Brad Keselowski's comments raise the issue whether NASCAR should address tampering within the sport.
When Brad Keselowski on Thursday accused Toyota-powered Joe Gibbs Racing and Chevrolet-backed Hendrick Motorsports of poaching Ford employees and information, it once again raised the topic of tampering within NASCAR.
"Hendrick and Gibbs have this nasty little habit of going to other teams and outbidding other people and taking those employees and stealing our information," Keselowski said, as reported by USA Today's Mike Brudenell.
The defending Sprint Cup champion subsequently added, "Gibbs stole the Roush aero director and took all the information. And Hendricks took three employees from our Chase-winning team last year."
That kind of luring away of both employees and information/knowledge they possess has not only made teams protective of who and what they have, it also has a direct impact on sharing information with other Ford teams.
"When that (the threat of employees being lured away by other teams) happens, that puts walls up between the camps because you are giving up more than one piece of information — you are giving up two companies' information and trying to protect yourself against that, it forces you to put up walls," Keselowski said.
Should NASCAR implement tampering rules like other pro sports leagues?
Auto manufacturers like Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota want teams under their respective banners to share information and performance data to make the overall collective effort better and stronger. In theory, it's supposed to be a one-for-all and all-for-one proposition.
But because every team is so protective of its technology, knowledge and personnel, it has apparently hampered sharing of information within the Ford camp between teams such as Penske Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.
"It (the threat of employees going elsewhere with oftentimes proprietary information) doesn't necessarily lend itself to working together," said Keselowski, who is currently ninth in the standings and remains winless through the first 14 races in 2013.
Back in 2005, the Associated Press (h/t NBC Sports) reported NASCAR chairman Brian France's comments on the contentious issue of luring away drivers still under contract by other teams. Roush Racing lured away Jamie McMurray from Chip Ganassi Racing, while Penske Racing lured then-defending Cup champ Kurt Busch away from Roush Racing, even though both drivers had one more year remaining on their respective contracts.
"We’re not happy about it," France said, but added it wasn't in the sanctioning body's interest to prevent the practice.
"We don’t want to because it’s a free-market situation and the drivers are independent contractors,” France said. "We are different and their contracts are not with us; they are with the team owners."
But the practice continues to this day. Midway through last season, even though he was still under contract with Roush Fenway Racing, Matt Kenseth announced he would drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013.
Earlier this season, Kevin Harvick announced he will leave Richard Childress Racing; he had already signed to join Stewart Haas Racing in 2014.
France's comments from eight years ago still ring true today, particularly when it comes to so-called gentlemen's agreements that are supposed to keep employees from jumping ship to a higher bidder.
"There are still a lot of gentlemen around, but I don’t think they necessarily act like it," France said in 2005. "It’s just so competitive, and any edge that you can get to get some star power on your team is heightened now. That’s the good and the bad of elevating the sport to such a level."
While NASCAR does not prohibit teams from raiding each other for personnel, in light of Keselowski's comments as well as the announced early defections of Kenseth and Harvick, perhaps it's time the sport revisit that topic.
All other major professional sports leagues have strict anti-tampering guidelines in place to prevent players and employees under contract going from one team to another—or the highest bidder—until those contracts expire.
"There's a reason those two teams (Hendrick and Gibbs) are higher up on the boards than us — they have more money and sponsors to do so; it's almost like Major League Baseball in that sense," Keselowski said Thursday. "The Yankees and Red Sox are always going to outbid the Oakland Athletics. That's just part of the deal. So, you find yourself trying to play moneyball to beat them."
Friday afternoon, Sporting News reported Hendrick's terse statement in response to the previous day's comments by Keselowski, who raced part-time for HMS before joining Penske Racing in 2010.
"Brad misrepresents the facts and spends a lot of time making insinuations and accusations about other teams when he should be focused on his own program and competing at a high level," Hendrick said. "I hope he figures that out and begins representing himself and the sport with more class."
Hendrick said Keselowski is "misinformed," even though Hendrick and Gibbs teams have combined for nine wins in the first 14 races this season—plus a 10th win by the Hendrick-affiliated Stewart-Haas Racing.
"The comments Brad reportedly made were misinformed," Hendrick said. "The truth is that we hired one tire changer, who was a backup for Penske and whose contract was up. We also brought over one mechanic from their Nationwide program and, when the Penske engine shop was closing, added a few of those people. What Brad left out was that his organization also hired one of our tire changers.
"All of this was aboveboard and is part of doing business in a competitive environment. I take no issue with any of it, and I expect (team owner) Roger (Penske) would say the same."
Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle sided with Keselowski's comments, telling Sporting News, "Sometimes you can leapfrog your learning curve by hiring somebody that already knows or may have more information. A lot of times that will jumpstart you on whatever you’re working on … so that’s cost us a little bit."
Biffle added, "Secrecy doesn’t hardly exist. It’s so hard because these guys are neighbors or these guys are buddies. They’re fishing together and, unfortunately, information gets slipped between teams a lot of times. We know that is part of this sport.
“We’re pitted next to each other in the garage. It seems like everybody has spy photographers that are around taking pictures of everything. It’s hard to stay in front of the competition quite honestly.”
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