NASCAR’s drivers’ council means different things to different people.
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s about possibilities. For Brad Keselowski, it’s about working together. For Joey Logano, it’s about the nuts and bolts of the sport. For Kevin Harvick, it’s communication.
The nine-driver council, in only its second year of existence, is becoming more visible on the NASCAR landscape. Meeting behind closed doors at irregular intervals throughout the year, the council doesn’t have an official voice. But the opinions and input of the drivers, now coming forth in a more structured way, have already been felt.
The council, for instance, was instrumental in helping put together this season’s new low aerodynamic package, which has improved the quality of racing. Mostly through Keselowski, the council came up with the idea of a new format for last week’s all-star race.
“I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what is possible and what is not possible,” said Earnhardt, who has become the de facto leader of the group. “As a driver you go through all these great ideas that sound awesome – until you have to really put them on paper or make them work.”
Drivers are voted into the nine-member council, which is made up of one-fourth of the Cup series’ 36 charter-team drivers. This year’s group includes Earnhardt, Keselowski, Logano, Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.
The council isn’t about unionizing drivers, which has been tried and swatted down before in NASCAR. In 1961, Curtis Turner tried to organize drivers, a move that was crushed by NASCAR founder Bill France. The Professional Drivers Association, with Richard Petty serving as president, didn’t get off the ground in 1968.
Today’s group serves in more of an advisory role, working with NASCAR, the owners’ Race Team Alliance and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
“This sport can’t survive just on drivers, I am going to tell you that right now,” said Keselowski. “We need race cars, race tracks, promoters. Everybody has a role in making this sport happen. I think that’s something we should always keep in mind. Whose share of that role is what, or how important and how you scale that is up for debate.”
Keselowski likens it to a person’s taste in ice cream.
“What’s your favorite ice cream? Butter pecan?” Keselowski said. “Good choice. I like butter pecan, too, but it’s not my favorite kind of ice cream. But I like it. It doesn’t mean I like it as much as you do. I really like chocolate-vanilla twist. That’s my favorite. You get a little bit of both. That’s collaboration.”
Drivers are voted into the nine-member council, which is made up of one-fourth of the Cup series’ 36 charter-team drivers.
The group meets periodically (including Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway). Before that, the council’s most recent gathering was at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in May, the week after NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 for being critical of a lug nut rule he felt put drivers at risk.
In an act of solidarity, members of the group offered to pay the fine for Stewart. He paid it himself and donated the money from the group to charity.
To many, NASCAR’s decision to fine Stewart for speaking his mind seemed heavy handed. So NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France attended the Talladega meeting to help clear the air.
“The drivers’ council meeting in Talladega was very productive,” France told NASCAR.com. “Tony and I also met one-on-one, and it was great to hear his thoughts. I think the key is to build trust with the drivers, and we structured the council in a way that lets them express their views in a free-flowing manner.
“We want them to know that we are listening, trying to understand their issues and that it is important for us to get it right. I think the level of collaboration between us is better than ever.”
It isn’t anyone against anybody, it is how we work together.
Said Logano: “There is nothing better than sitting across from someone and hearing it from the horse’s mouth. That is what we want to be able to do. We want (France) there and have him understand it. I thought he was able to understand what we as drivers are looking for, and we understand what NASCAR is dealing with and how we get to that together. That is what this is all about. It isn’t anyone against anybody, it is how we work together.”
Council meetings can be a combination of big-picture and mundane subjects.
“The typical stuff,” said Logano. “Talking about the rules package and where we are at now, where we want to go in the future. We talked about the numbers and where we are with TV ratings and all that. That is important stuff. Other little odds and ends that as drivers we talk about. Whether it is the flow in the garage or little things like that.”
The most important aspect of the council, Harvick thinks, is how the doors of communication have been opened.
“You look at the communication that we have as a group that was built from last year into this year,” said Harvick. “I’m all about voicing my opinion. But it’s nothing personal, it’s not pointing fingers or anything like that. As a group, we want to help make this sport better and we are going to push hard for the things that we believe in.”