News & Media

Caraviello: NASCAR open to 'unprecedented' team input

January 26, 2012, David Caraviello,

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thursday afternoon brought the big presentation, complete with lights and video boards and a montage of last year's highlights set to a stirring voice-over. The annual preseason media tour visit with NASCAR has shifted from the league's Research and Development Center to the dazzling Hall of Fame, where historic race cars and mementos from the past stand in contrast to a modern state-of-the-sport address that's never short on dramatic flourishes. This time the theme was "Fast Forward," as officials discussed gains made in the previous season and how those may translate into the upcoming campaign.

No question it's a big show, designed for effect, to bolster chairman Brian France's central statement: "The sport is in a very good place right now." And yet, Thursday's presentation isn't quite as integral to NASCAR's success as a series of smaller, more personal meetings that were held across the North Carolina piedmont earlier this month. There were no big stages, no cameras, no flash. But those confabs with Sprint Cup owners and drivers have become more and more common in recent years, and are playing more of a role in shaping policy in North America's pre-eminent motorsports series.

Bus stops here

Visit some of the shops on the NASCAR media tour as teams discuss their expectations for the coming year.

* NASCAR seeks to carry momentum | Sound Off: France, Helton

"It's just the way we manage the sport," France said on the media tour's final stop. "It's been incredibly helpful. That's my style and [president Mike Helton's] style, as well. What we really did was make the determination that, although we talk to them at the track every weekend, which is kind of an unusual thing in sports, formalizing our meetings from time to time, and also letting them interact with some of the people they may not see at the track who are playing an important role in helping ... grow the sport, that would be a better concept for us. And it has been. I look forward to them, actually. So that's working well for us."

It's become a preseason ritual, France and a cadre of NASCAR executives making stops at one team facility after another, sitting down and trading ideas and trying to find common ground in a sport where differences of opinion are as numerous as lug nuts. The NASCAR contingent is usually eight to 10 people, with the usual suspects -- France, vice president for competition Robin Pemberton, series director John Darby -- perhaps accompanied by the likes of chief marketing officer Steve Phelps, vice president for racing operations Steve O'Donnell, or chief communications officer Brett Jewkes. According to people to have been in the meetings, the sessions typically last about two hours and are very civil in tone, though the debates can be quite spirited.

For a very long time, NASCAR was viewed as a complete autocracy -- if founder Bill France or successor Bill France Jr. wanted it one way, that's usually the way things went. And in fairness, even today the sport is far from a democracy, without franchising that would give race organizations real power in policy-making. But since taking over in 2003, the younger France has shown an openness to change, as evidenced by moves like the Chase, shifting the postseason awards to Las Vegas, and the simplified points system, all enacted under his command. And it was Brian France who began the "town hall" meetings that evolved into the regular gatherings with race teams that occur each winter.

Of course, teams are never going to get their wish on everything. "There are quite a few [issues] where you could ask, and owners and drivers would wonder why they haven't been moved on," driver Brad Keselowski said. "But there are a few being moved on, yes, and that's good."

One of those apparently was NASCAR's recent decision to eliminate team-to-team radio communication, which reared its head last year in the wake of the tandem drafting that emerged at restrictor-plate tracks. That move began with the teams, Pemberton said, which felt that having so many voices on one radio was a distraction. Similarly, the move to a 2013 Sprint Cup race car that will more closely mirror street models was a joint decision manufacturers made among themselves, with NASCAR's blessing.

"I think for us, it's a collaboration that is unprecedented," France said. "We sit down [with teams] ... not just formally this time of the year, but also when we have something very significant to deal with, and it's been really good. The answer is, they have a lot of input. What you also need to know, which is pretty interesting to me, is the amount of disagreement on things -- honest disagreements that happen, people seeing it one way or another way, on anything that's important, is always surprising. You'd be surprised. All our meetings, someone's idea of saving money is someone's idea of not saving money, or whatever it might be. So we have to make sure that we're hearing that input, and obviously matching it up to our goals. But they have a lot of input, and they should."

Teams seem to appreciate being included in the process. "I like the fact that we can sit down with NASCAR's top people in a room as car owners and drivers only, and have a chance to talk openly about different issues -- the health of the sport, what's the program, what's the strategic direction for the next five years," car owner Roger Penske said.

"The way we run our teams, there's much more transparency with what's going on with the 2013 car. I'm interested in lowering the costs and building a fan base ... I think we're getting more into some of their strategy on marketing, obviously. The technology is going so fast, it's hard to determine what's the best thing to do with these cars on the track so they put on a better show. There's good dialogue. ... I'm interested in technology, 2013 cars, what can we do for our sponsors, how can we work with the tracks. And obviously, as I've said before, I want more testing. If I were a PGA golfer and I wanted to play Augusta, and I couldn't get on there and have a practice round, that hurts us. We're going other places to test. That's always been one of my pet peeves in those meetings."

Sorry, Captain -- the limited testing policy will remain intact for 2012, Pemberton said, with exceptions made for Pocono, Kansas and Michigan, all of which are getting new surfaces for this year. Once recent change that apparently didn't stem from meetings with teams was NASCAR's decision Wednesday to halt the process of undisclosed fines, which seems to have resulted from public and media backlash more than anything else. "The fine thing is a minor discussion," Penske said.

What isn't minor, though, is NASCAR providing its race teams with more of a voice -- even if those meetings occur far from the bright lights on display at Thursday's media tour presentation in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"I think what we maybe should be most proud of today, we being NASCAR, is being more open-minded to all stakeholders," Helton said. "If a team comes to us and says, 'You need to change this,' and we say why, the question that they ask us isn't as important to us as the answer that they give us once we say why. And then we can follow it through. ... And if that answer makes sense, we're going to go to work on it. If it doesn't make sense, then we have to go to the next question."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.