CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR spent the weekend at Darlington Raceway celebrating its 75th anniversary, a salute that will now move to North Wilkesboro Speedway with the first Cup Series race at the reopened track since 1996.
The nostalgic nod to NASCAR’s early days has created a festive atmosphere at the surface level for the stock car series. Underneath, though, is a dispute between NASCAR and its Cup teams that is hanging over this summer celebration.
The Associated Press obtained a letter last week essentially sent by the entire Cup field to NASCAR that warns a tentative agreement to a new industry revenue breakdown depends on its franchises becoming permanent, rather than renewable. The charter system introduced in 2016 guarantees race entry and earnings to 36 of 40 teams each week, but the charters must be renewed and can be revoked.
The current charters expire at the end of the 2024 season and the teams have made it clear they want them permanent — the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers or any team from a stick-and-ball league don't have to renew their franchises — and have asked NASCAR for meaningful discussion on why NASCAR opposes the idea.
Because the sides are at a “significant impasse” on the charters, the teams skipped an April meeting with series leadership and NASCAR's top executives are now meeting individually with the teams.
NASCAR points to those conversations as proof that talks remain amicable. Denny Hamlin, a veteran driver and founding owner of three-year-old Cup team 23XI, said he believes the individual meetings are meant to undermine the strength in collective negotiating by the chartered teams.
“I think there was a little bit of (negotiating) traction, but it looks like NASCAR’s not acknowledging the negotiating committee anymore,” said Hamlin. “They’d rather do it the way they did it 20, 30 years ago and meet team-by-team and try to pick them off one-by-one and get a deal done that way.”
The negotiating committee has representatives from four teams, tasked to hammer out a new revenue sharing model for the Race Team Alliance, the consortium of 16 organizations that hold all 36 charters, which collectively are worth tens of millions. The committee is comprised of Jeff Gordon representing Hendrick Motorsports; Joe Gibbs Racing president Dave Alpern; RFK Racing president Steve Newmark; and Curtis Polk, an owner in 23XI Racing and longtime business manager for Michael Jordan.
Hamlin said the insistence on making charters permanent is to protect what owners have invested in NASCAR. Through two full seasons of launching a startup team, Hamlin said his investment alone is already $20 million.
“I certainly don’t want to lose my $20 million for sure," Hamlin said. “It’s just worrisome that it can come down to one person saying they don’t want to renew (the charter). Too risky. Too risky. Got to give us some sort of security.”
NASCAR has already met individually with Hendrick Motorsports, and team owner Rick Hendrick said: “NASCAR is listening, so we’ll see if we can’t get something worked out that everybody can live with.”
Gordon, after William Byron on Sunday won at Darlington to give Hendrick five wins this season, downplayed the perceived tenor of current negotiations. He noted NASCAR is also in the middle of talks on a new television rights deal; the current package with FOX and NBC Sports expires at the end of 2024, same as the charters.
To renew a charter beyond the 2024 season, the teams had to inform NASCAR in February of their intent. The negotiating window on renewals is July 1 through Dec. 31; under current terms, NASCAR is supposed to negotiate in good faith and shouldn't revoke a charter without cause.
“We all want the same thing. We all want to have a sport that’s thriving that fans love and great competition... and also have something that works out economically for the teams, for the tracks, for NASCAR and everybody involved,” Gordon said. “I think we’re in a good place, but we’re also making sure that NASCAR knows kind of where the teams stand and how united they are.”
Now comes a test of just how united the teams really are.
Although the chartered teams have made it clear in writing that the negotiating committee speaks on behalf of all of them, nothing is stopping anyone from cutting an individual deal with NASCAR. If one team breaks from the others, negotiators will have little to no bargaining power.
The negotiating committee hasn't met with NASCAR since March, and aside from the individual team meetings, there are not current formal discussions on any of the roughly nine points both sides want addressed in the revenue model.
NASCAR has declined to publicly comment on the issue of permanent charters but has said it wants to work with the teams to fix their economic concerns. If NASCAR really means that, then it needs to get back to the bargaining table.
Despite the feel good moments of May leading into this week's All-Star race and then the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the tension is thick behind the scenes and might only get worse as this season rolls on.