NASCAR opens floor to drivers, owners
CONCORD, N.C. -- NASCAR officials spent more than four hours in two meetings Tuesday discussing with drivers, owners and team management everything from the sport's drug testing policy, to how to improve the new car, to the economy.
It was a big change from the days when the governing body made decisions and solved problems by talking to one or two drivers in the back of a hauler at the track.
In the end there was no answer, but we also learned a lot of things we need to talk about. It's like a marriage. It's a two-way street. You need to talk about things to make it better.” -- Ryan Newman
"The old school way has worked for a long time," Ryan Newman said. "You have to at least consider the majority of the people's questions, not just one."
All of those involved described the meetings as positive and expected more to follow in the future.
"Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new form of communication," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.
Chairman Brian France said open lines of communication are needed because "things are more complex."
"One-one-one meetings and trying to cover all the issues of the day either at a shop or at the track, that becomes hard to do," he said. "There are too many complicated issues. It was consistent with where we need to be.
"And we have a lot of smart people in the industry. We had Roger Penske here. We had a good communication line in the first place. We just want to build on that."
Hunter said a lot of good ideas were broached, some that would have to be considered short term. He did not elaborate, but among those under consideration are double-file restarts with all of the leaders up front.
One of the biggest complaints coming in was the new car that many drivers and crew chiefs believe has hurt competition. Series director John Darby consistently has said no changes are planned -- that changes would create more problems.
France said the governing body is more open to changes after Tuesday's conversations.
"We think the car is putting on a good show," France said, "but clearly if there's some adjustments without changing the financial [structure], we want to be open to that.
"We heard some ideas that we're going to consider. They heard some reasoning why our thinking was staying put on the new car. It was a good exchange."
Newman said all aspects of the car were discussed -- from tires, to improving downforce, to weight distribution, to reducing horsepower to enable the drivers to have more control.
"In the end there was no answer, but we also learned a lot of things we need to talk about," he said. "It's like a marriage. It's a two-way street. You need to talk about things to make it better."
The drug policy that has been scrutinized since Jeremy Mayfield was suspended on May 9 was clarified. Drivers "scared" that a prescription drug could cost them their career left assured that was not the case.
"I'm very comfortable now," Mark Martin said. "I'm also very comfortable with the way they're handling the list."
NASCAR does not provide its drivers with a full list of substances they are tested for, arguing that leaving it open ended gives them more room to catch offenders.
"I feel much better now than I did before the meeting," Martin said.
France said he was quite certain everybody has a clearer understanding of the policy.
"We covered that very carefully," he said. "There were some questions still remaining. Hopefully, we cleared that up."
Martin also feels better about the direction of the sport, realizing NASCAR is more willing to listen to everybody instead of a select few.
"A lot of ideas were floated around," he said. "The biggest thing we all have to realize is we have the greatest thing going in the sport. Even though it may feel like we have a lid on us right now, we're smarter than most of the sports in the world.
"It's a tough time for a lot of our core fans. That's part of the economy and that's where we are. That will get better. In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to make it better for our fans and sponsors."
Rick Hendrick agreed, recalling a time when he and two other team owners traveled to Daytona Beach, Fla., to meet with former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.
"He said, 'Let me tell you, I don't need you. I don't need you. All I need is people to pass,' " Hendrick said.
Hendrick called Tuesday's meeting a "great step."
"I thought it was really good," he said. "I learned a long time ago if you get everybody involved they can't complain. That's what happens in our sport. People don't feel like they get a voice.
"They recognize the world has changed."
Bobby Labonte was the first driver to arrive for the town hall, pulling into the R&D Center around 9:30 a.m., a half-hour before the first meeting began.
Among those attending the morning session were team owners Hendrick, Chip Ganassi, Felix Sabates, Doug Yates and Max Jones. Among the drivers were Labonte, Newman, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin. France and most of NASCAR's top management also attended.
Both sessions lasted about 30 minutes longer than officials anticipated, but nobody complained.
"It's NASCAR's responsibility to try to do what's best for the sport," Hunter said. "The tone of the meeting was very positive. We discussed just about everything in an open forum."
Martin liked the format and is excited that NASCAR plans to hold more meetings in the future.
"No solutions," he said. "A lot of great ideas. I really expect NASCAR to formulate groups to really drive a lot of different issues, sort of task force groups. ... Anything you do is going to take some time.
"We've got a great sport. Everybody pulling together will lead to making it better. Sometimes you just have to bring people together and remind them we're all in it together."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.