Proud To Be An IndyCar Fan

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The last time I tackled this subject a little over a year ago, I ended up being labeled a racist because I used the word “thug” to describe Aaron Hernandez; who is not African-American, incidentally. I will try to choose my words more carefully so as to avoid the dreaded R-word. I do my best to stay away from politics on this site and social media. I don’t view this as a political rant, nor am I a racist in any sense of the word. More than a year later, it still stings that that word was applied to me. Instead, this is a commentary on today’s sports and how IndyCar drivers have managed to stay above the fray. There – that’s my disclaimer.

For the past couple of weeks, we have been inundated by stories from football that range from downright criminal and vicious behavior to sheer stupidity. The stories of Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson have been analyzed over and over – so I’ll spare you from rehashing those details. On Wednesday, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer joined the September-to-forget in the NFL, when he was arrested on charges of assault and domestic abuse for head-butting his wife, thereby breaking her nose and punching her in the face the next day. He was also charged with beating his son with a shoe. Nice guy.

That was announced just hours after Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who also happens to be the quarterback for the No.1 team in college football, stood on a tabletop in the Florida State University campus Student Center and shouted an extremely offensive sexual phrase. That’s dumb on anyone’s part – but especially if you had just avoided prosecution for sexual assault allegations, just nine months ago. Add to that that he is not only the face of the football team, but also the face of the university and possibly the whole state of Florida.

Quick – name the Governor of Florida. Can’t do it? How about, who are their two Senators? Can you name the Mayor of Tallahassee? Thought not. But name the starting quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles. That’s right. That would be one Jameis Winston. The same guy that not only beat the sexual assault charge, but was since caught stealing $32 worth of crab legs from Publix this past spring. Of course, he said he forgot to pay for them. I always forget about those giant red spiny legs with claws, when I’m at the checkout line. Prior to that, he was caught shooting out campus windows with a pellet gun.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell probably welcomed the Winston story, since it sort of took the spotlight off of his league. But then the Dwyer story broke. What in the world is going on here? These stories have become a daily thing. It’s as if no one is noticing that the Saints and Colts are 0-2, while the Texans are a surprising 2-0. I have an idea those three will start to turn around this weekend, but no one wants to talk about that. Certainly not Anheuser-Busch InBev. The folks at Budweiser and Bud Light have gotten an earful about their $1.2 billion (that’s Billion – with a B) deal to support a league that gives the impression that they support players who punch women and beat children. Anheuser-Busch went public with their concerns when Adrian Peterson was set to return this weekend. When $1.2 billion speaks, the NFL listens.

Will I watch the NFL this weekend? Of course I will, along with practically everyone else in their core audience – and the NFL knows that. The NFL knows that things would have to get a lot worse for their die-hards to not tune in each week. But Budweiser knows many will tune in as well. They know that people seeing their product supporting a league where thug-like behavior is permissible, is unacceptable.

So these past couple of weeks, we’ve seen NFL officials, team General Managers and coaches all say one thing and then do another – only to backtrack once the league was threatened to get hit where it hurts – their wallets. The hypocrisy was comical and nauseating to watch – all at the same time. Meanwhile the games go on.

As I did in the midst of the Aaron Hernandez mess last summer, I again caught myself thanking my lucky stars that I follow the Verizon IndyCar Series. The drivers are like a breath of fresh air, after what we’ve had to endure the past couple of weeks. In the past five years, what has been the most controversial action that an IndyCar driver has been caught up in? To my recollection, it was either the “double-bird” salute by Will Power or Helio Castroneves trying to choke Charles Burns, who may have been about four times Helio’s size. Both of those incidents brought chuckles more than anything else, although both were promptly fined by the series.

By nature, race car drivers are not saints. If you have seen the movie Rush, which examines the 1976 rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, you know that Hunt was much more reckless off the track than on it. Growing up in the sixties as I did, the two occupations that exuded a glamorous lifestyle were astronauts and race car drivers. I won’t name names, but several of my heroes from the sixties were not quite as admirable away from the launching pad or the track as they were on it.

Over time, that has changed. Women are now allowed in the pits and garages. Drivers are much more family-oriented than when I was growing up. It is hard to find Ryan Hunter-Reay at the track, when his wife Beccy and their son Ryden are not there with him. The first person to greet Tony Kanaan in victory lane at Fontana last month, was his wife Lauren – when he promptly kissed her belly in announcing to the world that they are expecting.

Ed Carpenter always has Heather and their children by his side. Helio is never far from his longtime girlfriend Adriana and their daughter Mikaella. Juan Montoya now has a family that is usually with him. Will Power has no children, but Liz is right there in the pits, cheering him on at every race. I could go on and on, but you get the point. What you don’t see are headlines documenting foolish or criminal behavior from the current group of IndyCar drivers.

