus, Byron brought sponsor money from Liberty University.
“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. That ain’t going to work,” Earnhardt said back in 2017 when those driver changes were happening. “[Drivers] aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore.”
Would Brad Keselowski have left Team Penske to buy into and drive for RFK Racing had Team Penske offered him a mega deal to stay in 2020?
The power has shifted tremendously in the owners’ favor. Rides are in short supply and drivers are a dime a dozen, so if a driver won’t accept what an owner is willing to pay them, then they’ll just put someone else in the car for cheaper.
One thing that’s happened as a result of this power shift is owners have started capping their drivers’ earnings, spotter Brett Griffin, who has also worked a lot on the sponsorship side of things, revealed on the podcast Door, Bumper, Clear.
“I saw rookies in the early 2000s with higher base salaries than what some of these guys are coming in with at their cap. … If you win the Daytona 500 and you’ve got a $500,000 cap on your contract, well, guess what? You ain’t gonna make another dollar after you leave Daytona in that scenario,” Griffin said.
What Griffin means by that is say, hypothetically, Penske capped rookie Austin Cindric‘s purse earnings for this season at $500,000 on top of his base salary. Well, winning the Daytona 500 likely pays a team close to $2 million. If Cindric got 25% of that for his earnings then he would’ve already made all the money he was able to make this season. Because Cindric already reached his cap, Penske would be able to keep 100% of the purse money for where Cindric finishes for the rest of the season without giving any to the driver.
Could you imagine a team owner telling Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson or Bobby Allison that they hit their cap and weren’t going to earn anymore money for the rest of the season? That owner would be looking for a new driver come the next race weekend.
I would say this current trend would maintain for a while without the drivers pushing back, but there’s a few things happening that could really shake things up and make the drivers feel like they have to take a stand.
In February, the formation of a Drivers Advisory Council was announced, headed up by former driver and current broadcaster Jeff Burton. This group is independent of NASCAR, and if the drivers actually stick to this and make this group work, then it has the potential to be the first effective drivers union.
NASCAR has a history of reacting negatively whenever drivers try to unionize. When Curtis Turner and Tim Flock tried to form a union in 1961, both were banned from the series. When the drivers in the Professional Drivers Association boycotted the inaugural race at Talladega Superspeedway (the only drivers’ strike in NASCAR history), NASCAR brought in replacement drivers, quickly ending the boycott and the union.
Just as recently as 2014 when Denny Hamlin had essentially every driver signed up for the start of a union, former NASCAR CEO Brian France had a meeting with Hamlin and Jeff Gordon that put an end to it.
“I remember Brian France sitting us down and kind of giving us the whole long, ‘Be very careful of antitrust here. There’s contracts and you know, this could get very illegal and blah, blah, blah,’” Hamlin said. “They did not want a drivers union for sure. And I still don’t think they want a drivers union.”
With France now gone and NASCAR’s current leadership seemingly being more open to listening to drivers, a union now has the potential to thrive. It would just need something momentous to spring drivers into wanting to act, which leads me to my next point.
We’ve seen the TV money explode to new heights in recent deals signed by the NFL and NHL. Surely, the same will happen with NASCAR when it signs its new TV deals in 2024.
If NASCAR is getting more money, then the teams will be getting more money by default. But the owners could also push for a bigger slice of the pie than the 25% that they currently get. 65% currently goes to the tracks and 10% to the sanctioning body, so with NASCAR now owning roughly half the tracks on the circuit, it would certainly make sense for it to take less of a percentage. New ownership group 23XI Racing has already been vocal about changing up the money distribution.
Michael Jordan's advisor Curtis Polk says that he and Jordan believe that @NASCAR teams would benefit from an @NBA-like model that is less reliant on sponsors and more on media dollars, "so that’s what we’ve been working on a lot with [@DennyHamlin]."
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) March 1, 2022
So if the teams end up getting a higher percentage of the TV money and the money as a whole is a lot more, then we could see a number of drivers get irked if their salaries don’t also climb. That’s when we could see a drivers union take full force, and that’s when we could potentially see a real strike in NASCAR if it comes down to it.
Could this lead to things regularly used in stick-and-ball sports, such as minimum salaries and veteran minimums? If something like that was instituted, then teams might have to think twice before going with a less-talented driver who brings money over a talented driver. If you have to pay a driver a certain amount regardless, then you might as well get a good driver. And if teams are getting more purse money, then they might not be as dependent on sponsorships, further helping the drivers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting here rooting for a strike to happen in NASCAR. The fans would be the big losers in that situation. But something does need to happen to swing the pendulum back to the drivers being larger-than-life superstars and make sure that it is the most talented 36 competing on Sundays. And maybe this is just the thing to shake it up and make that happen.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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