The Slimy Underbelly Of Racing

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If we have learned anything from the Dragon Racing/Katherine Legge split; it’s that racing can be a dirty business. In case you have been living under a rock the last couple of days – last year, Katherine Legge brought the TrueCar sponsorship to Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing team through the ‘Women Empowered Initiative” program that they had launched. On Tuesday, it was announced that Dragon had opted to sign Sebastian Saavedra to drive the TrueCar sponsored car and that Legge’s services were no longer needed at Dragon.

There are several issues at play here. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate personal opinions from fact. First of all, I have never met any of the parties involved, so I have no agenda or personal ax to grind – but that hasn’t stopped me from forming some solid impressions on some of them. Katherine Legge is the exception. I know very little about her, other than she has a very strong racing resume and she comes across as having a fairly reserved personality – which I consider a plus. To an outsider like me, she appears to be the innocent party here.

Jay Penske, on the other hand, may share his famous father’s last name – but that’s about all they seem to share. Witnessing the different turns his racing team has taken, the word “squirrel” would come to mind. When Luczo-Dragon Racing came into existence in 2007 with Ryan Briscoe, they seemed to be doing things the right way. They made a few missteps along the way, but that was expected. Then Tomas Scheckter drove for them in 2008 and they parted ways at the end of the season. Gil de Ferran was brought on board as a co-owner of the newly re-named de Ferran-Dragon Racing in 2010 to mentor Brazilian driver Rafa Matos, although things had already started going south. Suddenly in 2011, Gil de Ferran and Rafa Matos were gone and so was Steve Luczo.

Dragon Racing showed up for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a shell of its former self. Paul Tracy was signed to drive for the regular season, but had already made a prior commitment to Dreyer & Reinbold for the 500. Lucky him. Drivers Ho-Pin Tung and Scott Speed failed to make the field. Tung crashed on his qualifying run and suffered a concussion, while Scott Speed had an infamous meltdown, where he insinuated the Dragon cars were unfit to drive. Patrick Carpentier tried to make a last ditch effort to qualify, but also crashed. The remainder of the season saw the Dragon car limp around at the back of the field.

Last year promised to be different. They had two new drivers – Sébastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge, but the team signed with Lotus. At Spring Training, only one Dragon car could run because of a payment dispute between Dragon and Lotus. By the first race, both cars were on track albeit near the back with every other Lotus car. By Indianapolis, Lotus was gone and Chevrolet engines were in the cars. But due to financial circumstances, Legge and Bourdais were forced to share the ride for the remainder of the season.

It was during this time that the word to describe Jay Penske changed from “squirrel” to “scum”. A bizarre set of circumstances at Nantucket last August, found Jay Penske and his younger brother arrested. After a night of drinking, it seems that the brothers were urinating in a parking lot and were confronted by a woman. Jay Penske allegedly turned and urinated on and into the woman’s boots. They then pushed her down and ran away and hid, before being found and arrested. Nice behavior for an owner whose sponsor is helping to empower women.

Last month, Jay Penske announced his engagement to Elaine Erwin, John Mellencamp’s ex-wife. While there is nothing wrong with that, it helped solidify the playboy lifestyle that the 34 year-old Penske has established for himself.

While everyone has been decrying the situation between Jay Penske and Katherine Legge as deplorable on Penske’s part; they are always careful to say they hold nothing against Sebastian Saavedra. I won’t go that far. I’ve always considered Saavedra a flake for the way he departed Bryan Herta’s Indy Lights team, after Herta gave Saavedra his first break into IndyCars. I incorrectly predicted that his IndyCar career was over after the way he left Herta and his team hanging. Some brag that they are open-minded and willing to give the young Columbian driver a second chance. I guess I’m too narrow-minded, because I think that he is as much of a squirrel as Jay Penske and they deserve each other.