Are these drivers perfect? No. Al Unser, Jr. has had his demons arise on a couple of occasions. His battle with alcoholism eventually cost him his ride with Marlboro Team Penske, got him suspended for a few IRL races, while driving for Tom Kelley and recently caused him to lose his job inside Race Control. I am a big Al Jr. fan and hope that he can get his life in order for good. Salt Walther is another driver who never could shake his demons and died at a relatively early age a couple of years ago. The Whittington brothers from the eighties raised more than a few eyebrows with their off-track activities. Dale, the youngest, died of a drug overdose in 2003. Then there was the tax evasion trial where Helio Castroneves was acquitted in 2009.

There are a few more examples of poor behavior among IndyCar drivers, but you have to really dig for them. They aren’t splattered in headlines on a daily basis, like we’re seeing in the NFL and other professional sports, but they do exist.

Are IndyCar drivers that much better than other professional athletes? Some say yes, some say otherwise. Skeptics say that they are just as slimy, but no one follows IndyCar so we never hear about it. I disagree. The stories just aren’t there, for the most part. I might agree with those that say that the threat of losing sponsorship keeps them in line. IndyCar rides are precious and limited. Only a complete idiot would misbehave when the consequence is having a sponsor dump you.

The thing is, I touched on the key word just then – consequence. IndyCar drivers live with the threat of consequences every day. The consequence of choosing the wrong line in a turn, the consequence of getting too close to a competitor or coming into the pits too fast; these are all consequences that IndyCar drivers must deal with. They also have to live with the consequences of poor decisions off the track – from their fans, their car owner and their sponsors.

It wasn’t until Anheuser-Busch stepped up and told the NFL to get their house in order that there was any real action on the league’s part. Even then – what did the teams do? They took advantage of a little known rule that is untouchable by the Player’s Association – the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission List that can be used in unusual circumstances. Essentially, the player is inactive but doesn’t count against the 53-man roster. But here’s the rub – the player is still paid in full.

So Jonathan Dwyer can head-butt his wife and break her nose, punch her in the face the next day and be given time off with pay. He has gotten a paid vacation from practice, workouts and games – while the legal process sorts itself out. To me, that is not a consequence with much teeth in it. It’s the same in college. What was the punishment for Jameis Winston after he brazenly mocked sex acts in public less than a year away from having sexual assault charges against him dropped in a seemingly endless parade of stupid stunts? He will miss the first half of tomorrow’s game against Clemson.

When actions have consequences, then – and only then – will athletes take notice and straighten up. The bad thing is, most of the NFL players are good guys. But the few knuckleheads we are reading about on a daily basis are tarnishing the whole lot of them.

Say what you will about IndyCar as an organization. They do a lot of things that make us scratch our collective heads. But the drivers that we watch strap themselves into the cockpit and do amazing things at 230 mph, also lead their lives the way they’re supposed to. They make me proud to be a fan.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Proud To Be An IndyCar Fan”

  1. It’s still strange for me, a non-US fan, to see how American drivers/athletes deal with sponsorship. I will compare with an example of my country, Brazil: soccer player Neymar. He has several sponsors, such as Nike, Volkswagen and Santander, to noun the multinational ones. But you don’t usually see, on his interviews, he talking about any one of them. He has a polite and off-the-trouble manner, as many sponsored people, but we won’t see Neymar saying “Well, I made that goal with a help from the technology of Nike”.

    This happens, maybe, because our TV stations don’t accept it. “If I’m not earning from that company, there’s no reason I should advertise it”, it’s their motto. That’s why the F1 team Red Bull Racing is just showed on F1 broadcasts in Brazil as “RBR”, or they won’t talk about “Target Chip Ganassi Racing” on IndyCar broadcasts. Just “Chip Ganassi”.

    I think that your way is the right way because, when someone advertise a brand in the US, we really know that he is doing it. Not subliminarly, as Neymar does, for example, when he ties his Nike shoelaces during the game, or he lifts up his shirt to show his [sponsored] underwear.

  2. Don’t be concerned if someone called you a racist. The definition of racist as used today is someone who does not agree with leftist ideology. If you want to cut the federal budget you are a racist and want to starve children. I know you have seen it…….

    My biggest concern with all this is the NFL is being expected to act as the US court system, to punish wrongdoers and to make a social statement. It is not the role of the NLF to do anything about a non-football legal issue that a player gets in to. This is one of the craziest things I have ever seen. If I get into some legal trouble, should my employer fire or suspend me if I can still work and it is not part of my job? It would be one thing if this behavior occurred in the locker room or somehow with the team. This really comes close to persecution. Let the government handle legal issues, not the NFL.

