That’s The Nature Of The Beast

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This past Monday morning, we got word that the second seat at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had been filled. Several drivers tested for the ride at Sebring and NOLA Motorsports Park. Who was the winner of the SPM Sweepstakes? That illustrious driver, James Jakes.

No disrespect to Mr. Jakes is intended, mind you. He seems like a decent sort. I don’t recall him ever coming off as a jerk in an interview. I’ve never met him, but I don’t recall one bad thing ever being mentioned about James Jakes as a human being. It’s James Jakes the driver that leaves me a bit underwhelmed.

In all honesty, I forget how many drivers tested for this seat. I know there was a driver I had not heard of and whose name I had trouble pronouncing that was in the mix. But I also know that popular and immensely qualified driver Conor Daly had tested for SPM, as well. Marco Andretti was so in favor of Daly getting that ride that he reportedly paid $3,000 out of his own pocket to help fund the test.

But as is the case in many IndyCar rides today, the amount of talent a driver has is secondary to the size of a driver’s check. That’s the nature of the beast in today’s IndyCar world. From the outside looking in, this case was no different.

In the meantime, that ticking sound you hear is the clock ticking away on Conor Daly’s career. Keep in mind that Conor Daly is only twenty-three years old. But he is now approaching the time that there needs to be some light at the end of the tunnel of the various open-wheel ladder series around the globe. Currently, I’m not sure that anyone knows what direction Daly is headed. A full-time ride in Sam Schmidt’s second seat would have been a great career move for him.

But in the end, Jakes apparently had the bigger check.

That has to have been the case, because if you are going strictly on results and past history – I’m thinking Daly may have been the better bet. Granted, Daly would have been an IndyCar rookie. But so what? The past two seasons have seen rookies in the No.7 car for SPM. Last year, Mikhail Aleshin certainly attracted attention – some good, some bad – as a rookie. The year before that, Tristan Vautier had a forgettable season, as he failed to crack the top-ten in nineteen races.

This will be Jakes’ fourth season in IndyCar. Beginning in 2011, he drove two seasons for Dale Coyne finishing twenty-second both seasons. Jakes drove in every race of the 2011 season – except for the Indianapolis 500, where he failed to qualify. No other driver that drove in as many races finished lower than Jakes in 2011. For 2012, Jakes had the dubious distinction of driving in every race and finishing lower than any other driver that did the same.

For 2013, Jakes took his sponsorship to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It was by far his best season as an IndyCar driver. He finished nineteenth in the final point standings. It is fair to point out that Jakes did post his first two career top-ten finishes that season, one of which was second at the second Belle Isle race. Other than that, to say that the IndyCar career of James Jakes is unremarkable is probably being kind.

We’ve read the obligatory press releases from the team and his new teammate, James Hinchcliffe. Sam Schmidt uses the word “pleased”, while co-owner Ric Peterson says he’s “confident”. Hinchcliffe says he’s “happy to welcome” him. Those are words that sound more like they are happy to cover their budget rather than they are expecting great results.

Schmidt did mention one thing that I considered a head-scratcher; when he said "The goal of the team when it moved to IndyCar in 2011 was to get to the point where we had two veteran drivers in the car, capable of pushing each other. This finally checks that box." Really?

I always consider it a little arrogant when team-owners think we fans are too stupid to read between the lines. We all know what the deal was – James Jakes brought enough money to fund a full-time ride and Conor Daly didn’t. Why else would Jakes be chosen. Don’t give me this stuff about Jakes being a veteran. He’s nothing more than a veteran back-marker. Just once, I wish a team owner would just come out and be completely honest instead of issuing carefully-worded press-releases. At least we would know that the owners don’t consider us morons.

No sponsorship has been announced for the No.7 car to be driven by Jakes, but I’ll be totally shocked if there is another name on the sidepod of his car other than Acorn Mobility – the British company founded by and still solely owned by John Jakes, the father of James. Acorn Mobility Services, Ltd was founded in 1992 in West Yorkshire. They are now an international company that makes stairlift equipment, with additional offices in the US, Canada, Italy, Germany, South Africa and Australia.

