When you’re the star who owns a 31,000-square-foot mansion with a full-length basketball court, helicopter landing pad and 24 60-inch flat screens, income equality is inherently difficult to broach.
Even trickier is making a staunch argument that your brethren are underpaid, and the NASCAR industry needs revenue redistribution.
Denny Hamlin might not be the ideal guy to make the case, but he is the right guy to put forth a complex and divisive topic that at least is worthy of attention and conversation.
A little more than three years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver gathered his peers in the parking lot of the NASCAR R&D center, handed out notecards with talking points to ensure consistent messaging and went inside to meet with Mike Helton and other NASCAR executives.
That was the genesis of the Drivers Council, which is in its third year of tackling major issues in Cup through regular audiences with the sanctioning body.
“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” Hamlin explained during a February episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations: You’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.
“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea, and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it, and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”
Not always, of course.
Hamlin’s comments Wednesday morning weren’t received well in some powerful corners of the Cup Series (on Thursday, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said Hamlin “might need to speak to some of the other stakeholders and maybe get a little bit better education”) and assuredly led to some form of him being read the riot act by someone with a board-level title. And it isn’t the first time he has been willing to enter the crosshairs for what he believes in, either.
This is the same driver who once steadfastly refused to pay a fine in March 2013 for a rather innocuous review of the Gen 6 car that was deemed “detrimental to stock-car racing.” A deal eventually was brokered in which he paid, but NASCAR took the major PR hit because Hamlin stood his ground.
A few years before that, it was an unannounced $50,000 fine for an offhand remark about debris cautions on Twitter. NASCAR discontinued its secret fine system a year later.
The son of a trailer-hitch business owner from the Richmond, Va., area, has his detractors for living lavishly (he hasn’t been shy about showcasing his Lake Norman abode), but there can be no questioning Hamlin’s willingness to go to the mat for that which he believes.
And the even-keeled manner Wednesday in which he addressed the economics for drivers and teams was indicative of the fact that he clearly has deliberated on this for a long time before landing on a position that was controversial for many — notably fans who are tired of hearing about athletes commanding nine- to 10-figure annual salaries and demanding more.
The question of whether pro sports stars are worthy of such disproportionate compensation is a separate argument for another day, but it’s indisputable that NBA and NFL players have among the best labor deals in pro sports – receiving roughly 50% of their leagues’ primary revenue streams.
It also is beyond debate that if there is a driver qualified to weigh in on that, it’s Hamlin – regardless of his opulent lifestyle (whether it’s fair to judge how he or anyone chooses to spend their money is yet another question).
In the absence of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., there are fewer drivers than any point in recent memory willing to embrace the scrutiny that accompanies speaking out on a major issue, particularly in a league that is beholden in many ways to image-conscious corporate sponsors.
Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are those who most consistently voice objections when they feel strongly about a topic, and in Wednesday’s case, it’s an issue that should concern everyone – the long-term viability of race teams that make the weekly show possible.
After being asked about whether the 2018 rules would help reduce costs for teams, Hamlin confirmed it would to a degree (via “stacking pennies,” as it’s known in NASCAR vernacular). But he also leaped to a larger solution: Finding a way teams no longer would be so reliant on corporate sponsorship, which is becoming scarcer each season (for some reasons beyond NASCAR’s control).
“The pie has to be shifted,” he said, implying that race teams, which currently receive a quarter of the largest guaranteed revenue stream, should be given more.
This is where things get complicated in an unavoidable mess of optics.
If you’re having an honest discussion about making team financials work, it’s natural to ask whether it should start with jettisoning driver salaries that can be a massive seven- or eight-figure line item. Hamlin was asked just that Wednesday, and he candidly responded that drivers are underpaid, particularly those on the back half of the grid.
This understandably is a hard sell to a fan base that is middle class and traditionally blue collar. No one wants to hear that drivers who make millions aren’t getting their due. From a philosophical standpoint, no professional athlete is underpaid.
But in the real world, it’s fact that NASCAR drivers don’t stack up with their counterparts – even though they are face greater occupational hazards (yes, the riskiest jobs often don’t draw the largest salaries – this is comparative analysis, not an exacting thesis on the shortcomings of capitalism).
NFL and NBA players earn a greater percentage of league income through their labor contracts (again, it’s a separate discussion why stock-car racing doesn’t have them, and drivers are in a weaker position partly of their own making). NASCAR driver salaries are closely guarded secrets, but it’s reasonable to presume it’s nowhere near 50% of guaranteed revenue.
When Hamlin lobbies for driver earnings to be commensurate with other leagues, he isn’t suggesting he deserves the $40 million annual deals that many NBA stars are getting (though he and other NASCAR stars probably should get a similarly proportionate shake, the NBA’s current popularity makes it more flush with cash).