    Budweiser has become very political, especially as you saw them jump right into the gay marriage debate firmly and from the left side. With a lot of people in this country, everything is politics. So I am not surprised they are at it again. We are seeing it now in this reaction in the NFL. I might even go as far as to say the NFL seems to be targeted by certain groups for their own political ends.

    Indycar is not immune to these issues. Some of this may be going on. But Indycar is too low on the radar to get the attention of the groups who profit from all this. And if there are legal issues that a driver runs into, its not the responsibility of Indycar to punish the driver or make a social statement. That is the role of the legal system.

    • Bob, I don’t know what you do for a living and don’t need to know, but where I work if I did anything like Mr. Winston or the NFL wife beaters I would be fired in a New York minute. These players represent organizations and their behavior either on or off the playing field reflects on those organizations. All of their contracts have morals clauses. Thus far the way that the NFL has handled these cases is shameful, but it would be particularly shameful if they did nothing as you suggest. By the time all these cases wind through the court system the season will be over. Whack your wife or kid and get a paid vacation, compliments of the NFL. Sheesh!

      • Ron, I hope if I get into legal trouble my employer does not fire me when it has nothing to do with my job. Its a scary thing for me that its even legal. I understand that they may have moral clauses in their contracts but all this seems to go way beyond that. And the fact that the NFL is basically reacting to public pressure and changing their punishment to keep the interest groups happy. That is the real shame the NFL has.

        • The difference here is that your or my job (and most of us) and the success of our employers don’t directly depend on the discretionary spending of either sponsors or fans (the ticket buying public). I mean, we certainly do depend on those things in a round about way (otherwise, our organizations would not exist, as there would be no customers or way to make money), but in major sports, sponsors and people buying tickets are the direct ways that those organizations make money. Once a player does something that raises the ire of sponsors or the ticket buying public, whether that thing is related to their job or not, then they become a liability to the organization being able to make money from sponsors and/or the ticket buying public. That’s why the organizations take up sanctions against offending players: they want to distance themselves from that behavior so that sponsors and/or the ticket buying public don’t think that the organization is condoning that behavior. That’s business.

  3. Yeah. I voted “(b)ecause they’re simply better people”. And I stand by that.

    Sure, I do my share of pointing out that the big league sports have more good people than bad. I follow the Colts, and the stories of players charitable acts are legendary. And more players on that team are homebodies with families, or young guys who keep themselves in line than they are reckless narcissist, or wife- or child-beaters. I was disgusted by the “Malice in the Palace” era Pacers who are infamous for that brawl, but couldn’t be prouder of the current team who’s been nothing but good for the community. There are still more good players than bad in both those leagues.

    But again, you just don’t hear about the same sort of problems among the Indycar drivers. If some cynical bastard wants to mock that statement saying “you just haven’t heard of any”, I’d still point out that that’s a guess from cynicism, not a statement from fact. Yes, part of that is due to the unfortunate position of not having the same level of fame and exposure as other sports, so therefore being perceived by others (incorrectly, in my opinion) as part of the “average guy” part of society than any NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL player can ever be. But there’s a virtue in not being pushed (sometimes against your will) above everyone else by the masses through news reports, entertainment “vanity” publication stories, adulation on the street, and so on. Your head stays on straight. You can treat the autograph signings and other publicity duties as truly being “the job” that you can easily walk away from because you don’t get mobbed everywhere (although that has a downside for a driver needing exposure). And when people don’t recognize you, they treat you normal. So sure, part of the attitude is that such a relative few even pay attention to these guys compared to the NFL, much less exalt them to ridiculous levels.

    But circumstance is just setting the environment to be a good person. It doesn’t make them so. It doesn’t take fame to make a jackass, and I’ve met far, FAR more average Joe jerks and bad people than I have famous ones. Indycar drivers may not get metaphorically hoisted onto shoulders like NFL and NBA players do, but they’re still among the best in their business and an arrogance can still develop just by dint of knowing what their job is. I’ve yet to hear, read, or see of any of the current and recent past generation of drivers be that way. And outside of Little Al from a looonnnng time ago I’ve yet to hear of any cases of truly bad behavior, definitely never any incidents of wife or child beating. AJ Foyt’s antics back in the day were the type to bring a grin and a chuckle, not a horrified stare, and were not even close to being condemnable maliciousness like some of the recent acts in sports were (Hernandez IS a thug, and to hell Tupac’s redefinition of the word. There’s nothing racist about saying Hernandez was brutal, vicious, and murderous. That’s fact, not racism).

