Podcast: Denny Hamlin on a NASCAR drivers union that nearly happened

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CHARLOTTE – With several established drivers in contract years, 2020 could be one among the most momentous years for free agency in NASCAR history.

But imagine how different the landscape might be if Cup drivers had organized a few years ago.

During the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast, defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin recalled the formation of a union was imminent about five years ago.

“I had every driver’s signature on a document forming this whole thing except for one, and he was on his way,” Hamlin said. “Just for archive purposes, I still have all of these drivers’ signatures on this document that officially made us an association.”

Hamlin was the ringleader of organizing drivers during the 2014 season when NASCAR was debating new direction on its rules (high downforce vs. low downforce). He successfully had recruited virtually the entire series when NASCAR called a sitdown with him and Jeff Gordon.

“I remember (former NASCAR CEO) Brian France sitting us down and kind of giving us the whole long, ‘Be very careful of antitrust here. There’s contracts and you know, this could get very illegal and blah, blah blah,’” Hamlin said. “They did not want a drivers union for sure. And I still don’t think they want a drivers union.”

NASCAR is among the only major professional sports that doesn’t have collective bargaining with its athletes, and its longtime opposition to unions is well documented.

Tim Flock and Curtis Turner were banned for trying to unionize in 1961. When the Professional Drivers Association boycotted the Sept. 14, 1969 opening of Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR brought in a field of replacement drivers, and the organization quickly dissolved.

Mindful of the history and the effort that would be required, Hamlin decided to back off on the project.

“I thought about it quite a bit, and I realized what I really needed to focus on was like on track,” Hamlin said. “This was going to take time to really do it right. I mean we’re going to have to hire staff. We were all going to have to split a lot of attorney’s fees for this whole thing.

“And I think it just lost some steam and, and NASCAR then came out with that driver council thing that went on for a few years.”

The Drivers Council, whose origins Hamlin discussed in a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, was formed midway through the 2015 season and lasted through 2018. A group of eight to 10 drivers met quarterly with NASCAR to discuss major competition initiatives. Since last year, Hamlin said feedback to the sanctioning body has returned to the informal format of when drivers regularly visited the series’ official hauler that serves as NASCAR’s at-track headquarters.

“You’re just texting saying, ‘Hey, you know, you really should think about changing this or that,’ but they also sit down with us at least twice a year to get our feedback,” Hamlin said. “They do it differently than they did 15 years ago and it’s all for the better.”

Hamlin said more could be done, though, noting the progress by the Race Team Alliance, a consortium of team owners who formed in 2014, in lobbying NASCAR.

“I still think personally that drivers should have an official voice,” he said. “Now we have a voice. Don’t get me wrong, I think NASCAR definitely listens to us, but you have the RTA and they have a seat at the table when it comes to rules. They have a vote. And I think that that matters. And I think that the drivers should have that as well.

“Now how you organize it? Who does it? I don’t know, but I definitely think it’s important, especially with there’ll be in the next few years, tracks will have their (sanction) agreements redone. The TV (rights fees) will have agreements redone. The drivers need to be protected.”

The decline in driver salaries has been a major topic of discussion in recent years as Cup teams have weathered a decline in corporate sponsorship that once could support a $10 million salary for a superstar driver.

In 2017, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the youth movement in Cup had led to drivers “being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a 10th of what veterans are getting paid. A lot of these veteran drivers are getting paid multiple millions of dollars. A lot of these young guys coming in are getting a fraction of that.

Kyle Larson (who has been open on his status), Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney (who recently discussed his job status), Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Aric Almirola are among many drivers in contract years this season, and it’s unlikely any will see a bump in pay – though Hamlin said being highly skilled still helps your market value.

“I still think if you want to budget your race team and get a budget driver, you’re going to have budget results,” Hamlin said. “And one thing that Joe Gibbs Racing has done has always went out and hired the best drivers and they did whatever it takes to get the best drivers and they get the best results because of it.

“I think 2021 will be the most different the sport has looked as a whole in a long time, certainly. I think that there’s going to be some motivated drivers out there in contract years for sure. As a driver, you find a way. When all of a sudden that the team owner comes in there and they put your stats down for the last five years or 10 years, and they always give you the sample size that makes you look the worst, because they want to pay you the least that they can get away with, but if you’ve got a good (business) team around you like I’ve got, you find a way to make it positive.

“It’s just definitely one of those sports where the drivers, when they know that their performance is getting looked at, they find a way to step up.”

During the podcast, Hamlin also discussed:

–The input that drivers had in NASCAR’s new short track rules for this season;

–Becoming an iRacing team owner with Michael Jordan, who helped design their car’s scheme;

Being a #GirlDad and how he learned of Kobe Bryant’s death;

–How he outdueled Kyle Busch for the Daytona 500 victory last year;

–His outlook for the 2020 season.

To hear the podcast, click on the embed above or listen via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.