Hamlin isn’t so tone-deaf to demand his lakeside estate could use a few technological add-ons and a new parquet court.
But he is arguing the disparity from the top to bottom of the grid needs to be fixed. There are benchwarmers in the NBA who are earning more annually than all but a handful of NASCAR stars. The last quarter of a NASCAR field isn’t anywhere close to that stratosphere.
How does that get addressed?
Well, making the teams more self-sufficient – the starting point Wednesday for Hamlin – would help. Should that help come from racetracks owned by publicly traded companies that are receiving a lion’s share of revenue (again, another way in which NASCAR understandably is different from other pro sports leagues)?
These aren’t easy topics for the NASCAR industry to ponder, but they get addressed only after starting a dialogue.
And as usual, Hamlin was the one willing to go there.
While you’re screaming about his lofty standards of living, it’s worth remembering he partly enjoys them because of his willingness to fight.
As the oldest driver at Hendrick Motorsports by more than 17 years, the comforting interaction of Jimmie Johnson, 42, with Chase Elliott, 21, after Sunday’s race at Dover could be a preview of an expanding role for the seven-time series champion as mentor in 2018. Alex Bowman, 24, and William Byron, 19, will race Cup for Hendrick next year.
“I’m here for those guys,” Johnson said Thursday night during Hendrick’s splashy car and driver unveiling for next season. “I honestly walked over to Chase, and I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t really know what to say, either. But it was ‘Hey buddy, I’m here, if you want to scream, yell, punch something, kick something, anything you need, I’m here.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t even know what to say.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, just know when or if or whatever it might be, I’m here.’ I’ve had guys here for me, I just want to be that person for my teammates as well.”
When Johnson joined Hendrick in 2002, he spent his early years just watching Jeff Gordon and said he can sense Byron (who grew up in the same neighborhood where Johnson lives) doing the same.
“It can be as simple as just being around and seeing how people carry themselves to actually sitting down and working through a given topic,” he said. “I am aware that (Byron) is paying attention and Alex is, and I need to lead by example on a lot of fronts. But at same time, we might have to sit down and talk through some things, too.”
It’s a little new for Johnson, who only last year shifted into more of a leadership role in becoming Hendrick’s driving dean with the retirement of Gordon.
“The majority of my career has been the up and coming, the young gun, all these titles in front of my name,” Johnson said. “Then veteran appeared, and now it’s like senior citizen. It definitely is different, but I’m young at heart, so I’ll fit in well, and I know all three of these guys so well, and excited to have that youth in our program.”
Alex Bowman also is the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his road to the No.88 Chevrolet, the advice he’s gotten from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and the social media tips he has offered him) and the harrowing Midget crash that once left him in intensive care for several days.
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There have been industry meetings galore in Charlotte this week with Sunday’s quasi-home game at Charlotte Motor Speedway bringing virtually all of the industry power brokers to NASCAR’s hub.
With the 2018 rules distributed to teams Tuesday, NASCAR met Thursday afternoon with Goodyear about next season to lock down the competitive landscape for 2018. After that’s done, O’Donnell said meetings will begin in earnest on mapping out the Gen 7 car that is expected to be phased in within the next few years.
A documentary about Danica Patrick directed by longtime ESPN anchor Hannah Storm is expected to make its debut next month, and a trailer that briefly appeared online last week hinted that it will be quite revelatory.
In a preview that ran a couple of minutes, the Epix production alluded to Patrick’s fiery outbursts, her desire to start a family and her diminishing tolerance for questions about her career and motives. There also were snippets of an interview with Bobby Rahal, her former car owner in IndyCar, who predicted Patrick would have won the Indianapolis 500 by now if she hadn’t transitioned to NASCAR but added that she increased her earnings power by racing stock cars.
Patrick has tweeted the movie’s release is scheduled for Nov. 8.
Ryan Blaney did two things after his Xfinity win at Dover International Speedway that were trend-worthy, but only one drew much attention. While admirably giving the checkered flag to a young fan deserved the raft of attention it received, the Team Penske driver’s decision to skip a postrace victory burnout also should be hailed as an example for others to consider.
“It’s not really my thing,” said Blaney, who also skipped burnouts after an Xfinity win at Charlotte in May and his first Cup win at Pocono Raceway in June. “I used to do them and just not a fan of them anymore, especially when people destroy their race cars. That raises a lot of questions.
“I just don’t think that it’s really that nice to do. That’s just something personal that I don’t think a big smoky burnout (does). You can just go down there and give a big wave to the fans, and they get pretty pumped up about that as a big, smoky burnout and all that. Just personal preference.”
It’s a preference we wouldn’t mind seeing the rest of his generation adopt, particularly with the recent questions about a celebration that really does nothing more than amplify exuberance with mind-numbing destruction. There are classier ways to carry the checkered flag, as Blaney showed.