NASCAR: Drivers Need More Say Now

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports /

With NASCAR at a crossroads after a decade of declining popularity, its time for the drivers to get a larger say in the direction of the sport. Did the Formula 1 drivers just lay the groundwork for change?

When NASCAR drove its way from being a niche sport to a mainstream sport, its drivers where at the wheel. Their personalities and emotions on and off the track connected to people all over the country. It translated to ticket sales and massive television ratings. At its peak, NASCAR made the decision to reel in the personalities to try and keep its new fans. A decade later that decision is still holding back the sport.

As one of the few sports leagues that is privately owned, they have run the sport without having to negotiate with a players union or powerful team owners. What NASCAR says goes, and there is no one to question them. While team owners have had some influence with NASCAR, the drivers voice has gone mostly unheard.

In Formula 1, a new qualifying format was instituted this year that was a disaster. FIA was content to see it out longer, but the drivers unified and demanded a change. Their unified public stance forced FIA to change direction quickly, something previously unthinkable. This show of power is setting the stage for the drivers to have more a say in the future of Formula 1.

NASCAR drivers should take note, strengthen the drivers council and use it as a vehicle for change. NASCAR was able to quash a divers union decades ago by bringing in unknown drivers to compete in the place of regulars. That was a different time where there was no media coverage and drivers were relatively unknown. With many of the drivers bringing their own sponsorship to the teams, they now come from a position of strength they never had before.

The new lower downforce package has been credited with greater racing on the track. It was done after years of recommendations from drivers to make the cars less aero dependent and more drivable. Even when they finally did test the new package, NASCAR forced teams to try a higher downforce package that, according to Tony Stewart, a non racing engineer from Chevrolet suggested. History is written and the low downforce package is a success, the high downforce package was a failure.

Anyone who follows the sport on social media has realized that the drivers understand more about the fans desire in NASCAR than anyone. Their interaction with fans on social media is a major reason the sport has not fallen farther than it has. It could be said that the drivers alone have kept the sport from completely bottoming out.

If the sport is going to regain any of the popularity it once had, the drivers are going to be out front. With that, they should have a greater say in the direction of the sport. The first thing the drivers should fight for is to be allowed to be more emotional and speak without fear of punishment from NASCAR. Its the emotion the fans crave, its what drew them in droves. Taming them is what has turned them away just as fast.

The drivers are almost unanimous in their desire for a shorter schedule. With NASCAR having a major financial investment in the tracks through their publicly traded side, International Speedway Corp, they have no incentive to reduce the schedule. If drivers took a stand and demanded a greater say in the schedule, the change the sport so needs fewer race dates, could actually happen. There is no debate anywhere outside of NASCAR itself that the schedule is bloated, but convoluted interests in the tracks and television deals makes change difficult.

The imperialistic leadership in NASCAR needs to change. The first steps were taken with the formation of the Race Team Alliance of owners. It was able to get the charter system, long dismissed by NASCAR, implemented. Who was left out of that process, the drivers. They were left to scramble to renegotiate contracts not knowing what the purse distribution would be. Also the reduction of the field to 40 cars meant three drivers were out of seats.

For the longest time NASCAR has looked upon drivers as a disposable commodity. Yet when it comes to promoting the sport nobody has done more than the drivers themselves. Why the disconnect? The lack of people in the offices of NASCAR that ever participated in the sport cloud the decision making. Every other major sport has former players in major policy influencing positions, NASCAR has made no such steps. Jim Torre MLB, Troy Vincent NFL and the host of ex-NBA players in GM positions in the NBA.

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The only way NASCAR can find its way out of its popularity decline is to do what it has resisted for so long, give up power. Sometimes the catalyst for change is thrust upon organizations, the drivers should be that catalyst now. Unify and stand up for the sport before the damage to the sport is irresistible. They are the only group the fans trust anymore in the sport, and their leadership could revitalize NASCAR.