The Slimy Underbelly Of Racing
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.