What’s Worse Than A Ride Buyer?
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.