CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It started last fall as a text message chain that included roughly 20 of NASCAR’s top drivers. The purpose of that group chat was for the drivers to hash out where the current rules package was headed and attempt to gain a consensus on what was best for the competitors.
They had the right intent, but there was no real system in place to deliver any sort of message to NASCAR.
That has apparently changed with the formation of a driver’s council, which had the opportunity to meet last weekend with NASCAR officials while at Dover International Speedway.
NASCAR has downplayed the significance of the meeting, with executive vice president Steve O’Donnell likening it Monday to many of the preseason driver meetings the sanctioning body has moderated.
“It’s something we’ve always done in terms of meeting with the drivers,” O’Donnell said during his weekly appearance on SiriusXM Radio. “We certainly meet with them individually, and we have met during the preseason more formally. It’s something the drivers had talked about, and we had looked at, as well as a potential formation of a driver’s council.”
A driver council is way overdue, and finally comes at a time when everyone seems to be grasping at how to improve the racing.
It has been uninspiring most of this season and nearly unwatchable the last few weeks. Drivers have been privately grumbling about the competition for weeks, but their frustrations went public following two snoozer weekends at Charlotte Motor Speedway last month.
Several complained about what the fans had been watching all year: Passing was difficult, track position was critical, the leader had an almost unbeatable aerodynamic advantage. The ratings have reflected the struggle — the Coca-Cola 600, one of the crown jewel events, was down 7 percent in the ratings from last year and was beaten by the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 2005.
That the first meeting of this new driver council came one week after the 600 snoozefest can’t be a coincidence. The racing simply must improve and everybody with a vested interest in NASCAR agrees, at least privately, on that point.
This driver council is actually one of the brightest ideas in some time because it streamlines what that initial texting group was trying to accomplish last year. O’Donnell said on Sirius that NASCAR set criteria for building the driver council, and several drivers have told The Associated Press that they voted on the representatives.
Drivers were apparently grouped in three different classes for the vote, and all three manufacturers had to be represented. It’s not clear exactly how many drivers are on the council, as not all those who participated have gone public. Confirmed to have been present at the Dover meeting were: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart for Chevrolet; and Denny Hamlin for Toyota and Joey Logano for Ford. Larson was selected as the reigning rookie of the year and a representative of the youngest wave of drivers.
Among topics discussed in that meeting was competition, the 2016 rules package, attendance and safety.
The rules package has been a hot-button issue since the current configurations had been expected to liven up the racing. Although it’s yet to produce the action NASCAR had hoped, series officials have indicated next year’s rules may be very similar to the current package.
That’s been a head-scratcher to the participants, who like the fans don’t necessarily think the best show is being put forth each week. But it’s welcome to many team owners, who have argued there is a significant financial cost with every minor rule change.
“Every time we change something, it costs us money,” Roger Penske said hours before the Coca-Cola 600 last month. “There’s been good communication between the car owners and NASCAR. Before we make a change, we look at the costs associated with it.”
Penske made a case for change only with significant time for the teams to adjust. He said right now is the deadline for major changes to the 2016 rules.
“We’ve got to have enough time … if they weren’t able to make a decision by end of May, early June, and let you know six months ahead of time, it’s pretty hard to execute,” Penske said.
Ultimately, all parties need a voice. But it’s high time the drivers get a meaningful seat at the table and the opportunity to be part of positive change.
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