The work he did for so many years at Charlotte Motor Speedway helped transform NASCAR from a curiosity into the spectacle we witnessed during Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600. Even in retirement, the gears in Wheeler’s mind are still turning, still looking for that next innovation that will take stock car racing to another level in the entertainment department.
Wheeler works mostly on Twitter now days, and it is fun to see his thoughts on the state of racing. Following Sunday’s marathon 600-lapper, Wheeler took to Twitter to lobby for breaks during the races, a time for fans and teams to regroup and take a breath. The fans could wander to the concession stands and the teams could huddle long enough to revamp their strategies for the rest of the race.
All in all, it’s an interesting idea. Wheeler’s selling point was that NASCAR is the only sport that doesn’t have such breaks.
But there is another thing NASCAR doesn’t have that all other major professional sports have, something even the most outspoken of drivers don’t dare mention: a union.
The U-word hasn't been seriously considered by drivers since 1969, when Richard Petty and several of the other top NASCAR competitors tried to organize the Professional Drivers Association only to see it crushed by Big Bill France. At that time, Petty and the other drivers were trying to organize in order to ensure themselves a living wage and push for better safety measures in a time when fatalities were all too common.
Admittedly, things have changed dramatically for the drivers in the decades since the push for the PDA was stopped dead in its tracks. Sprint Cup drivers today are multimillionaires, and to NASCAR’s credit, safety has been improved to the point that there hasn't’t been a death in Cup competition since 2001. Even injuries are few and far between these days.
However, as NASCAR remains mired in a decline that has gripped the sport for nearly a decade, it may be time to revisit the issue for the good of all involved. Many of the drivers may be content to remain independent contractors given their eight-figure salaries, but that isn’t in the best interest of the sport.
No matter how many empty seats there are were in Charlotte on Sunday, no matter how many people were watching on television, Kevin Harvick knew he was going to make the same amount of money for winning the race. So where is the motivation for drivers to care about the problems facing the sport?
That’s left to the folks at NASCAR’s home office in Daytona Beach and the individual tracks around the country. The burden of filling the seats falls squarely on the shoulders of the promoters and the job of boosting television ratings belongs largely to the suits in NASCAR’s corporate office. But with apologies to Brian France and promoters like Wheeler, none of these people has the clout a guy like Dale Earnhardt Jr. has.
So how do you get the top Cup stars to care about ticket sales in Martinsville or Fox’s overnight ratings for the Charlotte race? You bring them into the fold. You make them employees of NASCAR instead of a band of mercenary gypsies. You tie their incomes directly to ticket sales and television revenue. When the sport does well, the drivers do well. When the sport flounders, the drivers take a direct hit to the wallet, just like NASCAR and the individual track owners.
Of course, this arrangement would be a two-way street. Guys like Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski could actually be themselves and speak their minds without fear of being hit by a $25,000 fine out of nowhere. Drivers could be involved in setting up an appeals process for penalties that doesn’t involve arguing your case before NASCAR, appealing it to NASCAR and getting one final hearing before a NASCAR employee. Drivers could also have enough leverage to nix an idea like, oh, I don’t know, a television camera dangling on a wire right above a racetrack where they will be driving 200 mph.
If you look at the NFL, the players are compensated based on how much revenue the league is pulling in. If the pie gets bigger, the players’ slice of that pie increases. If it shrinks, their paychecks shrink. All the checks and balances, by and large, have led to the league’s overwhelming success.
It’s been said that the difference between involvement and commitment can best be illustrated by a ham and egg breakfast — the chicken was involved, the pig was committed. As long as NASCAR’s stars are merely involved in the sport, the commitment of guys like Wheeler won’t be enough to help the sport dig itself out of the hole it currently finds itself in.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.