Mergers may be good, but not for all

Updated: June 9, 2004, 8:58 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Felix Sabates joins forces with Chip Ganassi.

Jim Smith forms an alliance with Ray Evernham.

Jasper Motorsports becomes a minority partner in Penske Racing South.

On the horizon, Robert Yates Racing and Jack Roush Racing merge to form, say, Roush-Yates Racing?

Do you see a trend here?

With costs increasing and corporate budgets getting tighter, coupled with shrinking advertising and sponsorship dollars (ask Jack Roush how hard it has been to put together a full-season sponsorship package for driver Jeff Burton) and NASCAR becoming more business and less sport, it's not surprising to see that like the business world, NASCAR's world is slowly shrinking through team mergers.

The biggest reported merger in the works, without question, would be the finalization of a true Roush-Yates partnership. When asked, both Roush and Robert Yates have danced around the possibility of joining forces full-time, but the rumors persist. In a sense, both teams are already somewhat connected at the hip this season, with RYR building and maintaining motors for the entire Roush organization under a contractual agreement.

On the surface, smaller teams like Jasper Motorsports and Felix Sabates Racing (which actually sold most of his organization to Ganassi as part of their "merger") wind up big winners. They not only join forces with more established -- and inherently more successful -- organizations, they also have a whole new world opened to them when it comes to more available funding, parts, personnel and overall resources to improve their lot.

"We went from a struggling team to being part of a contending organization almost overnight," Sabates said when asked about the partnering a couple years back. "We were down, Chip came along, and now we're doing it right."

As for the bigger teams that take on their smaller counterparts, they also win. You might ask how could a team like Penske, with its hundreds of employees, multi-millions of dollars in sponsorship money and overall resources, benefit by bringing on a little team like Jasper, which had struggled on its own.

The reason is simple: for as small as some teams may be, they invariably have one very valuable resource: people. And those same people have ideas and innovations that the bigger team can tap into once both sides merge into one.

Jack Roush
If Jack Roush fully merges with Ray Evernham, will all the drivers be equal?

End result: everyone wins and the newly formed union becomes stronger as a whole.

But there is something troubling about some mergers that have already occurred, as well as those that are likely in the future. When you put together two super teams like Roush and Yates, it likely will have some negative effect on the rest of the sport. If their rumored merger does occur, it's almost as if Roush and Yates will have joined forces to become the strongest organization with the most parts, best personnel and greatest amount of money.

When that kind of thing happens in sports, criticism is sure to quickly follow about how the someone has tried to buy a championship.

It's like George Steinbrenner going out and compiling the biggest payroll for the New York Yankees in an effort to win the World Series every year. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouths of many. We don't tend to like it when the guy with the biggest bank account wins time and time again.

So much for fair play and parity across the board in the sport.

That could be on the horizon in NASCAR, unless the sanctioning body casts a more cautious eye to future mergers such as Roush and Yates, or if, say, Hendrick Motorsports were to one day seek to form a partnership with Richard Childress Racing.

There's another downside to mergers, although it has to do more with machismo rather than motoring. I hate to go back to the Roush-Yates example, but it serves the purpose perfectly. When you merge seven drivers from two groups, not only will egos flare over who is to be No. 1 in the new marriage -- in this case, would Mark Martin or Dale Jarrett or defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth slug it out to be the top dog -- the lower-level guys like Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler can quickly be lost in the shuffle.

Right at the top of the list of concerns is how do you balance dollars, personnel and resources to make sure everybody gets his fair share, and that no one driver and team is given a little extra to be better than his teammates? What's more, Yates is obviously loyal and has a history with Jarrett and Sadler, while Roush's history and loyalties have been to Biffle, Kenseth, Martin, Burton and Kurt Busch. How does a merged organization keep things divided and equal at the same time? I really wonder if such a task is possible.

There's also the flip-side, with all the good that mergers can bring to smaller teams like Sabates', Smith's and Jasper's. That flip side? An even wider gap among the remaining smaller teams that don't have well-heeled big brothers. End result: less money, less performance and less competitiveness for the smaller teams that try to go it alone; guys like Morgan-McClure Motorsports, BAM Racing, Foyt Racing, PPI Motorsports and even the legendary Wood Brothers come to mind.

Quite honestly, I've never been a fan of huge super teams. In fact, I have long advocated that NASCAR set limits on the number of teams one organization can have, with a maximum of just three teams, although I'd prefer just two teams per group.

Sure, if that was to happen, teams like Roush (five cars/drivers), Hendrick (four cars/drivers), as well as Penske, Childress and Ganassi (three cars/drivers each) would be drastically cut -- and that would arguably leave many people unemployed as a result, which presents another set of problems.

Still, if organizations were limited in the number of cars and drivers they could have, it would make things a bit more balanced across the board. Don't believe it? Look at last season's final standings. Of the top 10 drivers, six were part of organizations that fielded at least three teams in Cup competition, while the other four were part of organizations that field at least two teams. In fact, you'd have to dip down all the way to the 23rd-highest finisher, Ricky Rudd, to find a team that was not part of a multi-car operation (Ward Burton finished 21st, but he spent much of the season with the two-car team of Bill Davis Racing before joining Gene Haas' Haas-CNC Motorsports single-car team for the final four races).

Will we see NASCAR mandate teams being cut? That's highly doubtful. Will we see the Roush-Yates marriage take place after this season? Probably. Will we see even more team mergers in the future? Again, probably so.

And while it may work out well for all involved, the fear here remains that one day, down the road, only the biggest organizations will prosper while the little guy operation is left on the outside looking in.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.