When politicians look at a NASCAR crowd, they see votes.
To what extent television will use its influence to shape NASCAR races, schedules, events, and demographics remains to be seen. When NASCAR officials and Fox ended the 2003 Daytona 500 after just 109 laps, some media suggested the network pressured NASCAR into stopping the race out of fear it would delay Fox's heavily promoted 300th episode of The Simpsons. If television ever gets to the point where it is wielding that kind of influence, call home the dogs-the hunt is over.
You can be sure there is already discussion about renewing the current television agreement with Fox and NBC. One recent scenario has ABC and ESPN joining forces with the current players. Ratings, which in the first quarter of this season were flirting with a double-digit decrease from a year ago, will play a big part in who gets what. Whatever the numbers, NASCAR and the television networks are going to be looking to get more exposure and more money for their efforts. There's no going back. It will be an interesting negotiation.
Unlike most professional sports, NASCAR drivers do not have an association (union) representing their interests with their employers. In this case, their employers are the teams for which they drive. Each driver is treated as an independent contractor to his respective team, which then competes in NASCAR-sanctioned events.
Unionization of NASCAR drivers wouldn't be a new concept. In the early 1960s, Curtis Turner led a group of competitors in a push for a driver's union with NASCAR. NASCAR pressure broke the ranks within the group, and the plot failed. Turner was banished from competition by NASCAR, and talk of unionization is rarely, if ever, discussed, at least openly.
After all, convention says NASCAR isn't like other sports, and the drivers don't need a union. Top drivers are wealthy beyond their wildest expectations, with multiple homes, cars, yachts, million-dollar motor coaches, private jets, and helicopters among their personal possessions. Most everything else they need they get for free because of who they are. You can be sure Earnhardt Jr. never picks up a check.
But, for every Earnhardt, Wallace, Martin, and Stewart, there are a couple dozen guys in Cup who don't have all the trappings. Ditto in Busch, and probably more in Trucks. Those are the guys who have noticed where other professional sports performers with representation have leveraged themselves as much as 55 percent of the pie. NASCAR drivers get about a third of that.
In reality, mid-level NASCAR drivers are underpaid by millions of dollars in comparison to their counterparts in professional mid-level football, baseball, basketball, golf, and hockey. A middle-of-the-pack Cup performer with no souvenir income can make $750,000 to $1 million a year. That's not hay, but it's also not $7 million for batting seventh and hitting .231 for the season, either. The comparisons to pro golf, hockey, and basketball are even worse.
Some maintain, rightly or wrongly, that a union would offer all drivers a bigger piece of the financial pie, and an active voice in issues involving competition, scheduling, safety, and retirement funding. As the money in the sport continues to get bigger and NASCAR is treated more as an equal to stick-and-ball sports entertainment venues, the possibility of a professional drivers' association is an issue that looms on NASCAR's horizon.
NASCAR team owner Richard Childress appeared on a live morning pre-race show from California Speedway and spent most of the interview discussing how NASCAR needed to slow the rising costs of competition. He ended a long response on how difficult it is to land sponsorship by saying our economy is turning the corner, thanks in large part to President Bush.