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Driving Change: Denny Hamlin plows ahead with calls to reinvigorate NASCAR

By Adam Stern
The veteran NASCAR driver and now team owner doesn’t shy from taking the sport’s leadership to task.getty images

Speaking to the man who runs NASCAR, Denny Hamlin made one thing clear.

 

Over a conversation at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, the 41-year-old Hamlin told Jim France, the 77-year-old chairman and CEO of NASCAR, that until he and his business partners see a change in NASCAR’s business model, all further major investments in the team — charters, a splashy new headquarters — are on hold.

It was a bold exchange in a sport where drivers over the past decades have largely been expected to stay in their lanes when it comes to issues off the track. And it was directed toward none other than the son of NASCAR’s founder.

But Hamlin knows few filters, whether it’s with competition, as he’s become one of the most successful drivers in the sport’s history, or with business matters, as he grows his presence as a team owner. Having Michael Jordan in his corner as a co-owner of that 23XI Racing team has given Hamlin an even greater stage for his push for change.

His outspoken approach comes at a time when NASCAR experiments with ways to build the sport’s popularity — ranging from scheduling shake-ups to this year’s introduction of the Next-Gen race car — and to improve the sport’s business model.

Whether the pace of change is quick enough for Hamlin is questionable. From social media, to private industry meetings, he freely and frequently weighs in on hot-button issues. The debate in the industry is whether Hamlin is a visionary who is improving the hidebound sport with much-needed constructive criticism, or whether he’s got too many assumptions for such a young team owner and is needlessly blunt.

There have been missteps along the way, and Hamlin acknowledges he still has much to learn as an owner. Just don’t expect him to take his foot off the gas.

“The things we did 15-20 years ago are not the things you have to do now,” Hamlin said. “I’m not saying I’m always right. Sometimes in retrospect months or years later I’m like, ‘Eh, I don’t know if that was completely right.’ But at the same time, I’m passionate about it. I really want this sport to take off.”

Hamlin joined the celebration after 23XI driver Kurt Busch, right, won in Kansas this month.getty images

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An informal survey of around a dozen industry executives across several different stakeholders shows the debate is split over Hamlin’s outspoken nature. Some insist that a hard-charging young team owner like Hamlin is exactly what NASCAR needs, while others are more skeptical of his brash approach. None of those critics wanted to speak publicly about the issue.

Hamlin knows he has critics and takes it all in stride.

“It’s very hard to convince dinosaurs they must eat differently,” he said. “I want change. If we’re going to appeal to a new audience because our [current] audience is aging or has aged, you’ve got to get with the times.”

Hamlin stirred the social media pot last month during a rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway when he took to Twitter to join fans who believed the Fox broadcast booth had spread confusion over how the cars were being scored when the delay was called. This was the second year of NASCAR’s experiment to turn Bristol into a dirt track and there were different scoring rules as a result.

“How do you expect [people] at home to know [what the f---] is going on if the story tellers on TV don’t know?” Hamlin pondered candidly to his 772,000 Twitter followers.

It was a rare public rebuke of a key NASCAR partner but some stakeholders have privately called for the sport’s broadcasters to be more serious and competent in their presentation.

At a recent NASCAR Team Owner Council meeting, Hamlin took the microphone and asked NASCAR executives on stage, including President Steve Phelps, a pointed question about how news was dispersed about a NASCAR initiative involving rival team Hendrick Motorsports and the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

NASCAR announced plans in March to enter a Hendrick-branded Chevy in the 2023 edition of the race in a move to grow the sport internationally. However, in the ultracompetitive world of motorsports, the idea of a sanctioning body working on a project with one hand-picked team raised eyebrows, and Hamlin questioned why he found out about the move only via social media instead of being informed privately ahead of time.

The project involved Hendrick Motorsports, but team owner Rick Hendrick isn’t critical of Hamlin’s approach. He said NASCAR needs fresh perspective to effect change in a sport that favors tradition.

“We need to think outside the box if we want to elevate the sport and really crank it up and move it forward,” said Hendrick, the most winning team owner in NASCAR history. “We’ve got so many good young people and different folks in like Michael Jordan and Denny, Trackhouse (with Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull), just fresh blood. … Us old dogs get into a habit of, ‘If it ain’t broke, just do what you have been doing,’ but the young folks have new ideas and we need to accept it to elevate the sport to where it’s never been before.”

getty images

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First coming into NASCAR in 2004, Hamlin is now an elder statesmen of the sport’s driving corps, one known to have sharp technical skills in stock cars and able to win at a variety of tracks. Although he hasn’t won a Cup Series championship, he has three Daytona 500 victories and 47 wins overall in the premier series, the 17th-most of all time and a total that could get him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Driver contract details are not released in NASCAR but Hamlin is one of the best-paid drivers in the sport, one of the few remaining who still makes upward of, or into, eight figures annually, thanks in part to a lucrative sponsorship deal between Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx. His deal with JGR is expected to be at least through next season.