I am also not very impressed with his driving ability. Don’t forget that he was the full-time driver with Conquest Racing in 2011. Pippa Mann was his one-time teammate in her first time ever in an IndyCar for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Pippa made the field while Saavedra struggled throughout the month and failed to make the grid. Although I’m sure she would prefer to be in a car, Katherine Legge is probably better off to be away from the drama that is Dragon Racing. Hopefully, Bourdais can stay above the fray and have a successful season as Saavedra’s teammate.

Of course, the worst part about all of this is the sponsorship situation. It’s bad enough that, except for a handful of situations – drivers are now required to beat the bushes and go out and find sponsorship to take to a team. Katherine Legge did that with TrueCar. She thought she had a two-year agreement, but somewhere along the way – Jay Penske poached her sponsor and cut her loose in favor of Saavedra. I’ve heard that Jay Penske and TrueCar CEO Scott Painter are great friends and made a mutual decision to cut ties with Legge. Does that make this OK?

Katherine Legge is promising to take legal action. I can’t blame her for being frustrated and she may have a strong case, but I really have no idea. No one who hasn’t closely examined the agreement between all parties has any clue whether she has a case or not. My question is, what are the ramifications of such a suit? Would it mean a monetary settlement or would it simply get her job back? At this point, I’m not sure that would be a workable situation. You also have to wonder if such a suit would have her unofficially blackballed in the racing community. Teams may not be so willing to hire her if changing drivers means getting sued.

Personally, if she does take legal action – I hope she wins. It’s bad enough that a driver’s talents mean little in getting a ride these days. Drivers are now rewarded on their ability to prospect for potential sponsors and how well they present their case in a boardroom instead of what they can do on the track. How else would you explain James Jakes and Sebastian Saavedra getting full-time rides, while Ryan Briscoe and Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice sit on the sidelines? If a driver’s reward for playing this new game is to have the sponsor they worked so hard to get, be suddenly yanked away and given to another driver – well, that simply reeks.

Perhaps if a driver were to actually win one of these suits, owners might think twice before taking part in such slimy activity. Right now, the deck is stacked in favor of the owners and a written contract apparently means nothing. Katherine Legge taking legal action may not benefit her, but it may benefit other drivers down the road. I wish her the best of luck.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “The Slimy Underbelly Of Racing”

  1. A long time ago during one of the Indy 500 telecasts, Sam Posey (not so great a driver, and almost unbearable to listen to as a ‘color commentator’) got it very right (!) when he said something to the effect of ‘if everyone who had the talent to drive one of these cars had the money to do it, there would be a very different field of drivers’. I didn’t use true quotation marks (“) because I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it is right. And Sam was right in that case, in a BIG way.

    I agree completely with pretty much everything you said here, George. What wasn’t said is that Katherine has shown more than a few flashes of being very capable of driving one of these (or the CART/ChampCar cars) at a level that should have secured her deal (read Pressdog’s recap of her Indy rookie test and how quickly she got up to a very competitive speed), which makes Penske and Painter’s decision all the more mystifying to me, considering what they’re getting in Saavedra.
    I’ve known of a few sons of successful fathers who have not fallen anywhere near the tree in terms of their father’s character or work-ethics. They typically destroy the businesses and ultimately lose what they’ve inherited (Tony George comes to mind in that scenario, come to think of it). Jay Penske seems to have fallen into that category.

  2. I think an association on my part with a prep boy who pees on women in public parking lots then runs away screaming to hide would be sending the wrong message about who I am, particularly when my association was about equality of the sexes. I can’t take Jay Penske seriously.

  3. I’m still waiting to read anything about Indycar that increases my enthusiasm for the upcoming season. And I’m a fan. Really. To the general audience, Indycar’s visibility and relevance has to rank somewhere between stamp collecting and calligraphy. The series seems uninspired and clueless.

    • dzgroundedeffects Says:

      How dare you compare Indycar to Calligraphy!

      I love calligraphy. I takes tremendous skill and you won’t see people mitcurating while doing it either.

      (I jest)

  4. Until you know the facts of the case there is no way to know if she was wronged. Her relief depends on what she askes for. I assume money would be the answer. Not sure I would want to sue a race team and then drive for them the next week.