    Can this change? Unfortunately, yes. There’s nothing stopping an entitled, above-everyone attitude from cropping up among the league’s drivers. But thankfully, it hasn’t. And from the various drivers backgrounds, interviews, and public acts, I’d like to think that it’s because the current stable of drivers just happen to be decent people. I’ve seen nothing that leads me to think otherwise.

  4. George – You neglected to add that while on paid vacation it was mentioned last week on national television evening broadcast that one “vacationed” NFL player would continue to receive his $799,000.00 weekly salary……………..

    Consumers & fans – Just continue to support the advertisers of NFL and their underpaid “vacationed” players & employees.

    As the saying goes, “Only in America !.”

  5. Why can’t these thugs quit beating their wives and kids and just do drugs like baseball players?

    From the high school level on up to the almighty NFL, a lot of bad behavior is overlooked if a player has a talent for football. What Mr. Winston shouted from the top of a table is filthy. Will he be playing this weekend? Is the Pope catholic?

  6. I think football has the problems it has because of the nature of the sport. Tell these men to go out and violently compete on Sunday then turn off the violent tendencies the rest of the time, Must be very hard to do. I’m not condoning or justifying their behavior, just trying to understand it.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    By definition, a racist is one who is prejudiced against racing… Don’t think you fall under that in any way, George.

    I do think it should be noted that there are FAR more NFL players than Indycar drivers. There are far more players in practically any professional stick and ball league than top-level race car drivers in any respective series. Simply through sheer numbers, the NFL is going to turn up more bad apples than Indycar.

    Beyond that, the vices and unseemly behaviors that so many NFL players are now in the news for are most likely bigger stumbling blocks to a racing career than they are to pro football career. Being the team sport in the way that it is, players are rarely individually responsible for or accountable to a team’s revenue sources (fans, sponsors). Racing drivers, however, are rarely NOT responsible for or accountable to revenue sources. The poor behavior of one driver in one seat will drive away money much more quickly than that of one player on a team of 50+.

    I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons worth discussing, but my dime store psychology is worth closer to a penny.

  8. I guess you could make the case that racing’s basically filled with “good guys”, but there’s some socio-economic stuff at play here, though too, isn’t there? For football players, just about anybody can take up the sport, as there is a relatively low dollar way to get into the sport (it costs, what? $100-200 to sign up a kid for youth football? And that covers equipment fees.), so even kids of limited economic means who may have less-than-optimal home lives and/or parental examples can take part. And, to be sure, a lot of the kids who may go on to excel at football (or any other major stick and ball sport) may wind up excelling in part because they didn’t have a lot of other opportunities to get out of their limited economic background. If you don’t have a whole lot else to do or other occupational prospects, what’s to stop you from playing or training for that sport for huge chunks of time? Anyway, having strong parental examples doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether or not a kid grows up to be any good at a stick and ball sport (though I’m sure it helps).

    In the meantime, even though we occasionally hear stories of “kids with no money, just a helmet and a heavy right foot”, even the absolute lowest budget karting or quarter-midget effort for even the poorest kid is liable to run into the $5000-10,000 range for a year (chassis, engine, trailer, a couple spare wheels, money to fill the truck with gas, etc.). And who is crewing on that kart or quarter-midget? With few exceptions, I’d guess that it’s the family of that kid. With this being the case, I don’t think it’s too hard to see why kids that get into racing eventually grow up to be adults that have more stable family lives and less trouble staying out of trouble.

    • Geekster, you are making me look bad with these well thought out comments using logic and reason. I may have to hire a writer.

  9. Most drivers come from wealthy, more educated families.
    There is only about 25 drivers at any time.
    The masses care about few former IndyCar drivers. If Robert Dornbos (sorry I chose your name Bob) broke the law, we would never hear about it.
    Jeremy Mayfield raced stock cars.

  10. There is a lot of domestic violence throughout society and for AB to now act pious about their NFL sponsorship is a joke. How many times has a six-pack of Bud started an evening of punching out the significant other? A whole bunch. How many times has an NFL player beat his wife or girlfriend in public? Well here in Nashville it has happened several times years before 2014. How about that OJ Simpson? He beat the hell out of both of his wives and even murdered. So, where were these NFL sponsors a long time ago. By the way, it is my opinion that AB and the other sponsors are just rattling their chains to look good because they will not ever cancel their deal with the NFL.

    Oh, to get back on topic, yes, it is good to not see the drivers in the news for domestic violence. However, I am not holding my breath.

    By the way, if someone was working for me and they beat their wife up, I would fire them because they were not a cultural fit with my program. It is a felony, too.

  11. In the past five years, what has been the most controversial action that an IndyCar driver has been caught up in?

    Not a current IndyCar driver but a year or two ago, on one of the IndyCar online discussion boards, a new thread popped up, titled “Jon Herb is a sicko”. Disgusting.

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