Driver Boycott Killed NASCAR Union
Wednesday, February 7, 2007; 5:20 PM
-- In September 1969, NASCAR's best-known drivers formed the Professional Drivers Association, an organization they hoped would make their jobs safer, guarantee their futures and raise their paltry incomes.
Just weeks later, the PDA was dead, victim of the iron hand of NASCAR founder William Henry Getty "Big Bill" France and genuinely bad timing.
"The week before Talladega we had a meeting in Detroit," explained Richard Petty, one of the biggest names in racing and a key union organizer. "Everybody sat down and said, 'It's time we did something like this.'"
That included drivers such as David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker and Bobby Allison.
An earlier attempt to organize drivers _ by NASCAR pioneer Curtis Turner and the Teamsters Union _ was crushed by France in 1961. He banned Turner for "life," which wound up being four years.
But eight years later, the drivers were talking union again.
NASCAR ran 54 races in 1969, some paying as little as $1,000 to the winner. In a far more dangerous era, drivers were insured for a maximum of $15,000.
"When you go back to me and Allison and Pearson and all of them, we was just making a living," said Petty, who was elected president of the PDA. "I drove 35 years and didn't take in but $7 1/2 million dollars. It took me 15 years to win the first million.
"These guys today start out with $2 or $3 million dollars in their hand before they ever get in the race car. Then they go out and win another $2 or $3 million dollars or whatever. ... If they can't take care of themselves with the money flowing through their hands now then nobody could look after you."
Today's drivers appreciate the fact that NASCAR and the Frances, the founding family, have given them the platform to earn millions. But they also see NASCAR taking in massive amounts of television and sponsorship revenue, just like other major pro sports, without giving its athletes the benefits other players receive.
"Nobody is wanting to strong arm or anything like that because the sport is good; we don't want to rock the ship," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
That's probably not going to change.