Being one of the few remaining drivers who was around during NASCAR’s ascent in the early 2000s, descent in the 2010s and its more stable period in the 2020s, has given Hamlin a unique vantage point — even more so when taking into account that he’s now a driver for one team and co-owner of another.

Hamlin sat courtside for Charlotte Hornets games years ago, an opportunity that allowed him to strike up a friendship with Jordan, who owns the NBA franchise. That relationship led to Hamlin gaining a personal endorsement deal with Jordan Brand in 2011. It was a good match for Hamlin, who listens to hip hop, appeared in a rap video last year with Post Malone, and has long worn Jordan Brand shoes around the racetrack.

Hamlin eventually convinced Jordan to enter NASCAR as a team owner. America had just witnessed racial upheaval in 2020, and the sport’s response left Jordan seeing an opportunity to be a positive force for social change. 23XI took to the track in the NASCAR Cup Series for the first time in 2021 and won a race in that debut season.

Denny's Take

Hamlin often turns to Twitter to air his opinion about issues facing the sport:
On Race Track Conditions
“(T)racks are taking all of the money yet not reinvesting it back into their facilities. If the teams showed up with fenders ripped off and junk pit equipment/pit boxes NASCAR would have a serious problem with that. Why can’t we treat the tracks the same?”
On The Schedule
“36 weeks of the same is a bad formula for long term success.”
On Rough Driving
“In 2017 it wasn’t ok. In todays world. ‘High stakes’ ‘do whatever it takes’ ‘playoffs on the line’ blah blah, it’s all fair game. The game has changed and it’s just expected now. Everyone runs over everyone. Doesn’t matter if it’s for 1st or 10th.”
On How NASCAR’s Revenue Split Should Mimic F1’s
“Seems favorable for all parties. 2B in revenues for the league. 1B of that going to the teams. What’s not to love about a rising tide. ??”

23XI’s mission is to have an impact in the areas of diversity, equality and inclusion. The team has hired a host of new staff from outside the industry, including many who are minorities, and has set up the 23XI Speed Institute to increase DEI efforts including scholarships, paid internships, job opportunities and executive training. “We’re just trying to do things differently because this sport does need to change,” Hamlin said. “Michael came in here because he saw an opportunity to have a platform that his fan base has not really been exposed to.”

23XI is a two-car team in the NASCAR Cup Series, with drivers in Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch, and it has a laundry list of sponsors: Columbia Sportswear, DoorDash, DraftKings, Dr Pepper, Embrace Home Loans, Jordan Brand, Leidos, McDonald’s, MoneyLion, Monster Energy, Root Insurance and Toyota.

As expected, it’s been a learning curve for Hamlin as a co-owner. He brought in NASCAR veteran executive Steve Lauletta as team president, and he’s also aided by the agency that represents him, Prosport Management, which has well-connected executives at the helm, including Rod Moskowitz.

Hamlin also has benefited by working with Jordan, who has become legendary off the court for his empire with Nike, and Jordan’s right-hand man, Curtis Polk, an executive with the Hornets and an investor in 23XI.

Said Hamlin, “I’ve gotten educated quite a bit with the business side of things: How does marketing work, how do you keep sponsors happy and just so many other different aspects of a team that I didn’t have my hands on as much as a Joe Gibbs Racing driver.”

A driver who also is an owner of his team has been common throughout NASCAR history, but a driver racing for one team while co-owning another is less so. It makes for a demanding schedule.

Hamlin starts off a typical work week on Mondays with a competition lunchtime meeting for 23XI before he has a JGR competition team meeting in the afternoon. On Tuesdays, he has Zoom calls and a debrief session with his No. 11 team at JGR. On Wednesday, he has a 23XI ownership meeting followed by a 23XI competition meeting two hours later. Those meetings last 60 to 90 minutes. Thursday, Hamlin says he’s on “dad duty” to his daughters, Taylor and Molly. On either Wednesday or Thursday he’ll find time to also do some work with a simulator to prepare for the upcoming weekend’s race.

