CGR’s Felix Sabates vows to increase his visibility at the track

Jerry Jordan/Kickin' The Tires

By Jerry Jordan — CONCORD, N.C. – Away from the sport for some time due to illness, Felix Sabates granted an interview with a trio of NASCAR media members this past weekend, confirming that his role at Chip Ganassi Racing has not changed but admitted there are things going on behind-the-scenes to make the two-car Sprint Cup Series organization better on the track.

“My role never changed because my role is pretty much work with the sponsors and that hasn’t changed,” said Sabates, with his usual candidness. “I don’t know the difference between a spark plug and a rear tire. Never have. (Chuckles) But I do know how to work with sponsors and partner relations and that’s what I’ve always been doing and what I’m going to continue doing.”

Without going into details, Sabates has been ill and was even hospitalized for a while. In fact, his visit to Richmond International Raceway was only his second time at a track this season. But just because he wasn’t in the shop or at the track, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t keeping up with what was going on. He’s spoken with majority team-owner, Chip Ganassi, regularly and monitored the new partnership with Rob Kauffman coming on-board after shuttering Michael Waltrip Racing in the off-season. He was even aware of internal team changes that were made to improve the performance of drivers Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray – admitting he isn’t happy with where the team has been from a competition aspect.

“Oh, I think it’s great,” Sabates said. “Chip (Ganassi) is great because he calls me probably twice a day and when I was in the hospital he came to sit in the hospital every day and Rob (Kauffman) is pretty upfront the way he does with … and I think NASCAR have made a big corner turn with the alliance and with the drivers having their own spokesman association.”

“You’re always disappointed as a car owner when you don’t run like you expect to run and it’s not because we haven’t tried. We tried and sometimes – we just had to make a change this week, chief engineer is gone, not that he’s to blame for anything, but sometimes you have to shake the trees to see how far the eggs fall off. I have run many businesses that when the top guy go the rest of the people rally around each other and pick up the slack and I think that’s what is going to happen with us.

“I think that we fell behind engineering wise. We were really good on the mile-and-a-half tracks a few years ago. Larson was running up front every week and you don’t go from running good to running bad overnight unless you did something. Larson didn’t become a worse driver, he became a better driver so if you take the components – a racecar is very simple.

“You got a car, you got four tires and you got a driver and somebody has to put the cars together and make the calls to run that car. If that person fails there, I don’t care how good of a driver – perfect example is Clint Bowyer is a pretty good racecar driver. He’s not with a premier team, he’s with a good team but it’s a low budget team. And where’s Clint? In the back of the field. We’ve been there, so sometime you get into a situation that you don’t have enough money to run this program because the one thing that has happened the last, and I’ve been around 30 years, in 1992 I laughed, 1992 my total budget was two and a half million dollars and I finished fifth in the points.”

“In 1993 my total budget was three million dollars and I finished fifth in points and made seven hundred thousand dollars. Today if I had three million dollars to run a car, I’d be running a car wash, not a racecar. So it’s gotten expensive. The drivers today are making 15, 20, 30 million dollars; crew chief are making half a million, million and some of them even more than that. We don’t have mechanics working for $35,000 a year anymore. So, we have become a real expensive sport and it was self-inflicted; we never had a driver say, if you don’t pay me $10 million I’m going to leave.”

“The way it went was stupid owner to the driver, no don’t leave me, I’m going to give you $10 million. Then guy go to the next guy, well he give me 10 what are you going to give me? That’s human nature. Hell, I offer you $10 (million) and you go get $12 million, more power to you. So we hurt ourselves with the driver salaries. You know, every driver out there has an airplane. Think about it – how many football players have an airplane? How many NBA players have an airplane? Every driver has an airplane. Every driver has a beautiful wife and they all got nice jewelry. Hey, more power to them. I want a beautiful wife and I want to have jewelry; that’s why I’m single.”

Sabates is also not unaware of whathas been going on with NASCAR, Tony Stewart and the RTA (Race Team Alliance). He said the RTA is good and NASCAR made inroad by allowing it but there are issues where he thinks open discussion hurts a team’s ability to attract sponsors. He agrees with Stewart on The Great Lug Nut Debate of 2016 but he also believes the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion deserved to be fined for his outspokenness. In an ironic twist for a guy not afraid to air his concerns in the press, Sabates said Stewart should have kept his mouth closed – at least publicly. And he likes Stewart, “I love him to death,” he said.

“I don’t agree with some of the things that goes on but this is a democracy and majority rules, so it’s not like our United States government that 100 senators and 450 congressman make the rules and the rest of the 300 million people have nothing to say about,” said Sabates. “They call it a democracy, I call it something else, but here it’s different.”

“They penalized Tony $35,000, well I agree, they should penalize him $35,000 and the reason for that is, we all have to have a united front. You can’t have somebody shooting their mouth about this sport because without us it hurts with the sponsors. The sponsors will read that and they’ll say, well if you have one of the premier drivers – used to be and now he’s an old guy; he’s a nice guy and I love him to death, but Tony is not going to win anything. He’s old. And I’m old. I can’t do what I used to be able to do so it got nothing to do with anything other than age. He’s been hurt. He should have come back and not said anything. He should have gone to NASCAR and said to NASCAR, hey, I disagree … and by the way, I agree with him on that, too. I agree with him in we shouldn’t have some teams taking a risk only putting three or four lug nuts. I think it should be five lug nuts and if they’re not tight you bring the car back in, so Tony is right. I agree with him. It’s a safety issue. He should have handled it a different way. So he got penalized $35,000; he’s lucky he got the other guys to pay it for him.

“You don’t air your laundry out and I think NASCAR and the RTA have done a very good job of working – you know we’ve been working on this for a year, we’ve had meetings and more meetings and more meetings and the press never knew we had those meetings. We were able to maintain not the secrecy but the privacy of those meetings and we were able to compromise. And if the press would have gotten involved like the Charlotte Observer, oh NASCAR was wrong for penalizing Tony. Well, that’s an editorial, that’s not reporting. The articles in the Charlotte papers, if you’re going to be doing editorials then become an editorial writer, don’t become a reporter. And that was an editorial. I don’t agree when the press starts expressing their opinions when they’re really don’t know what the real situation is. And you guys get paid to do that, but that’s what makes America great. Nobody shoots you. If you did this shit in Cuba all four of us would be shot right now. Well she (Kelly Crandall, PopularSpeed.Com’s Editor) wouldn’t, they would say, nah, she’s a pretty little girl so we’ll going to get you married to one of the long beard, Cuban guys.”

Sabates said he was glad to be back at the track and healthy and vowed to return. In fact, he said he won’t be taking his usual summer break because he has missed so much of the early part of the 2016.

“For the last 10 years in the summer-time I kind of disappear and I’m not going to disappear as much this year because I disappeared in the spring, so I’ll be around,” he said.

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