Busch Signing Shows A Schism In Ownership at SHR
The news conference announcing Stewart Haas Racing's newest driver left more questions than it did answers. Co-owner Gene Haas lit multiple brushfires in regards to his relationship with fellow owner Tony Stewart. He admitted that the negotiations took place with Stewart laid up in the hospital and that Smoke wanted nothing to do with expanding to four teams in 2014. Stewart, the racer's racer, thought strategically about the business SHR is building. Haas, the successful businessman and entrepreneur, threw caution into the wind in his desire to achieve on track success. The role-reversal at Stewart Haas should prove entertaining if nothing else. But it's clear the co-owners are not on the same page right now and that division could be lethal down the road.
To some observers (including the author), Haas going behind Stewart's back to sign Busch isn't that surprising. Earlier today, Another Left Turn looked as Haas' history and why this move is in character for him
- Gene Haas Going Rogue Shouldn't Surprise Anyone
Bringing Kurt Busch aboard isn't out of character for Gene Haas; in fact, the way it happened is par for the course given his history
Some of Tony's greatest hits on the microphone
Since accepting Haas' offer to become co-owner of the racing team, Stewart has been the main public face of the organization. After all, it was Stewart's #14 car that won most of the team's races and first series championship. Tony has always been among NASCAR's more quotable drivers and the last four years have been no exception. He has a larger-than-life personality that fills the room and that pushed Haas into the background from day one.
Stewart injury and subsequent absence from the #14 cost Tony dearly in terms of reputation and power within the company. The incident that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward a year later only magnified the loss. He missed NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup in both 2013 and 14, the first time since joining the team. That alone cost the organization millions and irritated his sponsors. They didn't sign on to miss the playoffs with Mark Martin or Regan Smith behind the wheel. The other SHR cars also lost in not having Stewart at the track. His knowledge of tracks and setups was unquestionably missed by all involved. All of those things impact the company's bottom line and that bottom line directly impacts both owners.
The result has been a power shift in how SHR does business. While he and Busch had discussion prior to Stewart's wreck, it was only after Stewart was in the hospital that the full court press began. The injury required multiple surgeries and, in all likelihood, a fairly substantial amount of painkillers. Tony was in no condition to make decisions or get involved in the courtship of Busch. Haas knew that and the timing of his offer to Kurt speaks volumes as to how much he values Stewart's opinion right now.
In an interview with Fox Sports's Lee Spencer, Stewart made his feelings about expansion clear, noting:
- “I truly wish we were able to facilitate four teams at this time. We’re just not able to do that. Down the road, I’m sure if that becomes a possibility, he will definitely be on the list to fill the fourth seat again.”
Expanding from the two teams that SHR ran in 2012 to four teams it ran in 2014 is no small task. As a long-time team owner on the midget and Sprint Car levels, Stewart knows there is far more involved in adding a car than simply the driver. You need more employees at the shop to get the cars ready to race. You need more engineers to work on the team to make sure it has speed. You need more pit crew members to service the car during the race. You need the right crew chief to head up those efforts (particularly with a volatile driver such as Kurt Busch). There is a finite supply of all of those resources in the world of NASCAR. Those sending their applications over to SHR right now are doing so for a reason. The infrastructure needed to support a Sprint Cup team is huge and if done wrong can bring down the performance of every car in the shop.
Those concerns are the kinds of concerns a Sprint Cup team owner should have. Ironically, it's Stewart who's expressing them. He's taken enormous criticism for thinking like a driver instead of an owner in running such a heavy non-NASCAR schedule. The flip side of that coin is Gene Haas. He's been a Sprint Cup owner for a decade and by now clearly understands the obligations involved in running a team. Yet it's Haas, not Stewart, who added a shiny new piece to the garage no matter how much chaos it may wreak on everyone else.
The fact that Haas Automation (Gene's company) will be sponsoring Busch only makes the ownership split that much more difficult to control. As a private company wholly owned by Gene Haas, he can spend whatever he wants on the car. Gene admitted that ego played a part in signing Busch; he stated flat out that his goal here is to be a sponsor and see a Haas Automation car win races.
The problem is that NASCAR is a zero sum game. Only one car can win a race while 42 other cars leave without a trophy. Only one can win the series championship. By signing Busch with no regard to his business partner's opinion, Haas has already demonstrated that he's willing to place his ego and his own success above that of the rest of the team. What's to prevent him from using company resources to support Busch over the other cars in the team? Prior to Busch's suspension by NASCAR in February, Haas was unwavering in his support for Kurt. He's been notably silent on the topic since then but it's worth noting that Chevrolet dropped Busch. Would Haas be willing to stare down the manufacturer to back his chosen driver, risking the wrath of the auto giant?
And just how would Tony Stewart, a racer who wants to win everywhere every time, react to that? Would Stewart meekly submit to SHR becoming NASCAR's version of a Formula 1 team where one driver is king and the other(s) work for their success? In particular, would he agree to such a scenario where he isn't the primary driver?
Moreover, there's every reason to believe Haas would take that kind of action. He went to prison five years ago in large part because he felt wronged by the government and decided to get even. If Haas thought he'd be able to out-smart the IRS what would suggest he doesn't think he can out-smart Stewart? Haas wants to win and he wants to call the shots; by being both the sponsor and the owner he has a level of control that Stewart cannot hope to match. If he chooses to exercise that power it can only come at the expense of the other cars in the garage.
There would be more reason to hope that all will be well had Stewart participated in the press conference announcing the Busch signing. Yes, it would have been his first public appearance since the accident and much of the attention would be on his wreck instead of a new driver. Busch certainly wouldn't appreciate having his thunder stolen on the day of his triumphant return to a big league team. But Stewart's presence, even via a conference call, would still much of the controversy. He could address his unease about adding a fourth team and put his discussions with Haas in context. His retroactive seal of approval to the move would eliminate the perception that he and Haas are working at cross purposes.
Instead, the silence from Tony's camp only amplifies those concerns and allows speculation to fill the void instead. Did Haas take the fall for Stewart given Tony's friendship with Newman? Or is Haas making a power play to gain greater control and influence in the organization? Tony cannot avoid the cameras forever. He may not suffer fools (or foolish questions) gladly but that's the name of the game for a NASCAR team owner. His embarrassment over missing the remainder of 2013 is small change when compared to the future of a four car Sprint Cup team.
This may all ultimately prove to be much ado about nothing. The only thing that Tony seems to enjoy more than winning a race is watching one of his other drivers win a race. Competition may well drive all involved to even better results. As long as they compete on the track but still work together in the shop, everyone involved will benefit. SHR also has to consider the possibility that Danica Patrick will not survive past 2015. Her contract with GoDaddy hasn't been extended and she hasn't done particularly well on the track in her rookie season. The free agent crop isn't loaded with drivers with Busch's level of talent, so locking him in now protects the organization should Patrick depart.
Stewart is also in the process of facing his own racing mortality; at 43 years of age, the end of his full time career as a driver is rapidly approaching. The Iowa wreck will only accelerate those thoughts about the future. He can become a modern-day Junior Johnson, competing for championships as both an owner and a driver. Signing Kurt Busch to a fully sponsored ride, even if sponsored by Haas, gives the team a driver capable of winning. And winning tends to solve most internal problems.
But if they don't? Life could get very interesting- and very explosive- for the two partners at Stewart Haas Racing.