Ryan: NASCAR driver contracts cause consternation after charter system


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A contract usually means clarity.

It’s the rock-solid agreement that locks in the assurances of everyday life and erases all of the niggling uncertainties that stem from loose ends.

One of the most historic contracts in stock-car history – the charter deal that triggered a sweeping overhaul of the Sprint Cup team business model with guaranteed attendance and revenues – was signed a week ago and stamped by a unanimous chorus of NASCAR and team executives proclaiming it as a overwhelming victory for the industry.

Safety. Stability. Security.

So, let’s check in Tuesday for a sampling of what Sprint Cup drivers said about the landmark deal at Daytona 500 Media Day.

“We’re all scrambling.”

“It’s definitely fair to say the whole group probably felt caught off guard.”

“I may go into the Daytona 500 not actually knowing what I’m earning.”

So much for the 200-mph Magna Carta.

“I think anyone would like to know before the terms of their employment change, but that is not the situation,” Brad Keselowski said. “I am aware of the fact that I am a race car driver, and no matter what happens, I am still going to be OK. I am not looking for anyone to feel bad for me. On the other side it is not ideal.

“It would be like if your employer just said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, you will get paid.’ That is kind of where most every driver is.”

While it indirectly shored up the underpinnings of the business keeping them gainfully employed and also erased the stress of qualifying without a safety net, the charter system makeover left NASCAR’s stars with a large and lingering question.

Now that the purse structure has been reworked in a way that makes the previous model outmoded, how do we ensure we make the same amount of money as before?

Drivers are paid through two primary methods: a base salary and a percentage of the race winnings, which were provided in every box score.

Under the new charter system, NASCAR no longer will provide those race winnings nor the total purse, underscoring how radically different the cash is being distributed.

The contracts are based on purses that included contingency plans that entirely have been carved out of the results – necessitating drastic changes in driver compensation if previous income levels are maintained.

“I think that everyone will have to have something redone within their contract,” Denny Hamlin said. “There’s verbiage in stuff that has changed how drivers get paid from the purse. There’s not one common standard that one driver or team offers that’s going to be the same. It’s up to the individual driver and owner to work out those details.”

That’s a lot of billable hours being burned in law firms around the country this month, the byproduct of the loosely constructed federation of independent contractors who compete in NASCAR’s premier series.

Though a Driver Council was formed last year to provide some semblance of a unified voice, there is no collective bargaining unit among NASCAR drivers and thus no uniformity or guarantees on what they are entitled to receive from a team owner.

Couple that with a massively complex deal struck less than two weeks from the season opener, and the timing ensured some level of uneasiness.

“The charter system was agreed upon rapidly and pushed the drivers into a very small window to renegotiate a lot of their contracts.” Earnhardt said. “We’re all still negotiating in some of those areas with respective teams. Hopefully all the drivers are having success there.”

There was no pervasive sense of panic Tuesday. NASCAR met with drivers over the weekend and briefed them on the terms of the charter deal

“They did a really nice job of laying it out and talking us through the process,” said Jamie McMurray, who also has gleaned insight from Rob Kauffman, a minority owner of McMurray’s No.1 Chevrolet and Race Team Alliance chairman who brokered the charter agreement. “Maybe it made a little more sense to me because I’d heard Rob’s side and then I heard their side, and I’m putting it all together. They did a good job of explaining it all to us.”

But when it comes to multimillion-dollar annual incomes, all of the PowerPoint presentations in the world won’t assuage fears of a precipitous drop in earnings power.

“Listen, yeah, every driver has a concern if you’re paid based on the purse,” McMurray said. “That’s how most contracts were structured. You get a salary and get paid based on the purse. That structure changed.

“It’s all for the better, but everyone’s contracts had to be relooked at and reworked, and from what I know from talking to other drivers and our team and listening to what other teams are saying, all the owners were really fair in making that right. It just takes a different contract from what we had.”

Some drivers, such as Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, hadn’t begun to work out the details of their new deals.

“(The charter system) is a great thing, it’s just it was sprung on us as drivers late,” Newman said. “We all can understand that, but most every owner has been (respectful) of the driver of sorting things out because everything changed so much. And I mean everything.

“But I don’t think you can take the history of these owners and business people and put them in a room and have something worse come out of it. I think they’ve done a really good job of protecting themselves for the future and giving this sport a better direction.”

“Everybody is in that same boat,” Casey Mears said. “Thankfully, I have a great relationship with my team owner. As soon as they did that deal, you hope you have a good relationship with your team. … All the conversations have been, ‘Hey, how can we get you back to, based on this new format, what we negotiated?’ There’s definitely a lot of internal conversations going on having to do with that.

“I think the majority of the teams are going to settle it and make it right.”

Stewart-Haas Racing drivers particularly were assured about their status. Kevin Harvick said his management team hammered out a restructuring “in a couple of hours. It didn’t seem like it was that big a deal,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of guys that have expressed some concern on where they are. I guess I should feel fortunate from that side of it.”

“I’m not in a big rush to address it,” Danica Patrick said. “My team has been nothing but fair for years, so we’ll work it out.”

Said Clint Bowyer, whose deal changes next year anyway after moving to SHR from HScott Motorsports: “I’m really not worried about it. I think it’s just a matter of figuring out what the math is and making it work.”

Of course, drivers won’t know how well the math works until the checks arrive. Many said Tuesday it will take at least a few races to gauge if the renegotiated deals are yielding the desired results.

“I think it’s just a matter of economics,” said Greg Biffle, who had yet to finish his deal with Roush Fenway Racing. “I don’t think anybody is taking it as an opportunity to change driver contracts.”

For the drivers’ sake, there better be clarity on that.