Last week, NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway announced that the track would be undergoing a serious reconfiguration where most everyone was expecting nothing but a much-needed repave. The reaction from fans has largely been negative, and the few drivers that have been willing to speak about the change have voiced their disapproval. Most drivers, though, haven’t wanted to say anything. And it’s been the same with the quality of NASCAR’s Next-Gen car. That’s why now is the time for a NASCAR drivers’ union.
Driver Denny Hamlin has been vocal about starting a driver union for years, one that goes beyond what happened with the Drivers Council that ultimately collapsed two years ago.
“I had every driver’s signature on a document forming this whole thing except for one, and he was on his way,” Hamlin said in a podcast in 2020. “Just for archive purposes, I still have all of these drivers’ signatures on this document that officially made us an association.”
He continued, “I remember (former NASCAR CEO) Brian France sitting us down and kind of giving us the whole long, ‘Be very careful of antitrust here. There’s contracts and you know, this could get very illegal and blah, blah blah.’ They did not want a drivers union for sure. And I still don’t think they want a drivers union.”
Crucially, a union would provide drivers with a collective voice that would prevent any one driver from catching flack for expressing criticisms. Right now, longtime drivers like Kyle Busch are left to speak out about things like Atlanta’s reconfiguration — drivers who are well established in the sport and who have also been labeled as difficult.
“I sure am glad to win the final Xfinity Series race on a real Atlanta racetrack,” Busch said after last Saturday’s race. “Because the next one is just going to be a showpiece, and it’s going to be shit.”
“If they’re going to narrow it up 15 feet, whatever it is, that’s the whole bottom groove,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to run around here 3 wide. You’re going to be stuck at two wide. It’s going to be as wide as Darlington. So trying to run around here at 210 mph because if they don’t put plates on it, you’re going to be going way too fast.
“Just think about it. Everybody needs to just think. There ain’t nobody thinking. Brains for sale. Never used. Operating racetracks.”
Other drivers, like Chase Elliott, offered a frankly milquetoast answer: “I was never personally asked, but I also don’t really want to be asked. I don’t feel like [being asked for my opinion]. It’s not my job. Whatever it is, it is.”
But for drivers that are going to be competing on these tracks, an opinion is important. Fans and series personnel can share their ideas about what would make for a good track all they like, but we have to be honest: we don’t actually know what it’s like to put four wheels on the track and actually compete for a win. We don’t know how hard or easy it is to race. We don’t know the way aerodynamics impact the car, and we don’t know how to respond to race surface changes.
That’s not to say we should all just be quiet and never share an opinion. But we should be listening to what the drivers have to say about the tracks and the cars because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones doing the work. They’re the ones putting their lives and careers on the line. They should have a forum in which to share an opinion every now and then without having to worry about potential retaliation from NASCAR proper or from sponsors.
A driver’s union would give drivers, as a whole, more leverage that they currently don’t have when it comes to the large, widespread decisions that are being made by NASCAR officials. It could give drivers a say in track reconfigurations, scheduling, safety, car redesigns, and more — rather than just being required to show up at tracks and compete with a smile and a bland PR answer. And if we’re going to chance NASCAR for the better, it might be the best route to take.