“I don’t know how he balances the two because he is a real competitor,” Polk said. “He’s a real worker at his craft and in between races he spends tens and tens of hours doing simulator work or going over data with JGR and then he has to come over and work at our shop, so it’s like he’s doubled his job.”

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Jordan’s presence is helping NASCAR in its bid to re-invent itself, but Hamlin is the day-to-day managing partner at 23XI and so he’s often the center of attention as a result.

Being a driver and a team owner means Hamlin straddles a line that adds to the intrigue around him. He had to answer questions earlier this year when there was an announcement around a new drivers council that he is part of, as some wondered if that would be a conflict of interest. Drivers have been facing pay cuts from team owners in recent years, for example, so that could create a push-pull conflict between drivers wanting maximum payouts and team owners wanting to rein in that cost.

At the time, Hamlin tweeted: “The drivers and the teams align 95% of the time. When that 5% is in play I will step aside on those issues. One thing is for sure. ALL parties have 1 common goal and that is to GROW the sport.”

Polk said that he and Jordan have been working with Hamlin in particular on what a better financial model for the sport might look like. Teams have long felt that the sport’s media revenue split is unfair; 65% of money from a race goes to the track, 25% goes to teams and 10% goes to the sanctioning body. Teams rely on sponsorship for about 75% of their revenue.

Hamlin is now taking that knowledge and using it to spread the word about what he feels is a much-needed change to the business model. After Sports Business Journal reported in February on teams’ bid to change the model, Hamlin accepted an offer from a motorsports podcast host asking to come on his show and discuss the topic.

Given their take of revenue, tracks have found themselves in Hamlin’s crosshairs. When IndyCar had a lackluster crowd this year at Texas Motor Speedway, Hamlin responded to a tweet from a reporter about the topic by calling out track owners and asking them to market more. “Tracks make a killing and need to be held to higher standards instead of putting money in their pockets.”

Hamlin did have one notable slip-up earlier this season. Quick to react to hot-button issues, he tweeted a meme after the Talladega race from the animated show “Family Guy” that included an Asian-American female driver. The meme made light of an on-track incident with Kyle Larson, who is Asian-American. Hamlin later deleted the tweet and apologized, writing in a new tweet that “it was a poor choice of memes and I saw how it was offensive,” but NASCAR still gave him an extra sensitivity training course.

Missteps aside, Hamlin’s outspokenness and fresh perspective are what many in the sport believe NASCAR needs.

“It’s going to be important to have people like Denny as part of ownership,” said Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR Hall of Fame member and vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. “He’s very active and has a lot of ideas, and what I see in him is similar to myself: a passion for racing and looking at what can be done down the road when he’s done driving.”

Hamlin noted that NASCAR has never been more receptive to change and that the collaboration in the industry is legitimately at an all-time high.

Polk has described NASCAR as a “sleeping giant,” something Hamlin noted that he agrees with but added: “The key word there is sleeping, and you can’t just keep sleeping. We have to make changes.”

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23XI’s goal this year is to get both of its cars in the playoffs, but there’s work to do. 23XI didn’t score its first win of the 2022 season until May 15 in Kansas. Hamlin was blunt about this season so far for 23XI, calling it a “f------ nightmare,” but was encouraged by the Kansas win. He maintains that Wallace has stepped up his driving levels and that new driver Busch is also doing well, but the team has negated those gains, largely through mistakes by pit crews. “Right now, shoring that up is our No. 1 focus.”

Last year, 23XI paid a record $13.5 million to acquire a second charter, even though Hamlin had spoken out about how he felt charter prices were overvalued.

That’s where it comes back to that conversation this year with France. While 23XI intends to eventually expand, the team is placing any plans to buy further charters or develop a new headquarters  on hold until teams figure out whether they’ll be able to get more TV money with the next media rights deal, which will start in 2025. 23XI also wants a clearer picture on the costs of operating the new generation of race cars.

“I will go on the record saying that I had a meeting with Jim France and my message was clear that we need to stop talking about cutting,” Hamlin said. “Cutting does not equal growth. If we start working collectively then we can grow this sport together. But the business model will have to change for that to happen. We at 23XI have big plans. But those plans are on hold until we see change.”

It’s a lot to handle for Hamlin. But after years of NASCAR wondering who its next generation of team owners was going to be, he’s one of the major ones to step up so far alongside others, including Gordon, Marks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

“Some people don’t like me because I’m not a good ol’ boy farmer in Georgia, but it ain’t me. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not me,” Hamlin said. “If you had 36 of them it’d be a pretty boring sport; you need different personalities at times, and I am who I am. I know I push the envelope at times, but I’m not going to change for anyone.”

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