What’s Worse Than A Ride Buyer?

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One of the biggest hot-button topics in the world of the IZOD IndyCar Series is the dreaded “ride buyer”. Just the mere mention of the term conjures up images of an unqualified driver that has business connections and has convinced someone in the corporate world to give them a blank check – payable to any team that will let them drive a racecar. Mention the term to a supposed racing purist and you’ll enter into an enraged conversation that usually contains the names Hiro Matsushita, Milka Duno and yes…the late Paul Dana.

Of course, when a qualified driver like Graham Rahal puts together a sponsorship package and uses it to get the best ride available, the purists look the other way and simply call it good business. Many of the elite drivers of today and yesterday were full-fledged ride buyers at one time. When Emerson Fittipaldi won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1989, he brought Marlboro money from Philip Morris Brasil to fund his ride with Pat Patrick and Chip Ganassi. For years, Arie Luyendyk brought sponsorship to several team owners from Povimi Veal of The Netherlands, his native country. I cannot count how many teams carried livery for Tecate, so long as Mexican driver Adrian Fernandez was allowed to drive their car.

As despicable as some race fans find the practice, ride buying has been going on for decades. I don’t like seeing some of the best drivers on the sidelines while someone with connections and not an ounce of driving talent takes up a spot on the grid, but it is as much a part of racing as a Hoosier downpour in May.

But in the past, there has been a creature that would drive in the Indianapolis 500 that is much lower than a ride buyer – the driver that was forced to be there against his or her wishes. Many of the great drivers that drove in the Indianapolis 500 in the sixties were there simply because their sponsor or manufacturer told them they would go. They really had no desire to go and would not have been there except for the fact they were contractually obliged to be there.

In all honesty, one of the more revered names from the sixties, Jim Clark, never would have gone across the pond had Dan Gurney not convinced Ford and Colin Chapman that they needed to be at Indy in 1963. Clark was simply told he would be going. He was reluctant about running on a high-speed oval with concrete walls and what appeared to be a demolition derby. Shy by nature, Clark was also unsure how the Americans would take to a foreigner invading what had become a race made up almost exclusively of American drivers. Regardless of his own desires, Clark did what he had to do.

Once he got here, Clark really took to the place. He also found that most fans and drivers were very welcoming to the Scot. By the time he won in 1965, Clark loved the Speedway and its traditions. Many other Europeans came here against their wishes. Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart didn’t want to come at first, but grew to appreciate our form of racing once they got here.

Why do I find these people so much lower than ride buyers? Because until they warmed to the Speedway and began to understand why it was such a privilege, they made it quite clear that they looked down on the place and it was strictly part of their job to be there. That way of thinking was bad enough, but was made that much worse when they made public comments as such, while Americans that had devoted their entire lives to racing in the 500 were systematically bumped from the starting grid while drivers that had no desire to be there were taking up a spot – THEIR spot.

This was not an era when all drivers had the same equipment. This was a time when drivers and teams regularly came together at the last minute with shoestring budgets and made the field on banzai runs. This was what made the heroes of the day. Suddenly they were being displaced by drivers that really had no interest in being there.

If you’ve visited this site before, you know that I have no problem with the big money teams. I consider it the responsibility of the lesser teams to do whatever they can to catch up. But say what you will about today’s field of drivers, but they are very appreciative of where they are.

Like Clark, most of the interlopers of the sixties quickly warmed to the idea of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even Denis Hulme eventually grew to like it here. On the other hand, Jochen Rindt of Austria never did like it at Indianapolis and took every possible opportunity to voice his displeasure at being there. To have drivers like Bob Harkey and Bill Cheesbourg get bumped while someone like Rindt whined about “having” to be in the field was borderline criminal.

So the next time you gripe about the ride buyers in the IZOD IndyCar Series; remember two things – it’s nothing new and at least they want to be there. The same could not be said during the foreign invasion of the sixties.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “What’s Worse Than A Ride Buyer?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    George, I understand your point regarding those not really wanting to be there, however, if it is the obligation of the lesser teams to rise to the level of the dynasty teams (RPR, TCGR)… It is equally the obligation of those who desire to compete in the 500 (e.g. Bob Harkey and Bill Cheesbourg) to have done so at a level that prevents them from being bumped from the field, regardless of whether or not their competition wants to be there.
    While there continues to be a fairly talented group of teams/drivers who show up each year for the 500, that field is a world away from the teams fielded pre-spec series days. I think that the move to begin awarding scholarships to USAC drivers will help improve the future fields at the IMS, but the mixture at the 500 in May will never be of the caliber that it was in the 50s-60s-70s.