Conor Daly is the son of former Formula One and Indy car driver Derek Daly, and the stepson of IMS President Doug Boles. Both men have clout in racing circles, but I doubt that either can compete financially with the deep pockets of John Jakes. So, on it goes – the marginal, but wealthy drivers get full-time rides; while the talented drivers wait on the sidelines for one of the few funded seats to open up. It’s not an enviable situation for anyone, and I doubt that James Jakes is proud of the way he keeps buying his way into the series, but that’s the nature of the beast.

I’m not sure that anyone has a cure for this. Racing is so expensive that few owners can run drivers out of their own pocket for very long. The days of a driver showing up at a track with a helmet in hand are gone. A driver must either be born into money, or else develop shrewd business skills that give them as much prowess in the boardroom as on the track.

It’s a shame that more owners haven’t developed skills for sponsorship hunting like Michael Andretti has. He continues to demonstrate to companies that they will get a good return on their investment. Of course, he takes that money and converts it to results on the track. Since 2004, Michael Andretti’s teams have won the IndyCar championship four times and also grabbed three Indianapolis 500 victories.

If I ran a Fortune 500 company and was looking to get involved in IndyCar racing – I would be much more inclined to invest in one of the big three teams, rather than cast my lot with a driver that put together an impressive PowerPoint. If a company spends the money, I’m assuming they would like a good chance to wind up in Victory Lane. Of course, Jakes’ situation is a little different because the sponsor is also his father.

Jakes sat out the 2014 season. I’m assuming his father grew tired of the lackluster results. And again, I don’t know if Acorn is the returning sponsor for Jakes or if he found money on his own. Whatever the case, he came up with the money and convinced Sam Schmidt that he was the best option. Jakes had not set foot in an IndyCar for sixteen months before he tested at NOLA last week. I have no idea what kind of times he put up, but they must have been good. Either that or his check had more zeros than anyone else’s. That’s the nature of the beast.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “That’s The Nature Of The Beast”

  1. It is very ilustrative situation. I think that in case Jim Clark or any other driver from sixties should start racing career now, we would never hear about him.

  2. Here’s hoping James Jakes can prove you wrong, George, by scoring another podium finish this season.

    At least, he impressed me when he drove for RLL. His term at Coyne, though, was indeed pretty forgettable. The 2nd Coyne entry wasn’t a winner yet when he raced there.

  3. Brian McKay in sunny Florida Says:

    I’m sorry that Hinch won’t have an ‘equal’ teammate, a strong rival to push him and share with him. Pagenaud also didn’t have an equal teammate at SPM.

  4. James Jakes, another bland, faceless ride buyer. The boring choice, so this being Indycar, of course the boring choice won. That being said, I was cheering for Simona at Schmit more than Daly. Hopefully Jakes continues the tradition of the 2nd Schmit car changing drivers on a yearly basis and we get someone new next year.

  5. Bad that Simona and Daly will not be in Indycar. Bad for Indycar. Hulk angry.

  6. Simona was also said to be in line for that ride. She is a youthful veteran with more potential upside than Jakes in my opinion. She also has fans–something IndyCar and the car owners never heard of.

  7. When I hear the term “ride buyer” it reminds me of “rent a date” or “buy a wife”. Hell if you have enough money you can actually buy your way into IndyCar racing. Hardly a new concept. It just makes me want to puke that’s all. What does Conor Daly have to do to get an opportunity? He has done everything right to get to where he is and quite accomplished I might add for his age. Not even having a stepdad working for IMS will get you a ride these days. Revealing isn’t it. What’s more important to IndyCar money or talent?

  8. Ride buying is just a symptom of the real issue. IndyCar does not have the schedule, exposure, or TV ratings necessary to attract sponsors to the owners. Sponsors on the car allow paid drivers and eliminate the need for ride buying.

