NASCAR Needs A Commissioner And I Know Just The Guy

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NASCAR is taking a lot of hits publicly as of late, but could a commissioner turn NASCAR’s tarnished image around? Well, if NASCAR is looking for a guy, I know one who will have some free time on his hands soon.

When baseball was fighting the negative publicity and loss of faith in the game from the Black Sox scandal, the owners took a bold and unprecedented step. They named retired judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis Commissioner of Baseball with virtually unlimited power and created the phrase “the best interest of baseball”. From that moment baseball started to become America’s pastime. Its popularity soared for almost half a century.

NASCAR now finds itself in the same place. Its fan base has lost faith in the actions of the France family and the leadership in NASCAR. Fans question daily if they (NASCAR) are doing things in the best interest of the sport. Everything in NASCAR is tightly controlled by a very small group out of the public eye. If NASCAR wants to regain the fans trust they need to open it up and bring in an independent person to oversee all aspects of the sport in a public way.

Right now the sport is run as follows; NASCAR represents the sanctioning body and the tracks to a certain extent, the Race Team Alliance represents the team owners and then the drivers council. The one thing we know for sure, the RTA is the only group that NASCAR seems to be willing to listen to. The intense effort in the development of the franchising model is proof of that. It is the first step towards relinquishing any control for NASCAR, something it has never truly done before.

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The problem is the stakeholders are all equally dependent on each other. A strong independent commissioner would have to be able to represent all sides and act in the best interests of the sport. They would not be able to favor one side over the other. If you look at the current TV revenue split, 65% to tracks, 25% to race purses, 10% to NASCAR, you see how one-sided the deals have been. Considering NASCAR’s own International Speedway Corp owns 13 tracks you get the idea who really gets the TV money.

NASCAR’s resistance to a “drivers union” is understandable seeing what players unions have done to other sports. The drivers council should have as big a seat at the table as owners though. Interest and ratings always spike when the personalities of the drivers are exposed. NASCAR’s explosive growth in the 80’s-2000 were driven by the likes of Earnhardt, Wallace, Waltrip, Gordon and Petty. The complaints of the vanilla drivers during NASCAR’s attempts to soften the sports image parallels the decline in popularity. Actually the drivers are the true driver of the interest in the sport. Their actions on and off the track drive the fans of the sport to the track and television.

Without the owners there would be no cars on the track and nothing for the drivers to drive. The investment they make into building the cars, the teams and expenses is enormous, so they should have a big seat at the table as well. The constant changes NASCAR makes to the cars comes at great expense to the owners. The one race last season with the “high downforce” package at Michigan, that nobody inside the sport wanted, probably cost more than Daytona for the teams. They had to develop two cars for a one-off race.

So who could we get to be NASCAR’s Kennesaw Mountain Landis, someone larger than life who commands the room? Someone who understands all the aspects of the sport, who everyone stops and listens to when they talk. You need someone who understands the demands on the modern driver, team ownership, track ownership and is above reproach. Someone that will not be beholden to any one side, unlike commissioners in baseball, football or the NBA who are hired by the owners and represent them in negotiations. Someone all sides can agree on but not necessarily like.

The person who truly fits is someone NASCAR is scared to death of and that is Tony Stewart.

He is going to have a lot of time on his hands after the 2016 season, has driven with nearly a dozen sanctioning bodies, owns and operates a track and owns multiple race teams in NASCAR and other series. The most important factor is that everyone knows he loves the sport. Anyone who has been around Stewart knows his passion for racing. The underreported part to the incident he was involved in at the Chili Bowl was that he was there prepping the track, free of charge, to try and make the event as great as possible. Anyone who has visited Eldora Speedway knows how much time and effort he puts forward to make sure the fan experience is not just good but great.

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Lets be clear, I know this will never happen. NASCAR is never going to give up that much power or take such a drastic step. The time has come though for NASCAR to relinquish a large portion of its power to someone who fans, drivers and owners understand is working in the best interest of racing. Tony Stewart can be that guy and it it’s not going to be him it should be someone else like him. NASCAR needs to save themselves from themselves and a commissioner could help them do that.