Following the recent news out of Formula 1, a long dormant question can be asked again: could NASCAR drivers unionize?
Formula 1 is under new ownership with Liberty Media, and Chase Carey is making several changes trying to improve the sport moving forward. However, amid these proposed changes, the F1 driver’s union, Grand Prix Drivers’ Association reported that it has 100 percent membership for perhaps the first time in history, and chairman Alex Wurz told BBC that the drivers know they need to be united to face the issues ahead of them.
“We can’t be naive about the situation F1 is in, with its complicated governing rules and agreements between various key stakeholders,” Wurz said via Reuters. “Business decisions and political power fights have damaged the sport enough at exactly such vulnerable times over the last decade.”
A racing series going through major changes? That rings a bell.
It’s no secret that NASCAR, too is undergoing a seismic financial change. Sponsorship are harder to come by, high priced drivers are being pushed towards retirement and even pit crews are being slashed to cut costs.
NASCAR doesn’t release driver salaries, but it’s been widely reported that top Cup series drivers can make up to $10 million a year, when accounting for base salaries plus a share of sponsorship money and race winnings. But the influx of young drivers has reportedly driven down base salaries to about $500,000 a year.
Not only are the salaries lower, but veteran drivers are facing pay cuts, Adam Stern reported.
These pay cuts are rumored to be the major factor in Matt Kenseth’s ‘retirement.’ Kenseth is being replaced by Erik Jones next year and has all but officially announced his NASCAR racing days are over. Many believe Kenseth still wants to race, and still has the ability to, but is being pushed out in favor of the younger drivers who don’t demand as much money.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. explains:
“Well, when you look at it, you’ve got a car, right? Say we all are sitting here with race cars and nobody to drive them. You’ve got a guy that you think has got a lot of talent, very young, a lot of potential. And then you’ve got a veteran who is established. But he wants three, four, five, or six times the amount of money. You’re going to go with the younger guy because it’s a better deal financially.
“So, that’s something that I think is transitioning in the sport. It took a while, but when we had our major reset when the recession hit and everything sort of changed and the value of everything changed, the trickle-down affect I think is coming down through the driver’s contract and it’s making a big difference in the decisions these owners are making. You can’t pay a driver 5 to 8 million dollars a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship.
“That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore.”
With the changes happening now, and maybe more on the horizon, the drivers might put up another challenge to the status quo of independent contractors. Every other major American sport has a union for the athletes to negotiate things like minimum contracts, salary caps, rules and even safety.
NASCAR drivers have tried to unionize before, according to the Washington Post. An early 60’s push ended up being squashed and two drivers received lifetime bans. In 1969, NASCAR’s top drivers led by Richard Petty formed the Professional Drivers Association but NASCAR founder Bill France shut that movement down within weeks.
When the idea resurfaced in 2014, drivers seemed content with the way things were.
Richard Petty’s son, Kyle said:
“Can you imagine Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin sitting talking about a pension plan? They’re not thinking about it, and they won’t think about it, because they’ll make enough money during a period of time where when they get ready to think about it, it’ll be too late to do something.”
Kevin Harvick also expressed doubts:
“Trust me, nobody wants the drivers in charge of anything. And I really doubt that even if there was some sort of union, nobody would agree on everything.”
Of course, no one wants to rock the boat when things are going well, but with signs of trouble ahead, could the drivers finally decide it is time to try again?