    • Agreed. It always comes back to fan base. The more fans the series has, the fewer self-financed drivers. Reason 293 million IndyCar should be working maniacally on attracting more fans.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    Ride buyers have always existed, but they are surely more frustrating now than in years past because of the talent an fan favorites who can’t find a seat.
    Of course, on the other side of the coyne, these ride buyers really are rarely taking an opportunity away from a “deserving” driver, since their funding is the primary reason the car is making the grid in the first place. No ride buyer, no car.

    Best of luck to Jakes, who is plenty competent and probably meshed with the dysfunctional Rahal team better than anyone since Ryan Hunter-Reay. Acorn Stairlifts has a history of nice paint schemes too, so there’s that.

    Now, I will be quite worried when John Wes Townley shows up at the 500…

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      As much as it may hurt some to admit, I agree with your assessment 100%. Without the $$$ there’s no full-time car on the grid. Even the earliest racers were either crazy, ex-pilots, or ride buyers.

      Racing is not egalitarian and never has been – it’s based on brutal economics. Maximizing speed, success, exposure, whatever the goal, for as little money as possible or is available. Simple as that.

    • How about ‘field filler” better term? A racecar, that would normally, otherwise would not be there, driven by a ride buyer that essentially created a position in the field for himself. Kind of like an “extra” in a movie- there for effect to make things appear more lifelike and real.

      I like your “other side of the coyne” that was good 🙂

    • “Other side of the coyne?” Stop it!

  10. I can’t think of anything more to add to Mr. DZ’s coments. I agree with him and Billy’s post 100%.

    • Except if you have been reading the Indy2018 series, its becoming clear that ride buying is not working. Most everyone is saying go out and get deserving American drivers. That that will bring in the fans. I happen to agree with that. The ride buying is taking away rides from qualified drivers because by continuing to do it, Indycar continues to decline, or at least not flourish which would lead to more teams, cars and opportunities.

      Its the short sighted way the owners have been operating for some time.

  11. I have no issue with the Jakes hiring. What drives me crazy is the Sage Karem hiring. He won an Indy Lights title with 7 other competaters. Yay! So awesome. He should be in lights this year where there is actually a field. Daly or Alexander Rossi are mich more qualified young drivers and both have massive upside. Karem needs more time in the minor leagues. Even Toro Rosso thinks Ganassi is taking too big a risk with his lack of experience.

  12. For a post that starts “No disrespect to Mr. Jakes is intended”, he’s then shown just about every disrespect that can be heaped on a driver (“That illustrious driver”, “unremarkable is probably being kind”, “a veteran back-marker”). Your 2012 champion (RHR) put together 8 lean years before hitting his stride. In 2013, Jakes’ teammate finished 18th to Jakes’ 19th, with five additional seasons of racing at the top. So while Jakes has not blown anyone away, he deserves time to prove himself. If you’re disappointed that the drive did not go to the more “deserving” driver, Daly, I’m not sure that’s a basis to slag Jakes as a driver.

    • One more thing – in 2013, Jakes finished higher than Rahal – the team owner’s son – nine times. That’s ludicrous considering that Rahal had five years on him.

    • My “No disrespect to Mr. Jakes” line was more about him as a person. At this point, I don’t have much respect for Jakes as a driver. He’s OK, at best. But this commentary was not so much about Mr. Jakes and his shortcomings as a driver, more than it was about the entire system of putting below average drivers in cars, rather than owners trying to find sponsorship. It’s the path of least resistance to owners.

      But to your point – if Jakes pushes Hinchcliffe to up his game and brings home a win or two in the process – I’ll gladly admit I was wrong, as I’ve done before. But bringing up results and stats is not a sign of disrespect. It’s simply stating facts. – GP

      • I understand what you’re saying. I am a little more optimistic as it takes a lot of skill to drive in the series, even if you are a paying driver. I also do not think it’s the owner’s fault. The owners are trying to make budgets with drivers because the TV ratings are too low for sponsorship to provide the full budget (different post, different day).

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