DAYTONA BEACH — What a show it was in front of a sellout crowd of 150,000 at Daytona International Speedway and millions more on national television.
They came to this mecca of speed for many different reasons.
Some came because it’s a family tradition to attend the Daytona 500.
Some came to drink beer, tailgate and party in the infield.
Some came from up north to vacation at “The World’s Most Famous Beach.”
Some came come for days of thunder and wide-eyed wonder; the eye-pleasing paint schemes and ear-popping excitement; the screaming engines and the scary crashes.
But mainly they came to watch their favorite drivers defy death at 200 mph with the pedal to the metal and their hair on fire.
“I came because I want to see my man, Kyle Busch, finally win his first Daytona 500,” said Jimmy Miller, who made the trek from St. Louis for the race. “I have a feeling this is the year.”
As it turned out, Miller didn’t get his pre-race wish. Even though Busch led with two laps left before a caution flag came out, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ended up winning the longest Daytona 500 in history while Busch fell to 19th place.
But the point is this: It’s drivers whom the fans come to see, and it’s time for NASCAR to pay a fair share to the amazing athletes and the teams most responsible for the sport’s popularity. And make no mistake about it, drivers and team owners are getting more and more adamant about collectively bargaining a more equitable share of NASCAR’s TV revenue.
NASCAR has been essentially a dictatorship over the years run by the sport’s hardfisted owners — the France family. “Big” Bill France, the founder of the sport, never took kindly to collective bargaining, dating to 1961 when driver Curtis Turner tried to form a drivers’ union. Big Bill’s response? He banned Turner for life.
In 1969 led by the great Richard Petty, 11 drivers formed a union — the Professional Drivers Association (PDA) — to lobby for safer racing conditions and help drivers get better insurance plans and a bigger share of the profits. The 11 PDA drivers boycotted the historic first race at Talladega, Big Bill quickly replaced them with scab drivers and the union quickly disintegrated.
But times have changed, athletes have become more emboldened and collective bargaining is here to stay. It’s time for NASCAR to realize that the drivers and the teams are the main attraction and deserve their fair share of the TV revenue.
When Petty, now a longtime team owner, is asked if race teams and their drivers deserve a bigger piece of the TV pie, he says diplomatically: “You always think that. It don’t make no difference what job you got, you want more money.”
Yes, but NASCAR teams and their drivers deserve more money. NASCAR’s current 10-year, $8.2 billion TV deal with FOX and NBC runs through the 2024 season and the sport is currently in negotiations for a new TV deal that could be worth more than a billion dollars per year.
Denny Hamlin, one of the sport’s top drivers and part-owner of a race team, has been one of the most outspoken critics of NASCAR’s current revenue split. He warns that no TV network is going to want to negotiate a new deal with NASCAR if there is labor unrest on the horizon.
“I think NASCAR has to make a deal with us,” Hamlin said on a recent podcast. “I don’t see how you can go out and get the most money from a TV partner if you don’t have your house in order. No TV partner wants any interruptions in service. And with the teams publicly saying they weren’t happy with the deal, that could throw up red flags for TV.”
Currently, 65 percent of the TV revenue goes to the tracks, 25 percent goes to the teams, and 10 percent goes to NASCAR. However, since NASCAR owns many of the tracks (13 to be exact) that host its races, it means NASCAR is getting 75 percent of the TV money; the teams and drivers are getting just 25 percent.
Could you imagine a 75-25 percent split in the NBA or the NFL? Of course not. Those leagues know that the star athletes attract the eyeballs and essentially have a 50-50 revenue split with the players. If NFL and NBA players deserve 50 percent of the profits, then certainly NASCAR drivers and their teams deserve the same — if not more.
These drivers strap themselves behind the wheel of their 3,000-pound land missiles and literally put their lives on the line every week for our entertainment pleasure.
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Unlike the NBA, where a star player might sit out 5 games with a strained cuticle, there is no load management in NASCAR. Unlike the PGA Tour, where Tiger Woods in his heyday would never even play in half of the events, NASCAR drivers show up for all 36 races come hell or high water.
The stories of NASCAR drivers playing hurt are legendary. The iconic Petty once raced with a broken neck. Former driver Ricky Rudd, involved in a serious accident in a qualifying race, drove the next day with his eyes so swollen he taped them open with duct tape. Current driver Kyle Busch won his first season championship in 2015 during a season when he broke his right leg and his left ankle during a crash at Daytona.
When Jimbo Fisher was the head football coach at Florida State, he served as the grand marshal of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 one summer at Daytona. When I talked to Fisher before that particular race, he was in absolute awe when discussing the toughness and dedication of NASCAR drivers.
“In NASCAR, they’re going to drive whether there’s rain, snow or sleet,” Jimbo said. “It’s a sport that is always there for you. You know, these guys are going to show up and race every week. That’s why many of us are such huge fans.”
And it’s why the sport needs to split up its billions more equitably.
It’s time for NASCAR to finally realize that the drivers and their teams are the show and deserve more of the dough.
Email me at email@example.com. Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and HD 101.1-2