    As for who I would rather have drive for me? Seb is the answer. He is still young and has that magical word “upside.” Legge hasn’t done anything impressive at any level of racing in a long time. The only reason Legge drives for me is if I really needed her sponsership money to run a car.

    Lastley, how does Penske getting married make him a playboy? That semtence didn’t sound right.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The only real positive I see in this is that Saavedra looks vaugely like Rufio (from the movie Hook) when he teases his hair up, something I find very amusing. I may have to try to start a “Rufio! Rufio! Ru-Fee-Ohhhh!” chant during driver introductions this year.

  6. I’ll bet J. Penske and Saveedra are going to lose a lot of sleep this weekend knowing that you don’t like them.

  7. I have always believed Roger Penske was, more than anyone, the main culprit in the split back in 1996. So I do not hold him in very high esteem. As for Jay, I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    • Chris Lukens Says:

      I don’t know if Roger Penske was involved in the split in 1996, but he was absolutely one of the main culprits behind the split in 1979.

  8. I’m no lawyer and I haven’t seen the “contract” for which Ms. Legge is pursuing remedy. Based on his previous history, I suspect Jay Penske is being something of a weasel in terms of poaching the True Car sponsorship. We were all led to believe that the True Car deal was about empowering women, not whiny Columbians. My speculation (and it is purely that) is that Saavedra’s asking price to drive the car was substantially less than Katherine Legge’s, hence the sound you hear is the rug being pulled fro another worthy driver and given to one less worth. This is not exactly news in this sport and ethiscs seem to frequently takew a backseat to expediency.

  9. I think it is fair and accurate to say that we did not see enough of Katherine last season to guage her current ability in an open wheel car, but no one should question her courage and resolve. I was at Road America when she crashed in 2006. Late in the race she was running sixth behind Bourdais and Servia as I recall. The rear wing came off her car and the resulting crash was as bad as they get. She was able to crawl out of what was left of the car and managed a smile.

    The way she managed to qualify for the 500 last year was remarkable. I was hoping to see her run a full season this year in a competitive car.

    Instead she got the Patented Penske yacht club parking lot treatment.

  10. The Lapper Says:

    He told Legge to “Piss Off!”

  11. Agree with you George, virtually entirely (except for who Penske is marrying, which I think is immaterial and a bit out of bounds). Appreciate the Lotus background, most of which I had forgotten about. Based on the team involved, and the circumstances of the pig Lotus, I don’t believe saying Legge lost the ride on merit is fair. If it was all about merit, I doubt Saavedra would be the replacement choice for the reasons George mentioned and the fact that Legge finished ahead of him in both the Indy 500 (her qualifying effort there was remarkable as George notes) and the Fontana race. Maybe he will grow into a Colombian Mears, but right now, I can’t see how he’s “better” than Legge. Perhaps she lost the ride based on a personality conflict, which is more likely, but we’ll never really know.

  12. Grand Slam Walk Off Home Run George!

  13. Our friend Pressdog brings up a good point regarding my comments on who Jay Penske is marrying. I went back and re-read this post around lunchtime today. When I read that paragraph regarding his engagement, I cringed. I had started that paragraph with a much better point than what was written. Unfortunately, I endured about a four-hour interruption as I was at that point in the post. I later came back to that sentence and threw something up there with the intention of coming back and finishing it before posting it. Unfortunately, I never did and it was printed as written.

    By the time I realized it, there were already comments about it so it was too late to take it down. And of course, the original point I was going to make has long left me.

    I stand by just about everything I said in this post, but Pressdog was right. Going after his engagement had nothing to do with the events at Dragon Racing and was probably crossing the line. For that I apologize. – GP

  14. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I cannot and would not argue a bit with your take on this George. Even noting the engagement matter. In a court of law, one could envision the judge pondering then saying “I’ll allow it.”

    As for Saavedra, he better have great representation because his racing boots could easily be the next to get JPd upon. Karma’s kind of funny that way I feel.

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