Column: Spire is a key player in NASCAR's charter game. A new revenue model should reward all teams

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Nobody wanted a charter back in 2018, when Barney Visser wanted to sell the most valuable current franchise in NASCAR.

Visser had won the 2017 Cup Series title with Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr. A heart attack followed by bypass surgery kept Visser from the final two races of the year, when Furniture Row became the first single-car team since 1992 to win a championship. He was still too sick to travel in December that year to pick up the hardware.

So he decided to get out of the game.

Visser couldn't find any takers for the charter he'd purchased from NASCAR under a new revenue model designed to give race teams something tangible for their participation, so he asked Spire Sports + Entertainment to help him find a buyer.

The motorpsports marketing agency found the market was dead.

Undeterred, Visser convinced Spire a charter one year removed from a championship would earn back its $6 million 2018 purchase value in two years of NASCAR payouts guaranteed for chartered teams. And that's how Spire Motorsports got into the business of racing cars and collecting charters in a way that has kept the revenue flowing while creating significant value in the business of NASCAR.

Spire last weekend at Bristol was part of a convoluted deal in which it purchased the charter from Live Fast Motorsports on behalf of Trackhouse Racing. Under the deal, Spire will run Zane Smith in a third Cup car while Trackhouse works to expand to three full-time cars. Smith will eventually join Trackhouse, and that charter will likely follow him to to his new team.

It's worth? The Athletic reported that Live Fast received $40 million in the transaction. Live Fast plans to scale down to a part-time team and run without a charter.

And Spire? Well, it will have an overhauled three-car lineup next season that includes recently extended Corey Lajoie. It also will certainly get some of that Trackhouse money; the team in one week signed the deal with Smith and a development deal with Shane van Gisbergen out of New Zealand.

There's no doubt that Trackhouse is making bold moves, but none of it would be possible without Spire. When Trackhouse owner Justin Marks got into ownership, Spire leased the team its first charter. When Kaulig Racing moved from an Xfinity Series team to a Cup team, it bought a pair of charters from Spire.

Spire has single-handedly jumpstarted the charter market and driven up the value of the franchise tag.

“I think if you look down the list of organizations in the Cup Series, you’d be hard pressed to find any that are more transparent about their ambitions and intentions than these two organizations,” Spire President Bill Anthony said of Trackhouse and Spire.

He praised Spire owners Jeff Dickerson and TJ Puchyr for the deal with Trackhouse, which Anthony said is consistent with their ambitions.

“We’ve proven and come through in each of those circumstances; that is certainly a double-down on the future of the sport,” he said. "That’s not to say there isn’t work to be done with NASCAR and the charter agreement, but I think we believe in all the people in the garage and all the people in the NASCAR.”

The charter maneuvering comes as NASCAR and its teams are in a labor battle of sorts, with the latter calling for a better revenue model. A major ask remains the teams' desire for charters to become permanent. The charters are currently renewable and revocable, and NASCAR seems unwilling to compromise on the issue.

Denny Hamlin three weeks ago said talks between the teams and NASCAR were terrible. The winner of Saturday's race at Bristol is co-owner along with Michael Jordan of 23XI Racing but he directed all labor questions to NASCAR Chairman Jim France.

“I think the teams' ask has been very legitimate and not off in left field," Hamlin said. "You’re going to have to chase down Jim and ask for a reason because, there’s not really been a good reason, but the answer has been ‘No.”

If $40 million indeed went to Live Fast — either Trackhouse money, Spire money or a combination of both — the value of a charter has gone up six times since Visser convinced Dickerson and Puychr to get in the game. Not to mention all the dealing Spire has done prior to this latest venture.

If you are desperate for a charter, you call Spire, and Hamlin himself had to do it for 23XI. Dickerson and Puychr might not have the charter themselves, but they are the experts on how to get one.

“We really relish this opportunity to offer support to someone in the garage that is important,” Anthony said. "This collaboration and affiliation shows everybody’s commitment to the sport. It shows that we’re optimistic about the future of NASCAR and what it can be and what we can be in it.”

Spire has hustled to create this market and made something out of nothing. Its owners believe they've worked hard and if they spent $6 million or $40 million for a charter, it belongs to them the same way the New York Yankees franchise belongs to the Steinbrenner family.

It's tempting to point to Spire, which needed a bank loan to get Visser's charter just three years ago, as a success story (and also the reason NASCAR must safeguard charters from hedge funds and those who aren't serious about racing). But there is also a compelling case for Kaulig or 23XI or other teams that bought high and have nothing more than the paper the charter is printed on.

The charter market is healthy, Spire doesn't get enough credit for bringing it to life. But NASCAR needs to figure out a way to ensure the money and the interest keep flowing.


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