  2. Personally, I never forgave little Al for saying that Indy was just another race when the split happened. I find that worse than someone who didn’t know any better because they had never been here before. He knew, he had won, and he turned up his nose. I know there were MANY issues going on at that time, but that has always burned me up.

  3. George, why do you reject drivers for being forced to do what they don’t want to? You can’t take that freedom from drivers.

    Imagine that Dan Wheldon was told in 2005 to travel to Japan to drive the Suzuka 1000km sports car race for Honda, and he didn’t like the idea of not driving open-wheelers on a road course. Why would you reject his decision?

    Ayrton Senna said in an interview that he didn’t intend to drive in CART IndyCar after his F1 career because it was too dangerous, driving so fast and so close to each other and the walls. It was even more dangerous in the 1960s than in the late 1980s. What would you tell Senna, “you drive anyway and if you get your neck broken don’t complain”?

  4. George, I’ll come right out and say it for you: you don’t like Juan Montoya. Doesn’t that feel good to get off your chest? You’re welcome.

  5. The Lapper Says:

    George, as for the American drivers who had devoted their entire lives to racing in the 500, a place on the starting grid was never their spot to lose to that driver that was forced to be there against his or her wishes. Those are open spots and you get in the field by qualifying for it. It never makes a difference what a driver’s atitude is regarding Indy, it is what that driver does when he gets there. Tomorrow is never promised and neither is a spot in the starting grid for the Indianapolis 500. Al jr and Paul Tracy know that, too.

    The Lapper
    The barber shaves another customer

    • BrianMcKay Says:

      I agree with the idea that the best, the fastest, ought to be racing in any given series and in any given race, rather than hacks with cash. I would rather see supremely talented racers who’re not head-over-heels in love with a facility competing than see slow ridebuyers tootling around and obstructing racers.
      I’d rather have Hulme, Clark, Stewart, Hill, & Montoya than Roth, Duno, Vitolo, Matsushita, Mutoh, etcetera.

  6. Even though he’s American, this is *EXACTLY* what worries me about Conner Daly. Would he really want to come through Indy Lights to the Indycar Series and race the 500?

    If I’m wrong about him, I’ll own up and be glad I was wrong. He’s a rising star, and would benefit the series if he truly wants to be a part of it. But honestly: Does he truly *want* to drive Indycar? I know Bernard wants him on the ladder, but does Conner himself want to?

    • AJ don’t confuse “Not wanting to do Indy Yet” with “Not wanting to do Indy”. Ultimately Connor wants to maximize his earning potential over his career and invariably that means racing in either F1 or nascar. Connor has said that doing Indy is important, but he hopes that would be after an F1career. F1 must be done when young as most careers there are over by 30, and at that point he would still have 10 years to pursue the Indy dream after the financial future had been secured.

      George, if most the current drivers don’t like Texas but do it because they have to, what does that make them?

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      AJ….
      I have to agree, that while the offer has indeed been extended to Connor Daly, that does not necessarily mean that the offer will be accepted. The problem is that while we all, generally speaking enjoy IRL racing “such as it is”, it is certainly not the pinnacle of racing that it once was. Mr. Daly may very well take an alternate path.

  7. If you don’t want ride buyers at Indy, the solution is simple. Cancel the 17… errr 15 other races on the schedule and only run the 500.

    Sponsors are willing to pay what it takes to fund a car for the 500 at a level where ride buyers would not be needed. They are not, however, willing to fund a car for races with 30K in the stands and 200K watching at home.

    You need to let the series die to bring the 500 back. Then you can organically grow the series from there.

  8. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Get rid of the spec series and it may just grow on its own….

  9. Salt Walther.

    In any era you can find someone who bought his ride and deserved to be there, and someone who bought his ride and was a danger to everyone else on the track. The problem with auto racing over most sports is that if you somehow bought your way into the NFL, you end up humiliated quickly. If you don’t belong in auto racing, you could be killed (or kill or maim others).

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